Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Oct

How to Improve Your Posture

Just because Conventional Wisdom seems to get almost everything wrong when it comes to effective fitness, proper human nutrition, and preventing degenerative diseases, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all official recommendations and prescriptions are faulty. Cigarettes are bad for your health, for example, and drinking and driving actually do not mix. Those are two obvious examples of CW getting it right, and there are definitely a few others, but today, I’m mostly interested in the popular concept of good posture. What is posture? Is “good posture,” as defined by chiropractors, teachers, office ergonomic consultants, drill sergeants, and Grandma (“straighten up, sonny!”), actually good for us? Or have the experts gotten it wrong, once again? Looking around me, if people are listening to the professional advice, it’s bad advice. Slumping, slouching – I see it everywhere, every day, and not just when people are sitting. Can we apply the Primal Blueprint approach to posture and toss it all out?

First, let’s look at how posture has changed over the years in a developed nation like the United States. Before the turn of the 20th century, austere, rigid posture was very much in vogue – or, at least, it was heavily promoted by teachers and authority figures as the right way to sit and stand (corporal punishment, anyone?). Think Victorian. Think stiff and crusty. In the 1920s, though, an entirely new cultural phenomenon emerged. Jazz exploded and “The Great Gatsby” was written. The flappers – independent women who flouted convention, listened to jazz, wore short hair, and drank liquor – became the model for young American women to emulate. The hair, the fashion, and the dancing were all fair game, and rightly so, but so was the signature flapper slouch. Instead of standing prim and proper, the corset-less flapper thrust out her pelvis and slouched backwards, hands on her hips. It looked effortlessly cool enough, but it wasn’t good for back health.

Look familiar? That’s the same pose you see at red carpet events in Hollywood, where every starlet seems to employ that bizarre half-turn followed by a tuck of the pelvis forward when faced with a camera. It’s “slimming,” or something. Anyway, focusing on chronic postural deficiencies in a subculture may seem odd, but the long-term reverberations can be felt for decades, if not centuries. Besides, it’s a simple fact that society is influenced by culture, especially youth culture. Cultural adoption of slouching certainly isn’t the sole reason our posture is so messed up, but it’s probably a contributing factor.

Another factor is the rise of sedentarism – all that sitting is hell on our backs. As I mentioned in the previous sitting post, most work takes place from the (dis)comfort of an unnatural office chair, whereas in earlier times we’d actually have to move around for our livelihoods. Even those formerly active jobs, in the manufacturing or farming sectors, have been largely automated. Physically demanding tasks demand correct posture, because they’re easier and more sustainable that way. They’re kind of self-policing in that respect. But it goes the other way, too; the easier you make the job, the easier it is to get by with poor posture. If all the “heavy lifting” is done by machines, the worker is free to slump and slouch.

Oh, and the fact that sedentarism leads to muscle atrophy and inadequate exercise doesn’t help, either. And when they do get to the gym, it’s usually to do bicep curls and tricep extensions for an hour. Very few engage their core in any meaningful way. Functional fitness is enjoying a resurgence, but the “biceps, chest, and tris” split-style training still dwarfs it in popularity. If everyone did deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts with perfect form on a regular basis, our backs would be a lot stronger and our posture would be a lot better.

So, we’ve got influential youth sub-cultures, sedentarism, and inadequate fitness to (at least partly) blame for our posture problems, but how do we fix it? And is posture really that important? We seem to be getting by okay, all things considered.

That’s what they say about the Standard American Diet: “Oh, but look at our life expectancy. We live longer than ever!” How’s that really working out for us?

Poor posture is incredibly damaging, both to the individual and to society at large. The very obvious downside to poor posture is the debilitating physical pain that accompanies it. If you spend your days sitting, standing, and walking with a fundamentally flawed posture, you are going to be hurting. It may not hit you right away, but it will catch up with you, and if you want to live a long, active life a healthy back is pretty much required. Remember, too, that the spinal cord is essentially a high-bandwidth system for the transfer of information between nerves, organs, and other parts of our anatomy. If your posture is poor and your spine is impacted, some experts even suggest your ability to process information and relay data will be compromised.

It’ll hit you especially hard in the wallet, too. One study showed that for patients who complained of lower back pain – which was over a quarter of those polled – average medical expenditures were 73% higher than those without lower back pain. Those expenses don’t just disappear into the ether, either; they result in higher premiums across the board for all enrollees, so even if you have perfect posture, you’re paying for those who don’t. We’re all paying for it.

