Even if your workdays consist of alternating between hunkering down over the laptop in a full Grok squat with perfectly neutral lumbar spine and standing up at a standing workstation for the entire work day you’re likely still engaging in some anatomically novel and potentially problematic habits. The bulk of you folks might get away with wearing minimalist shoes to work or maybe padding around the office in socks, but I imagine most people are sitting down, staring at a screen, and making strange tapping motions with their fingers splayed out in front of them for seven to eight hours a day. If this sounds a little too familiar you could probably use some help. I know I could.
There’s nothing wrong with this picture, of course. I mean, that’s life. That’s reality, and we can’t always change it. We have to work with it, and if we play our cards right we can certainly work around it. Play around on the margins and see where we can bend the rules. Isn’t that what we’re doing anyway? Trying to make things work in a totally bizarre environment with all sorts of terrible choices at our fingertips? And I think we do okay. In fact, it’s in the margins that the really big stuff happens. You make little changes that only you notice and they make a huge difference. Life only becomes pathological if you do nothing to address the problems that arise.
Let’s go over the big (little) problems with office life and come up with some possible solutions or workarounds.
All That Sitting
You know about the issues with sitting. For one, constantly sitting in a chair with a back is quite new to our physiologies. We used to walk a lot more, stand a lot more, squat a lot more, whereas chairs were a luxury item until a couple hundred years ago. What does this mean? Sitting places our hip flexors in a shortened, tightened, active position. Shortened muscles that stay shortened for hours at a time get stiff and overactive. Ever feel that pain in the crease between your hip and your inner thighs after sitting for a while? Yeah, exactly. At the same time, your hip extensors are being lengthened and weakened. Your glutes and hamstrings are all stretched out, and I bet your glutes are somewhat inactive. This is no good. The hip region is the prime mover from whence all power and locomotion originates, and if all the crucial supporting actors (glutes, hammies, hip flexors, to name a few) flub their roles because they were under (or over) prepared, the entire operation will crumble.
First, try avoiding the problem. Don’t just sit like everyone else. Explore your options, which include:
1. Standing workstation. We’ve gone over this plenty of times. I won’t do it again. Just do it if you can; it’s well worth it. Consider presenting your boss the data in that post as justification for standing. If he or she doesn’t go for it, you might have to rig up something yourself clandestine-style, or try something else entirely.
2. Standing on one leg, a la Seth Roberts. Seth was getting huge benefits from standing while working, but doing so for eight hours a day wasn’t feasible. He found that standing on each leg until exhaustion twice a day (for a total of about 30-40 minutes) got him the same benefits in a fraction of the time. I love getting lots of bang for my buck (hence my love for sprints and intense workouts), so this is worth a shot if you can’t do the standing thing for eight hours a day, either because it’s physically difficult or because your work won’t allow it.
3. Staying active throughout the work day. If you can’t hook up the standing station and you’re too embarrassed to try balancing on one leg, maybe you just get up every half hour and do stuff. Walk around, pump out a couple minutes of squatting, do some stretching. Break up your sitting and avoid long stretches of unmitigated motionlessness.
Mitigate the problem. Sitting will lengthen your hip extensors and tighten your flexors, but you aren’t helpless. You can fix the problem by strengthening your extensors and stretching your flexors:
1. Kelly Starrett’s “couch stretch.” This one is a real bastard, but in Starrett’s words it will let you bask in the sublime feeling of “undoing years of sitting.” Watch the video and do the stretch a couple times a week. You’ll marvel at how great your hips feel. And it only takes a few minutes.
2. Work on your internal hip rotation. Emulate what this guy’s doing. If it hurts, you need it.
3. Maintain a strong relationship with your glutes. Now, I know you Primal folks probably keep in touch with your glutes via plenty of squats, deadlifts, sprints, and over-the-shoulder admiring glances at the mirror, but if you’re sitting for hours each day there’s bound to be some disconnect. Glute bridges are a popular exercise, but I think weighted hip thrusts as popularized by Bret Contreras really build that lasting solidarity between you and your buttocks. If you think you’re engaging your glutes but are unable to establish the glute-brain connection, try poking your butt as you engage it. By actually feeling it harden against your finger, you’ll be able to establish the neurological connection, thus making future engagements easier and more effective.
4. Daily Grok squats and Grok hangs. Stretch your limbs and your body across all dimensions. Sit in a Grok squat and do a full Grok hang for at least one minute twice a day.
