Posture is defined as the composite of the position of all the joints of the body at any given moment. Simply said it is how we carry ourselves.
Also, it is important to acknowledge and differentiate static and dynamic posture. Static being the position of all our joint when we are not moving as opposed to dynamic when our body is performing a motion. To elaborate from the previous statement, « good » posture would be the composite « IDEAL » position of all the joints in our body at any given moment.
It might seems like something given and granted… After all, our knees, shoulders and pelvis are ALWAYS in the same position… or are they ?
Give or take a few unlucky subjects, we are all born with the same sets of joints who perform the same actions. However, life in our modern society has a tendency to take a toll. Indeed, our joints weren’t designed for the repetitive movements and the grind of prolonged period in the same position (wether standing or seated) that we put them through.
The reality of it, is that we are all subject to postural distortions, however small and unnoticeable they might be. And that’s all right… as long as we are mindful of it and do our best to prevent it from getting worse.
You might ask yourself : « What is the point of this ? » « How does the way I look and carry myself affect my health ? ». Well, it might not affect you NOW, but you never know what is happening inside your sinovial (joint) capsules and when something might start to hurt. Or even better yet : It might, in fact, affect you, but without you knowing that, that « affection » is related to bad posture and that you might be able to fix it.
Let’s illustrate this with an example : you might be suffering from strong headaches, well, those headaches might be a painful result of muscle imbalances in your cervical area. Another example of how joint alignment can have unsuspected consequences : It has been found that a more symmetric mandibular (the jaw) position can reduce body sway, and that a change in mandibular position may affect the center of foot pressure. That is a great illustration of how our body is an integrated entity and how one, supposedly, isolated joint can affect then entire kinetic chain. A study looking for correlations between postural distortion, incidence of pain and intensity of pain, clearly showed that people with the most postural problems, suffered not more intensely, but more often.
But how do we get there ?
Well, all joints are surrounded by muscles that generate force to move them, and are held together by ligaments. Ligaments are not of a very adaptive nature, they can improve in strength and flexibility but never to the same degree as muscles. However, muscles WILL adapt to most stimulus, wether it is a motion (pattern overload) that is repeated often for a long period of time, or a static position that is maintained for hours at a time.
In both cases, the muscles involved are going to go through the cumulative injury cycle (starting with inflammation and resulting in knots and bundles in the muscle fascias, which by the way, is very similar to the process which a muscle goes through after strength training, with the exception that it is unbalanced, unconscious, not controlled and therefore has undesirable consequences) and as is stated by Davis’ Law (the soft tissue models along the lines of stress) are going remodel to match the repetitive pattern or position to accommodate it. The consequence is an alteration of the length of the muscles around the joint (muscle imbalances) resulting in the reduction of the range of motion of the joint (reduced flexibility) as well as altered arthrokinematics (joint movement) and somewhere down the line possible damage on the cartilage or/and the soft tissue (muscles and ligaments) and also an altered posture.
Again, lets look at a factual example : someone who is sitting for hours at a time because of work for instance, is going to have their hip flexors muscles (iliopsoas, rectus femoris, TFL, etc…) in a constantly contracted position, as opposed to their hip extensors muscles (gluteus maximus, hamstrings etc…) that will be constantly stretched or elongated. Just sitting there might seem pretty innocent, healthy and restful even, but any kind of position or motion, if maintained or repeated too often, for too long is going to generate overuse of the body’s mechanisms. The long term effects of sitting down are limited hip flexibility (inability or difficulty to squat), an exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt leading to increased lumbar lordosis (excessive lower back arching) and the list goes on…
So now you are waiting for the catch of me telling you, you need to go to the gym and exercise to have functional joints and good posture… ? Well, you are only half right, because, exercising in itself, without an assessment of what muscle imbalances might be present, and what kind of exercises would be appropriate, is pointless. Even worse, exercising can create or support pattern overload and muscle imbalances if not well prescribed.
For instance, training to satisfy one’s ego and focusing on only one or two body parts (chest and biceps… anyone… ?) and training those over and over is a form of pattern overload and it will most likely result in muscle imbalances, altered posture (the gorilla-like upper body in the bench press addicts) and even injuries. Don’t get me wrong, training chest and biceps is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become a problem if you train only those muscles and if you do it every time you go to the gym.
I hope you are now starting to realize how insidious and omnipresent potential muscle imbalances can be… Another great example is breathing : Indeed, people suffering from asthma or other lungs obstructing affections (even anxiety crisis) that have short and shallow breathing patterns, tend to have a protruding head and slightly rounded shoulders. Why : Because of the constant motion of the upper torso of gasping for air, the upper trapezius, scalenes and levator scapula become overactive and tight, resulting in an effect similar to the upper-cross syndrome.
One of the factor that used to be overlooked in correcting posture and that is coming to light only recently in the fitness community is due to constant mechanical support (sitting down almost constantly with a back support), and that is the fact that most people are not able to efficiently recruit and fire their core postural muscles. When we hear « core », the usual reaction is « oh, but I train abs every day ! », well, doing a thousand crunches or sit-ups doesn’t engage half of your core postural muscles and it definitely won’t help with your posture.
Training « abs » usually means engaging part of the global stabilization system, meaning : the rectus abdominis, the external obliques and probably the hip flexors (which are probably already overactive anyway…). That’s not even scratching the surface of your actual postural muscles (transverse adbominis, pelvic floor muscles, lumbar multifidus, diaphragm, internal obliques, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae etc…)
Trying to fix your posture by yourself is going to take a lot of trials and errors that are not worth the risks, and here comes my catch : What you need, is a qualified, knowledgeable personal trainer.
Personal trainers aren’t just there to count your reps and give you a pat on the back after you’re done. The most important part of the trainer’s job lies in assessing a client’s needs (and reassessing over time) and designing a program that meets not only the client’s desires but also the client’s needs.
In the case of muscle imbalances, stretching and performing self myofascial release on some muscles and strengthening others is part of the solution, but there is never a cookie-cutter solution. Each and every individual must be looked at and assessed before a custom tailored corrective program can be prescribed.
So let’s wrap this up : We are all subject to muscle imbalances, no matter how fit we are, or think we are. The benefits of a good posture are numerous : increased flexibility and mobility, painless and well functioning joints, resulting in better performances, in the gym as well as in your every day life.
And let us not forget, good posture makes you more attractive. Indeed, the better your posture, the more symmetric and the taller you will look, and it is a well known, scientific fact that height and symmetry are two of the main factors of attractiveness.
So before focusing on muscle size, weight loss or personal records in the weight room, it might be a good idea to take a good, hard look at our posture and do what is necessary to make it better.
1. Correlation of Temporomandibular Joint Pathologies, Neck Pain, and Postural Differences. Deniz Evcik MD, Orkun Aksoy DDS PhD. 2000.
2. The relationship between the stomatognathic system and body posture by Antonio Cuccia, Carola Caradonna. University of Palermo, Italy, 2009.
3. Incidence of Common Postural Abnormalities in the Cervical, Shoulder, and Thoracic Regions and Their Association with Pain in Two Age Groups of Healthy subjects. PHYS THER. 1992; 72:425-431. Patricia Griegel-Morris, Keith Larson, Krissann Mueller-Klaus and Carol A Oatis.
5. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 4th edition.