This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my book: Fitness without Fear: https://www.amazon.com/Fitness-without-Fear-Practical-Improving-ebook/dp/B093PJ9BTT
Correct posture is incredibly important for joint health and full body function and it is something we can practice every day simply by being aware of how we are holding ourselves. In fact, a whole industry has been emerging with all kinds of braces and devices designed to remind you to stand up straight, shoulders back, chest up, ears in line with shoulders.
Good upper body posture allows us to breathe more deeply, prevents us from putting unnecessary weight on our necks from forward leaning heads, and strengthens our upper back. Good posture enables us to move correctly, with good balance. Again, think of those ballroom dancers with their beautiful carriage and seamless movements. That’s what strong looks like.
According to an article in Harvard Health Publishing, good posture can be defined as follows:
- chin parallel to the floor
- shoulders even (roll your shoulders up, back, and down to help achieve this)
- neutral spine (no flexing or arching to overemphasize the curve in your lower back)
- arms at your sides with elbows straight and even
- abdominal muscles braced
- hips even
- knees even and pointing straight ahead
- body weight distributed evenly on both feet.
- When sitting down, keep your chin parallel to the floor; your shoulders, hips, and knees at even heights; and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead.
To properly assess your posture, you’re going to want to look at yourself from both a front and a side position. Use the cues listed above to be in the best position before making any observations. Use a mirror or camera or even another person to assess your posture as follows:
When observing yourself from the front, you are simply looking for symmetry between the left and right side of the body. Are the left and right sides of your hips and shoulders at the same height? Do you notice any other differences? The truth is, we aren’t perfectly symmetrical, so you may see some minor deviations. See if you can adjust your posture to correct anything you see. If you can, then this might simply be a bad habit that once you are aware of, you can fix.
Sometimes these asymmetries can become a bit more permanent and may require some massage, physical therapy, or chiropractic work to correct. Some deviations may be developmental. Scoliosis is a condition that develops in adolescence and causes lateral curvature of the spine (the spine curves sideways.) Some cases of scoliosis are so mild that they aren’t noticed and/or don’t require treatment, but can still cause you to stand asymmetrically.
When you turn to your side, you may want to have somebody take a video, or a picture of you if you can’t do it yourself. Take a look at figure 5.2. In this photo, Patrick’s body is in alignment from the head down to the feet. His head is squarely over his shoulders with the middle of his ear over his shoulder, and his shoulder over his hips. His hips are over his mid-foot to heel area. If you were to draw a straight line down the length of his body, it should go through the middle of his ear, through his shoulder, through the middle of his hips, and down into his heel or midfoot.
Figure 5.2: Normal posture
In figure 5.3, Patrick has some excessive inward curvature of his lower back. This is referred to as lordosis or swayback. We don’t want to see any excess rounding of the upper back, or curvature of the lower back. His hips are tilted back and his abdomen is pushed forward. This shifts his center of gravity forward to his toes and puts more force on the front side of the vertebrae instead of distributing it evenly. To correct this, he should pull his belly button in to his spine and push his hips forward. This will evenly distribute his weight across the full surface of each vertebrae as well as shift his center of gravity
is back over his midfoot.
Figure 5.3: Lordosis
In the Figure 5.4, Patrick is demonstrating rounding of the upper back or kyphosis. This postural deviation is common in office workers and is becoming more and more common in young people from spending too much time slouched over computers and phones. His shoulders are slumped forward and his chest is passive, ie not open and up. This brings his head posture forward as well as his center of gravity and as a result, he has some excessive lower back curvature to compensate for this. Forward head posture is extremely unfavorable as it can cause remodeling of the spine over time which, in turn, can cause a number of problems such as chronic pain and immobility.
Figure 5.4: Kyphosis
Curvature of the lower spine is appropriate when we are specifically training those muscles such as when performing a superman or other back extension. Likewise, rounding of the upper spine can be appropriate when lifting large and/or awkward objects that require us to wrap our chest and arms around them. However, when performing any other loaded movement, the spine needs to be neutral and relatively straight to prevent injury to both the individual vertebrae and also the cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and nerves that surround them.
In Figure 5.5, Francis is performing a “superman” exercise that requires him to flex his lower back and so his spine curves.
Figure 5.5: Superman
In Figure 5.6, Francis is doing a “good morning” exercise to strengthen his hips and stabilize his back and so his spine remains straight.
Figure 5.6: Good morning
Good posture is important because it is the way our bodies evolved to optimally utilize our center of gravity. Center of gravity refers to the focal point of gravitational pull on the human body. For most people standing, that is somewhere above or below the navel. Your ability to balance is reliant on where your center of gravity is relative to your base. Your base is your feet. If you were to simply lean to one side as far as you could, eventually, your center of gravity would shift too far away from your base and you will fall.
Our bodies are very concerned with maintaining our center of gravity, so you can imagine that postural deviations such as forward head posture, are going to result in both instability and some sort of compensation to maintain center of gravity. In other words, any deviation is going to put excessive stress on the spine and the joints and make movement more difficult. It is important to note that our center of gravity while standing is going to be different from when we are in motion. When sprinting, for example, our center of gravity shifts forward and we drive more off of the front of the foot rather than keeping our weight back towards our heels.
Center of gravity is important when we pick up a heavy object and can be used to our advantage. For example, if you are having trouble getting your hips back on a squat, try holding a weight out in front of you with both hands as in figure 5.7. This shifts your center of gravity forward and therefore allows us to push our hips back further without falling backward.
Figure 5.7: Goblet Squat