Postural problems are becoming more and more of an issue in the western world, however, I think it’s a problem that personal trainers can have a massive impact on.
Postural problems leading to chronic pain, especially (low) back pain and repetitive strain injuries, are costing companies millions of pounds every year and the main cause seems to be sitting. The length of time we spend sitting has dramatically increased in recent years. We are a species that appears (I say “appears” as nobody actually stuck around to watch us evolve) to have evolved over thousands of years to stand, walk, run, squat etc. but in the last 50 years or so we have developed a huge tendency to sit all day. Many of the people I deal with that have had postural problems have a desk job in an office. They wake up in the morning, sit to eat breakfast, sit on the commute to work, sit at work, then go to the gym and sit on the fixed weight machines, (2-3 times per week if they consider themselves active!), then they go home and sit on the couch and watch some tv before bed….and they wonder why their posture is poor when they stand up!
Now, before I go any further, I want to talk about the myth of the “neutral spine”, then I’ll take a closer look at the sitting issue, as both are tightly linked….Hopefully this will help explain why most advice given in gyms and fitness magazines and from fitness “professionals” will not help with posture.
The “Neutral Spine”
In the fitness industry there is a huge misunderstanding of basic human movement. It’s frustrating and I see it everywhere….If any trainer has ever told you that you must keep a “neutral spine” when doing an exercise, then they simply don’t know what they are talking about, and I challenge anyone to argue that point! Trying to do something even as simple as walking with a neutral spine is futile! When you move one foot forward it causes the hips to rotate and tilt forwards and to the side, so to keep the head level the spine must rotate and tilt to match it!
So my question would be, why should we try to maintain a neutral spine while performing any exercise (if that’s even remotely possible), when so much power and strength can be so easily generated from a simple movement within the spine? For example try throwing a tennis ball without moving the spine….then allow extension, rotation and lateral flexion in the spine and see how far you can throw it now!
I could go on and on about the spine but I am going come back to posture before I shoot off on a tangent…
So, coming back to sitting, the action of sitting down will naturally drive the back into flexion. Consciously holding the back against this (i.e. by ‘sitting up straight’) is pointless as movement and posture should be sub-conscious (again, I could write another article, or even a book, on why movement should be sub-conscious). So the best way to deal with the kyphotic (i.e. hunch-backed) epidemic is to first accept that it is only natural to assume that position when sitting down, and second to realise that the real problem arises when we try to stand up and the spine cannot extend back to its original position. In other words, sitting in flexion is good, but being unable to come back out of flexion when standing is bad.
But why does sitting too much affect our ability to come out of flexion when standing?
Well, the flexed position that the spine and hips assume when sitting causes the anterior part of the core (i.e. the abdominals) to ‘disengage’ or ‘deactivate’. Furthermore, sitting also deactivates the glutes – thanks to the lack of load placed upon them (a spare tyre pressing the glutes down onto a seat does not constitute a load in this instance!).
So why should we care that the abs and glutes are disengaged when sitting?
Well, inactivity in the glutes and abdominals can cause problems when we stand up after sitting (especially after sitting for extended periods) as these big muscle groups such as are so switched off after prolonged periods of sitting that they don’t react to movement as well as they could/should. This then causes the lower back (which has already been firing all day from small postural corrections and movements at a desk) starts to kick in and assist in big movements that should be performed by the larger muscle groups (i.e. the abs and glutes). However, the lower back is geared up for postural correction and is designed to fine tune body position, so when you ask it to do the work of the glutes or the abs it usually responds with lower back pain, telling your body to stop before any real damage is done.
This is just a small intro into posture and in parts 2 and 3 I’m going to tackle the myths of “postural training” in the fitness industry and then design a little program of my own on how to correctly train for ‘good’ (i.e. pain free) posture. Once again any questions or comments are welcome. Just comment below and I’d be happy to further explain any of my points.