What Makes Good Posture?
We hear a lot in the biomechanics world about the importance of good posture...it's supposed to help with everything from movement quality to pain management to ease of breathing.
Typically when we think of how to improve posture, we think of the same old cues: stand up straight, keep a flat back, shoulders down and back. But when pressed for a reason why, most folks can't come up with any reason other than...just because.
The truth is "good posture" is good for one reason, and one reason only: it gives you more options for movement in the gravitational field with less effort. It is both effective (in that it helps you get things done) and efficient (in that you can do them with minimal energy expenditure).
However, many trainers and therapists still hold to a notion of posture as a series of blocks stacked one on top of the other. The thought is that if we just put the bones one on top of the other, then logically we have good posture. This ignores a glaring issue: we need to move.
Life doesn't care about a neutral spine. In fact most of life exists far outside of anatomical neutral.
So this "stacking" idea is a little myopic. The thing we call posture is shaped by a tremendous number of forces, from your mobility and neuromuscular tonus, to your social and emotional health. Thinking that a few corrective exercises will fix it is short-sighted and myopic. If you want to improve your quality of movement, if you want to find more ease in your body, then it’s time to start moving—and living—like a human animal again.
Posture, like mobility, requires a big-picture approach if we want to make lasting changes. We have to account for:
- The physiological factors (like integrity of the joints, connective tissue health, etc)
- The neurological factors (the baseline level of tension held in your muscles and your ability to right yourself through reflexive stability)
- The ecological factors (the environments and shapes you put your body in on a day-to-day basis)
In a bird's eye view of the body, your bones exist to manage compressive force, the ever-present downward pull of gravity. Without bones, you’d be a pile of meat on the floor. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are great, but they aren’t there to manage gravity. What they are there for is to produce force and move the bony bits relative to each other in space. Of course, the nervous system governs this leverage, which brings us back to the idea of “choosing” better posture.
Your relationship to gravity is just like any other: if you have to constantly think about it for fear of it falling apart, it’s not healthy. Which brings us to the neurological side of the equation, what I like to call "postural autopilot".
When things are working smoothly, you don’t have to second-guess this relationship every second of the day. Your nervous system and musculoskeletal system have a constant dialogue that adjusts itself to new situations and contexts. The way it does this is largely under the surface. It’s built on reflexive patterns you’ve accumulated over decades of dancing with gravity.
By and large, this neural governance is habitual, not something we consciously think about. It's the summation of a lifetime of equilibrium responses, reactions to trauma (physical and emotional), environmental constraints, and the like. All of these factors influence the way our body organizes for posture.
Saying we can “choose” posture (a la "stand up straight") vastly oversimplifies the complex interactions between these various factors.
The natural question then is: if we can’t really choose a better posture, do we just give up?
Come on, now. I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that.
What we need to do is take an active role in the forces we put on the body. We can choose to avoid sitting for twelve hours a day. We can choose to spend time relieving stress, be it through time in nature, exploring natural movement in natural environments, or meditation, getting in touch with our bodies’ cues again. No matter the situation, we have a choice and a responsibility.
It’s also crucial to explore your habitual responses to familiar positions. Remember, a lot of posture goes on beneath the surface. When you stand or sit, how do you naturally organize? When you think of “good posture,” what is your body’s inherent response? Try this somatic exploration to give your posture some new life: