Five Misconceptions About Posture

As a rolfer, I see many people who tell me they are working on their posture.  Most of them are already in the process of applying some questionable advice from various gurus or experts.  This post summarizes some of the major misconceptions people seem to have about posture.

Bad Idea #1: Bad Posture Is A Likely Cause of Your Pain

It is an article of faith that bad posture will surely result in pain and that you can cure pain by improving posture.  You can read such claims everywhere.  What you will probably never read after one of these claims is a citation to scientific evidence.  Although these claims have some common sense appeal, they are severely lacking any supporting evidence to my knowledge.  (If you have some, please send it my way, I would love to know about it.)

If bad posture is a major cause of pain, you would expect to find that people with measurable postural distortions would have more pain than people who do not.  But that is not what the preponderance of the studies find.  As summarized in a previous blog post, the weight of the evidence is that people with bad posture are not more likely to have pain than those with good posture.  This is surprising and somewhat counterintuitive, but it should definitely be borne in mind by anyone who plans on investing considerable time and effort trying to correct posture for purposes of pain relief.

Bad Idea #2:  Good Posture Requires Constant Attention

Many of my clients believe that poor posture is a consequence of failed attention to maintain good posture.  As a practical matter, posture is certainly doomed to fail if it requires constant conscious attention.  Our bodies are not designed to require conscious monitoring of muscular activity.  We can walk without reminding ourselves to activate flexor digitorum longus at the right time, and we can also sit upright without being mindful to activate the core or retract the scapula.  In fact, we really have no choice but to allow posture to be dictated by unconscious processes.  Even the most vigilant conscious policing of your posture will be abandoned after a second or two, as soon as some other distraction arises.  So, if you want good posture, you must somehow make it an unconscious act (more on this in the next post.)

Bad Idea #3: Good Posture Requires Extra Effort

Many of my clients believe that their bad posture results from laziness, or possibly the lack of endurance or strength in certain postural muscles.  They feel tired after only a few minutes of assuming what they think is a good posture, and then conclude that they must increase their strength or endurance at holding the position.  This is probably a losing battle.

The solution is not to learn how to do more work, but to find a way to sit that requires less work.  In fact, an excellent criteria for any optimal movement is that it is done with the minimum amount of muscular work and little to no sense of effort.  In regard to posture, these rules mean that optimal posture should feel easier, not harder than your current posture.

Therefore, if a certain posture feels like it requires extra effort, it’s probably not going to work.  In any event, your brain, which prefers the most efficient way to do something, will be smart enough to abandon an inefficient postural strategy the very first moment that you stop consciously controlling it, which should be three or four seconds.

Bad Idea #4:  Posture Means Holding Still

People think of posture as the opposite of movement – as something that you “hold.”  As such, people often become quite stiff when they assume their “good” posture.  This is a bad idea because it interferes with all the movements that must occur constantly during any posture.

Every posture requires breathing (except perhaps underwater postures), which potentially involves nearly every muscle in the trunk.  This fact works against the common advice to suck in the abs or activate the core as a means to become more upright and stable.  Consciously sucking in the abs might make you feel taller, but it also tends to lock in some of the muscles that must soften to allow breathing.  If you stiffen your abs, this holds down the lower ribs and makes breathing into the belly with the diaphragm a little harder.  This encourages breathing into the upper chest.  You can feel this for yourself quite easily – tighten the abs and you may feel yourself sitting straighter, but breathing less in the belly and more in the chest.  There is nothing wrong with breathing into the chest sometimes, but habitually adopting a posture that forces you to breathe in a certain way all the time is a bad idea.  Breathing into the upper chest might encourage excess activity in the scalenes and traps, which attach to the head and neck.  Breathing into the upper chest will also discourage diaphragmatic breathing into the belly, which tends to promote a parasympathetic or calm state.