So what’s the answer? What is good posture?

Esther Gokhale has a pretty good handle on posture. She is a “back whisperer.” She grew up in India, earned a biochem degree from Princeton, and suffered with debilitating back pain for half of her life. When back surgery didn’t work (protip: it rarely works), she decided to get to the root of the problem and figure out what does work for back pain. She didn’t try every new-fangled treatment, though. Instead, Gokhale (unwittingly) channeled Weston Price and traveled to those cultures where back pain is virtually unknown despite men and women working long hours of backbreaking labor. She went to isolated African, Brazilian, and Indian villages to mimic the gait, the stance, and the posture of the inhabitants. These guys have been doing it right for centuries, and we all share the same genes and the same basic skeletal system, so it makes sense that what worked for them will work for the average Westerner (sounds pretty Primal, huh?).

The key to avoiding back pain (and, it turns out, achieving healthy posture) lies in the pelvis. Or, rather, the key lies in the positioning of the pelvis. Popular posture advice tells us to tuck the pelvis, to bring it forward. Tucking the pelvis is conducive to achieving that arched, S-curve back that the experts say is healthy and natural, but it’s actually counterproductive to sustainable, healthy posture. Gokhale blames medical professionals for that one, suggesting that the constancy of seeing patients with poor posture (which is almost everyone in developed nations) has conditioned doctors to consider the average S-curved back as normal and actually ideal. It’s not, though. The ideal posture should be mostly straight (or J-shaped, with the bottom curve of the “J” representing the curve of the anteverted pelvis), and it should be effortless and natural.

Instead of tucking the pelvis, think about “ducking” it, as in Daffy Duck. Look at his posture: pelvis back, butt slightly out, torso leaning forward. It’s exaggerated, but we want to keep that posture in mind. The technical term is anteverting the pelvis. Think about moving your pelvis back, as if you were a fat guy trying to look down at his toes. Allow your heels to bear your body’s weight as you move your torso slightly forward. Moving your torso forward may feel like excessive leaning, but that’s okay; this is a bit like going barefoot after a lifetime of wearing shoes, so it’s going to feel unnatural. Relax your abdominals. Now, check yourself out in a mirror. You may feel different (I did), but your back should be straight and you should actually look completely normal. It’s rather sad, but it feels strange because we’re just not used to standing with correct, natural posture.

I’ve rarely mentioned posture in the past, and I regret that. Going forward, I think we’ll be revisiting this subject with more frequency. I’m also going to give Gokhale’s ideas a trial run, but I’m pretty confident she’s on the money. After all, there’s always been a soft spot in my heart for research that uses anthropological evidence.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Have you checked out Pete Egoscue? He too, has some fabulous advice on everything related to this. He even has simple exercises that you can watch and perform to treat immediate problems on his website. I literally felt my neck shifting back into alignment! His exercise routine reminds me so much of yours, also! Thank you for this site, I’m excited about learning more!

    greensgirl wrote on October 18th, 2009
  2. True that everyone is quite different and that some may need to tuck it and others to reverse it. A firm mattress is good for those that have back problems. Sitting in a good position will also eliminate any potential neck problems as well.

    Neck Exercises wrote on October 19th, 2009
  3. It is hard to visualise this. The following might be of use to someone…I stand by it :)

    I’ve been practicing tai chi for 5 years which has an emphasis on posture to be stable, light-footed and bio-mechanically efficient. Generally: feet parallel, don’t lock knees, extend the back (flatten) by sinking the tail bone and extending the neck up like someone is holding you behind the ears. Shoulders down.

    We liken the spine and pelvis to a soup ladel which sounds familiar to your ‘J’. The abs should be relaxed – there are core muscles inside that pull the front of the hip level.

    People lock their knees to be taller, then have to crank the torso backwards to straighten up, and then crank the neck forwards to see straight again – it’s very unstable and incites many problems. Like the arms, the legs have a natural bend (obviously the legs are bent a lot more when we are practicing tai chi ‘form’ moves than just standing around).

    Craig wrote on October 21st, 2009
  4. Hello everyone! How fantastic to have a discussion going on about such an overlooked yet vastly important topic: Posture. As a 23 year old female without previous back pain, I had never given my posture a second thought. Yet as soon I discovered the Gokhale Method, I have felt relief that I hadn’t thought possible.

    Or drop by the EG Wellness Center in Palo Alto. Group and private classes are offered to reform your posture with hands-on training! Many patients say that the Gokhale Method has changed their lives!!