All That Typing
Lightly grab the middle of your forearm while pantomiming typing with the hand of the arm you’re grabbing. What do you notice? A vast network of tendons and connective tissue running up your entire arm supports the function of your fingers. You can feel it working and expressing as you “type.” That network can get gummed up, especially when overworked in less than ideal conditions – like a forty-hour workweek (that’s actually more like fifty). Poor typing posture, either from improper seating arrangements or inactive and tight muscles, can make things even worse. Obviously, you’ll want to correct the underlying postural/workstation/muscular issues, but what can you do for sore hands, fingers, or the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome? You can’t realistically go back to quill and parchment, so try these suggestions:
1. Try nerve glides. This is a good guide that the Bees and I have found very helpful when dealing with typing-related pain. My personal favorite is the median nerve glide, which focuses on the carpal tunnel nerves. Here it is:
- Sweep your arm out to the side until it is slightly behind you, palm facing forward, elbow gently straight
- Pull your wrist back until you feel a gently tension somewhere in the arm
- Relax the wrist forward until tension is relieved
- Repeat 10 times
- Ease the tension on the wrist to about half
- Holding this position, gently raise your arm until you feel tension (stay below shoulder height)
- Lower the arm until tension is relieved
- Repeat 10 times
- Ease the tension on the arm to about half
- Tilt your head (bring opposite ear towards opposite shoulder) until you feel tension
- Straighten the neck until tension is relieved
- Repeat 10 times
Try the rest of ‘em, too. Pick another glide and do them each once a day, at least. Once you start feeling better, you can probably drop it down to just one glide once a day.
2. Get a rubber band with decent tension, or perhaps a hair scrunchy. Take the affected hand and touch all five finger tips together, forming a sort of point. Slip the band or scrunchy around all five fingers and draw them apart against the resistance of the band. It’s like a reverse squeeze. Most people are far stronger gripping than they are going the opposite direction, so it’s worthwhile. Do this casually whenever you have time – in between emails, at home while watching TV, even while driving, you can keep it up with the off hand.
3. Hand massages. The palm of your hand has a fair amount of muscle. Like with any muscle, deep massage will break up knots and improve function – and reduce pain stemming from poor function. Dig into your palm with a ball or even your knuckles, or have someone else give you a deep hand massage. Try this halfway through the day. Note how your hands feel typing, give it a good five-minute working over with the ball or knuckle, then try typing again. Does it feel more natural? If so, treat your hands to a massage a few times each week, or more often, if you can find the time (you can find the time).
All That Shoulder Slumping
Sitting plus typing plus intensely focusing on a screen a few inches below and in front of us has created a nation of slumped shoulders, protracted scapulas, unstable shoulder joints, and tight pecs. We compound the issue with poor text messaging posture, but what happens when we spend a good portion of our lives slumping forward at the shoulders? Ideally (naturally), our shoulder blades are stable, retracted, and down. This protects our shoulders and allows full mobility without bumping into connective tissues. When we slump in front of the laptop, our shoulder blades drift apart, or abduct, putting our shoulder stability in jeopardy. Try fully protracting your shoulder blades (pushing your arms as far forward as possible by spreading your shoulder blades). Now, try lifting your arms directly over head, like you were performing an overhead press or setting up for a dead hang pullup. You can’t do it comfortably. Your shoulders are out of place. Do the opposite: retract and set your shoulder blades back, then lift your arms overhead. It should be a lot easier. That’s how shoulders are supposed to work, but the former example is how most shoulder slumpers “work.” Furthermore, slumping shoulders will pull the rest of your spine out of order, simply because you’ve got the combined weight of your big head and upper trunk pulling down. Not good.
1. Sit well. Recall the Gokhale Method. Key points include sitting with your butt “behind” you, rolling your shoulders one at a time forward, up, back, and then down, and keeping a relaxed, upright torso. Like so.
2. Where are you looking? If I’m sitting, I find it most comfortable for my monitor to be at or even slightly above eye level. This helps me look straight ahead without requiring downward head tilt, which often leads the rest of the upper thoracic into a slumping pattern – especially if you’re not vigilant and you’re prone to lapsing back into bad habits. If I’m standing, I’m not slumping, so slightly below eye level is perfect.
3. Maintain your thoracic spine. Consciously forcing yourself to keep your shoulder blades retracted won’t work forever. If you want it to stick, you’ve got to improve your thoracic spine at all times. Balance your horizontal pushing (bench, pushups) with enough horizontal pulling (rows). When benching, doing pullups, or doing rows, keep those shoulder blades retracted (back and down). Maintain good habits.
Finding lasting fixes may be ideal, but certain tools can help with the transition (or forever, really).
1. Kneeling chair. I’ve heard mixed reviews (with an unfavorable one coming from Maya White), but recent research suggests that they might be better than standard office chairs for improving lower back pain and promoting proper lumbar curvature.
2. Anti-fatigue mat. So your boss has finally succumbed to your entreaties and you’ve got yourself a standup workstation. The only problem is that your feet get tired really quickly. What to do? Try an anti-fatigue mat. Static standing is arguably just as novel as static sitting, but static standing on a somewhat soft-ish vinyl mat can make it a lot easier.
3. Ergonomic mouse and/or keyboard. The jury seems to be out on whether these are worth the money. I’ve never felt the need, but here are two different views from people who talk about this stuff for a living. One and two.
You are not guaranteed a hobbling gait, crooked knobby claws for hands, and hunch back simply because you spend the work week on a computer in an office. You can counter the postural imbalances and pain with smart stretching, mobility work, and exercise. You can avoid them altogether, or at least mitigate their impact, by changing how you sit or work at a computer. No standing in perpetuity required (although it can’t hurt!).
Got any more tips for the office workers among us? Let me know how you deal with it in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you!