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What is Good Posture?

“Sit up straight.”
“Shoulders back, tummy in”

These are phrases you have probably heard.  But what good have they done for you? What is good posture really? Well I can say I already had my Doctor of Physical Therapy and didn’t know either.  It took continuing education from the Institute of Physical Art and working with my PT mentors to truly discover my own “good posture” and be able to teach it to others.  

First, let’s throw out the term “good posture” and replace it with “efficient alignment and body mechanics.” Efficient alignment puts the least amount of stress on your joint surfaces and allows muscles surrounding the joints to be at the ideal tension to engage automatically. This protects your joints from wear and tear that causes osteoarthritis. When you are in efficient alignment it feels good to be in your body. While it may feel a little awkward at first, eventually your body will get used to it and feel less fatigued at the end of the day.  

The first thing I teach someone is how to achieve efficient alignment in unsupported sitting.

While sitting at a desk may not be what you do all day, it’s the best place to get a handle on how to align your trunk. This piece of the puzzle is at the center of all other posture and body mechanics training. 

If you want to give it a try, start by sitting in a chair with your thighs more than halfway off the seat, but your whole pelvis still supported. Your back is away from the back of the chair giving you space to move your spine freely. Now slump. That’s right. Slump all the way. This allows any holding patterns in your muscles to melt away. Once you feel totally relaxed, place your hands on your hips to enhance your ability to feel the motion in your body and lift up starting at your tailbone. Continue the motion of arching your back all the way. Once you arrive at the end point, know that this is the opposite extreme to the slumped position in which you began. Go back and forth between slumped and arched several times to really feel your full range of motion. This is kind of like doing Cat/Cow in yoga.  

Once you have a good feel for the range of motion of your spine, come to a stop where it feels the most comfortable.  It may feel “guilty pleasure” good.  For most people I work with, this is their neutral spine alignment.  Neutral in any joint of the body is where muscles are the most responsive and tissues are the most springy.  Other indicators that you have found neutral are that your weight is on the points of your sit bones and the vertical muscles along the sides of your spine are soft.  If you’re not sure, use your fingers to feel your back muscles as you sit up tall.  The muscles will become prominent pillars with a gutter down the middle.  Slump a little bit and they soften and the spinous process of the vertebrae are just about to become noticeable.  This is neutral.  Slump too far and now you feel the bumps of the spinous process clearly.  Come back to neutral and notice your weight on your sit bones again.  

It’s not practical to balance on the two points of your sit bones all day.

Inevitably you will return to your habitual pattern. What you need is a tripod as your base of support. If you look up a picture of the pelvic bones, you’ll notice a 3rd point in the front called the pubic symphysis. And between the sit bones and the pubic symphysis is the anterior triangle of the pelvic floor. This is where you want to rest your weight.  

Starting in the neutral spine position that you found above, you are going to hip-hinge forward ever so slightly. When you hinge at your hip joints your whole spine, including everything from the back of your head to your tailbone, moves as one. The movement is only 5 degrees or less but it will shift your weight so that it’s now distributed between the front edge of your sit bones, the front of your pelvic floor, your upper thighs, and your feet. The final step is to relax your abdomen all the way. Imagine dropping an anchor from your abdomen through your pelvic floor.  

Relaxing all the way can be contradictory to past advice.

But if we agree that efficiency is our goal, we want to turn off at the red light just like an electric car. Besides working excessively, holding patterns of the abdominal muscles inhibit the deepest muscles of the trunk from doing their job. When I talk about the core muscles, I’m not referring to the rectus abdominis (6 pack muscle), obliques, or even the transversus. Go deep to the viscera and you will find the smallest muscles that attach from one vertebrae to the next.  These are the core muscles I’m talking about. They are the deep fibers of psoas, quadratus lumborum, rotator, and multifidus. These little guys are not going to get the signal to turn on split seconds before you move if the larger, more superficial muscles are engaged. And it’s these little guys that turn your spine from a wobbly stack of blocks to a strong pole. If relaxing your abdomen makes you feel weak, your body needs PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) to bring these little muscles back on line.  

In addition to identifying neuromuscular imbalances, finding neutral spine alignment often reveals mechanical reasons you have been compensating with slumped or arched posture in the first place.

If you have forward shoulders, arching your low back makes your shoulders appear a lot more open. Or maybe coming into neutral is uncomfortable and sitting in your usual way helps you avoid engaging a mechanical restriction. Even though it may feel okay in the moment, when you are not sitting, standing, and moving in neutral alignment, you are putting greater stress and strain on your tissues. This uses excessive energy and breaks your body down prematurely.   

Just like any novel skill or sport, learning efficient posture and body mechanics needs to be simplified into its components.

  • You need to feel it and then repeat it over and over.
  • As the remedial steps become easy, we will combine and progress them.
  • With practice, you will be able to integrate new habit patterns into all your daily activities.
  • When you move efficiently you will make yourself stronger and more resilient every day.

This is good posture!