    Check out Esther’s book reviews, they speak for themselves:

    Andrea wrote on October 22nd, 2009
  5. Thank you for this post on posture and introducing me to the Gokhale method. I often write about this topic and this method is brand new to me. The concept of a J-Spine is foreign to me as a kinesiologist and your post/Esther’s work has stimulated a number of conversations with my colleagues in chiropractic, physiotherapy, kinesiology, active release therapy and athletic therapy. We actually try to correct ‘daffy duck’ syndrome. I look forward to connecting with you as I explore this topic further.

    Shari Feuz wrote on October 23rd, 2009
  6. Another big thanks for this post!

    I was persevering with Dreyer’s “Chi Walking” thinking the back pain was unrelated or was due to imperfect technique. But, a week of practicing Gokhale’s “Glidewalking” has eliminated the pains and the chiropractor visits. Gokhales’s advice is remarkably different in terms of pelvic position, body lean, toe action, arm position, etc.

    Evidently, posture advice, walking advice, etc., is just another part of the sorry greed-based health care system disinformation story.

    Sometimes, it is tough to detect the authors/experts caught in the CW commode, and thanks to Mark for featuring some of those who are not, like Gokhale.

    JoeD wrote on November 2nd, 2009
  7. My posture has improved a lot recently. My wife pinches me every time I’m not standing or sitting up straight! Hurts but works!

    Joe wrote on March 11th, 2010
  8. Marc, I am glad to see posture getting such needed attention. I’ve always thought that your pictures seemed to show you with your shoulders rounded and not back and your abs contracted instead of relaxed. Maybe you were trying to emphasize the abs in those shirtless poses or maybe you are trying to get some individual training with Myra. Thanks for all of the great info.

    neil wrote on March 11th, 2010
  9. The best book I ever saw about good posture and natural balance was actually a martial arts book: Tim Cartmell’s “Principles, Analysis, and Application of Effortless Combat Throws.” The first 50 pages are devoted entirely to proper, natural balance–because “effortless throwing” is all about first maintaining proper balance and disrupting your opponent’s. THEN you can throw anybody.

    Kent wrote on March 19th, 2010
  10. Hi Mark,
    I just had to send you a quick note with a BIG THANK YOU for bringing Esther’s work and book to my attention!! I have been dealing with unrelenting sciatica for over 2.5 years. I’ve spent literally thousands of dollars on different therapies, books, back rests, I can’t even name it all other than to say none of it worked. My next stop was the surgeon, but thankfully I read this blog and ordered her book and attended one of her free webinars and watched her video on YouTube. I can’t believe it but my pain has all but disappeared. I can make it come back of course, but by applying her principles I can now make it stop or reduce! I am estatic! I cannot thank you enough!! You are a good man Mr. Sisson! I’m so glad you write this blog, wrote that great book and now a great cookbook! I count you as one of my lucky stars!

    Gerri Hynes wrote on June 5th, 2010
  11. Hi Mark
    I found this article in your site coming back from Esther’s site, where marksdailyapple is listed in the references :-)
    I have been using her method with great success, I beleive it is the best for getting rid of back pain and fixing the posture. Once you read the book you get a new awareness about posture that stays with you, and this is a very good thing. It is great that you published your article in your site. I only with that you had not used the Daffy Duck simil, because for the person who has not read the book it gives the wrong idea, and they might end up with a posture “lordosis type” instead of the correct pelvis anteversion, which is more like a J form. This is a minor thing: anyone buying the book will see the correct process.
    Grok on! – but with good posture :-)

    AtkinsFan wrote on June 28th, 2010
  12. Duct tape is the key to a good tuck (or so I’ve heard).

    Grin wrote on October 20th, 2010
  13. Hi Mark,

    I’ve been enjoying your site for a few weeks now but now I have to chime in.

    First of all, Esther’s work is a great jumping off point. She actually learned it from a researcher in France named Noelle Peres. Ms. Peres was an Iyengar student and he set her on the path of figuring out why the westerners that were coming to learn Yoga just couldn’t embody the same relaxation and most importantly-natural body shape. This was in the 70’s.

    Esther worked with Noelle for a short time (1 year)-and though her work is great for the basics and looking at the position of our body, there is a huuuuge amount of research and information that relates to posture or more importantly: our optimal alignment. There is a glorious (okay-and sometimes grueling) process of RESTORATION with the body. Relaxing muscles, moving with more ease and more importantly teaching the muscles how to support structure–especially in the core. You wouldn’t believe the core work. Relaxing. Letting go. And voila: you still walk away sore, because you have worked your muscles.