In addition to breathing, static posture (especially standing) involves constant oscillatory movement.  Standing is actually a highly unstable position  – it’s like balancing a fifteen pound bowling ball on top of a stick on top of two other sticks on top of two bony feet.  Standing is a continual process of minute falls and recoveries, where the muscular tensions holding the body upright are constantly being adjusted as the body tips one way and then the other.  This results in a very small but perceptible oscillating pattern where the head moves above the feet in a figure eight or circle.  So, posture is not about preventing movement, but about allowing very small movements around a central balance point.  Try to imagine that you are a bobble head doll and you can feel this subtle process of movement and readjustment happening constantly and involuntarily.

Another aspect of posture that is related to movement is the fact that any static position is the place from which the next movement will come.  Therefore, another criteria for an optimal posture is that it allows the next movement with a minimum of preparation.  This is of course vitally important in a sporting context, where players wait for the next move in a posture (usually a crouch) that allows quick movement in any direction with little effort or preparation.  But such a consideration also applies to everyday life and you can be sure that your brain is constantly anticipating your next move no matter how small and making postural preparations for it.

One movement that occurs almost constantly in most sitting and standing postures is turning the head from side to side to scan the horizon and take in sensory information.  Each head movement, when executed optimally, requires movement of the neck and more subtle compensatory movements in the trunk and even pelvis.  Move your head from side to side while sitting and you will feel your sit bones shifting slightly on your seat.  Holding the head and trunk in a rigid position will restrict the freedom of these movements and make them stiffer and less comfortable.  Try adopting your “good” posture and then see if you need to soften it a little to turn comfortably from side to side.  Again, your brain won’t let you adopt a posture that prevents a quick and easy scan of the horizon, and therefore any such posture is doomed to fail.

Another motion that takes place almost constantly while sitting is reaching for a keyboard, mouse, phone, doughnut, remote control, cigar, etc.  If the scapulas (I’m not going to say scapulae) are held to the spine by the conscious retractions recommended by many posture experts, the arm is not ready to reach.  This is why such advice is doomed to fail.  The brain knows that sitting at a computer means constant reaching, and it will not allow the scapulas to be constantly pinned back.

The bottom line is that posture is not a static position to be held, but rather a dynamic and constantly changing series of subtle movements that allow breathing and head movements, preserve easy balance, and anticipate and assist the next movement.

Bad Idea #5: Straighter and More Symmetrical is Always Better

Many people assume that their posture will improve if they get “straighter” and more symmetrical. However, it is a bad idea to place too much emphasis on how your posture looks.  More important is how it feels.  The visual emphasis on posture probably results from spending too much time looking at pictures of platonically ideal posture shown in books.  Trying to deform your body into the shapes seen in these pictures is a bad idea.

Every person has a unique bone structure and therefore each person has a unique ideal posture.  We all have at least some minor asymmetries in the bones from left to right.  If you look closely at a model skeleton you will notice that the ribs on the right side are not the same shape as the ribs on the left.  You will also notice places where the spine curves from left to right.  Bones are not made by machines like interchangeable pieces of Ikea furniture, they are shaped by years and years of an organic process of growth which responds to tensional and compressive forces.  Such forces are bound to be different from side to side and therefore asymmetries are the rule not the exception.  If the bones of your spine naturally tilt a little to the left near the sacrum, they will have to tilt back to the right at some point to keep the head over the pelvis.  The resulting curvature is entirely natural and perhaps optimal for that particular person. Trying to straighten out the curves works against the grain of the bone, and is bound to cause unnecessary stress and tension.

The same principles apply to the size of the forward/back curves in the low and upper back, which are very much determined by the shape of the bones, particularly the sacrum, whose shape varies markedly between different people.  Believe me, you would easily recognize Jennifer Lopez by just looking at her skeleton.

The bottom line is that ideal posture is different for everyone, so don’t rely too much on how your posture looks, judge how it feels.  If it doesn’t feel natural, it won’t work.

Conclusion

OK so there’s a list of things that probably won’t help you improve your posture.  In the next post I’ll write about some approaches that might help.

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16 Responses to “Five Misconceptions About Posture”

  1. I guess it’s most often muscle imbalances (oftenly caused by SMA) that cause both bad posture and pain, right? So it’s not the bad posture that causes pain, but it’s something else that causes both bad posture and pain.