    Over time (not a huge amount) the muscles take on new tone, shape and more importantly an easy strength (because it is born out of relaxation.)

    I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m working on my website now. I have been certified by the Balance Center in Palo Alto (another offshoot of Noelle’s work that continues a relationship with her). I have worked a lot with our French teachers as well–BUT my real point ending here is that anyone is free to email me with any questions at all.

    Thanks for the book, the great recipes, and one of the most enjoyable blogs on the internet Mark. I learn a lot here.

    Karen Engler wrote on November 1st, 2010
  14. Still the biggest thing I need to work on. It’s tough when you’ve been on a computer since you’re young to force yourself to sit up properly. Damn technology!

    I’ve actually been thinking about getting a stand-up desk. I feel like it might force me to be more productive anyway. Anyone here have experience with one of them?

    Nick wrote on April 12th, 2011
  15. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!! This was exactly the straight forward advice I have been searching for for ages. I can’t thank you enough for giving me some clarity and peace reguarding correct posture.

    Sedintarianism has wreaked havoc on my life, and this website is one of the biggest keys to taking it back. THANK YOU! 😀

    Chris wrote on June 19th, 2011
  16. Ok, that dailybeast article you linked to doesn’t exactly say “it rarely works” like you claim. It actually says surgery and non-surgical approaches are about the same after two years, but surgery is a faster, though more expensive option.

    Curtis wrote on August 10th, 2011
  17. Ok I have been a researcher for the past 40+ years dealing with this problem alot.

    The ‘duck posture’ Does feel better as it is more natural to the way our bodies have developed now. Look at how most people stand it is like this due to certain muscles being tighter and pulling forward.

    However it is NOT good posture. This has been proven time and time again. Good posture is hard to get due to lifestyles and can hurt at the beginning but this has been researched thousands of times so is not open to discussion. Duck feels good due to our lazy relaxed lives.

    C wrote on November 10th, 2011
  18. Fantastic post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thanks!

    bestelkado-1 wrote on December 10th, 2011
  19. This is advice is too simple. A Daffy Duck posture itself will worsen any existing lordosis. I agree that hips should be “back” but only to the extent that the torso is slightly angling forward. A tucked (i.e. “level”) pelvis is still important in standing posture.

    mike wrote on January 14th, 2012
  20. While your post can help people in the S-posture end of the spectrum, many people go too far off the Daffy Duck end of the posture spectrum as well. Beyond the Daffy Duck and S-posture distinction, different peoples’ posture problems can vary greatly due to various factors such as weak cores, tight muscles, and asymmetry.

    A more universally applicable guide to good posture would involve stacking the body’s blocks of weight in line so that minimal effort is exerted to maintain an upright stance, and such that any subsequent movement can be initiated with minimal effort. The second part of the statement cannot be overemphasized: while there are many alignments of the body that are local minima in terms of energy expenditure, they do not necessarily constitute good posture.

    This can be achieved through experimenting with realigning and engaging/relaxing different sets of muscles, as each individual’s posture problems are different. One way to do this is to take a dance class — not to learn the moves, but to learn how your body moves.

    Turnip wrote on March 2nd, 2012
  21. Posture is over rated. The key to avoiding back pain is not in the pelvis.
    Read “Healing Back Pain” by Dr. Sarno. This book changed my life and the way that I think about chronic pain.

    Mike wrote on June 15th, 2012
  22. Hi

    But how do sit girls who don’t have a penis (pelvis)? You misspelled that word too. Can we have a tutorial too? I’m 17 years and already have a hump. please help me since i want to become either a moviestar or an english-teacher. I am very intelligent and despite my hump still pretty. If you write a tutorial for girls too, i could become a perfect women also physically. thank you for your website!

    Marka Smart

    marka smart wrote on July 8th, 2012
  23. I have had back and neck pains due to poor posture but found that Egoscue’s simple exercises, or even a once-a-week yoga class, helped quite a bit. Yoga was especially good for breathing with good posture. This one little suggestion from yoga helps me too: “lift your heart.” Don’t tense your muscles to force some posture — just look up a bit and lift your heart.

    Angie wrote on August 3rd, 2012
  24. I suggest checking out the Alexander technique for this, it’s given me the best information I could find, and in great detail.

    Ryan J wrote on August 21st, 2012

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