    “the weight of the evidence is that people with bad posture are not more likely to have pain than those with good posture.”

    This is a little odd. If my first statement is correct, then your statement would mean that SMA will not cause postural changes in about half of the people with pain? Maybe my logic is not 100% correct.

  2. Tim,

    In a previous post I discussed many studies where back pain and posture weren’t correlated. https://toddhargrove.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/back-pain-myths-posture-core-strength-bulging-discs/. This is in stark contrast to various studies where they easily find correlations between job dissatisfaction and pain.

    I know of at least one study where they induced pain, which caused posture changes. This would suggest that in the few studies where they have found a correlation between pain and posture, it is very possible that pain was causing bad posture as opposed to the other way around.

    I sum, I doubt that bad posture is a major player in causing pain, regardless of whether that bad posture is caused by SMA or pain.

  3. Thanks Todd for a very interesting article. I think the posture directly depends on the strength of muscles. The stronger muscles are, the easier it will be to hold straight postures. Trying to hold the so called good postures without the required musculature support will result in pain. Weight training helps in attaining straight postures, but I am not sure that straight postures help in any way other than looking good, and showing that the person is strong.

    • Thanks Anand,

      I agree that all things equals, stronger muscles equals increased ability to hold a straight posture. However, straight posture requires very little muscular work in an optimally efficient body (for example look at a 2 year old). So I think there is more bang for the buck in increasing efficiency as opposed to work capacity.

      Am I right that you are a frequent commenter at Stephan’s blog?

  4. I also disagree high heels are are hazardous for health. We are not designed to walk on flat floors. There are two classes of injuries that happen due to high heels:
    1. Joint injuries that are due to weak bones, joint or muscles
    2. twisted an… ankle, smashed teeth and broken bones are similar to one that happens when some one falls from staircase.

    They also can have positive affect:
    1. they may improve the tone of a woman’s pelvic floor
    2. They strengthen your back muscle

    I agree more with positive effects because in pre-historic times humans must be walking mostly up or down hills and very less plain surface.

  5. Posture is one the concepts which crept into the field without any experimental evidence and just through some it “makes sense” logic.

    I wrote an article about posture long back. Correcting Posture: Myth or Reality?

    http://www.mindandmuscle.net/articles/a_balachandran/posture

    • Thanks for the link to the article, I will check that out. The posture/pain idea does make sense, I was surprised to see that it is not supported by convincing evidence.

  6. this article is totally wrong. as someone who had bad posture i can tell you that it takes conscious discipline to improve posture. this is simply due to the fact that it takes good muscle tone to have strong posture. you must slowly train your muscles to hold better posture and you will slowly develop. only after devotion will good posture become natural. another point that blatantly stood out to me was that you say you have to suck in your abs to improve posture. no. your abs should be stretched with good posture, like you’re pushing them out, but still keeping them taught. this is done by having a straight back, starting from the butt. the small of your back should be taught, and your butt should be clenched, naturally, your abs are now out and stretched. this is good posture.

    • H,

      This is one of the first negative comments I have ever received! Thanks you for keeping me on my toes.

      I disagree that the article is totally wrong. In all likelihood, I have made numerous true statements in there.

      In regard to muscle tone, I’m sure it takes good muscle tone to have good posture, but that does not mean it takes any significant strength. Little toddlers have excellent posture and they are very weak. When the body is not fighting itself, it takes very little effort to remain upright and comfortable.

      Your approach seems to be that good posture requires that you train your willpower to stiffen the musculature. Mine is that posture is about skill not will. If you compare the postures of young children with soldiers standing at attention, you can see the difference the two approaches yield.

      I’m surprised that one of the points that blatantly stood out for you was my claim that you should suck the abs in. Because I didn’t make that claim. Instead I said that sucking in the abs was poor advice.

      I agree that the small of your back should be taught (to relax), but not taut.

      I disagree that good posture requires clenching your butt. There’s a reason that the phrase tight ass isn’t used to describe someone who is relaxed and at ease with himself.

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