From tech neck, sitting, or standing all day, our posture is one thing that is affected by our behaviors and practices.
Many people know we should do something about our posture. But many people don’t know some of the basic anatomy and bio-mechanics that keeps our spine in place. I trust that we can make changes that are positive in our lives. And to get there we need to learn a little bit of the science of how our spine and muscles work together to keep use standing straight.
The spine is quite the piece of hardware. It is made up of 33 bones that support and protect our spinal cord. It can move in different directions and hold different positions depending on what we ask it to do. And these sections are designed perfectly for the task given to them.
But I want to narrow in on one set of muscles in our back that help us hold proper posture. We like to call these muscles the erector spinae muscles. But they have 3 parts: iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis. These muscles play a very important role in how we hold our posture. But to understand why they are important we need to understand what muscles do when they become stretched.
Our muscles are designed to stay in safe movement ranges. They have a nerve ending in all of them that regulates their position. These are called Muscle Spindle Fibers and Alpha motor neurons. Anytime muscles are stretched into a position that may not be safe/comfortable/taxing - the spindle fibers detect this and tell the motor neuron to fire. This will order the muscles to contract, bringing our selves back to a more neutral position. This system is constantly checking our position and then editing accordingly.
This response is integral to keeping ourselves in a proper posture. When we flex our spine the erector spinae muscles are stretched into a less comfortable position. Normally when we are standing the Erector’s can help pull us back into a normal position. But in today’s society with sitting we don’t give ourselves a fighting chance.
Sitting is a position that will cause stretch in the Erector Spinae Muscles. But we usually set ourselves up in a way that keeps the muscles from pulling us into the proper position.
We can also see this happen when we stand for long periods of time. But this is usually at play when our workstations are too short for us, forcing us to hump our backs.
To see the happen in real time you can feel the erector spinae muscles activate in your lower back. This technique I learned from spine mechanic Stuart McGill.
From Standing, let one arm hang at your side. Use the other arm to wrap behind your back and place thumb and pointer finger on either side of your spine. Just as if you were going to pinch your spine.
You will probably feel a give in the muscles as the erector spinae muscles are not active.
Start to bend forward to make a hump in your back. You will feel the muscles become tight as the try to pull you back into a more upright position.
As you can feel, the muscles want to be in a relaxed position we find when standing.
Over time your erector spinae muscles will become tired and no longer able to pull you towards a proper posture. This is usually seen with prolonged sitting or improper standing. Over time (years) we start to see the chronic changes in our posture and back.
Fortunately, there is something we can do about this. Movement.
My rule of thumb is to get up every hour from your sitting positions. There are many ways to do this but here are my favourites:
Stand up every time you answer the phone. Especially if you don’t have to take notes while talking.
Drink more Water. It will make you go to the bathroom more.
If you work in an office. Make sure the printer is not on your desk. It will force you to get up every once in awhile.
For people who stand all day:
Shift your weight from one foot to the other throughout your shift.
Find a small box you can rest your foot on, changing the position your spine is holding.
Make sure your workstation is high enough that you are humping your back to stay in one position.
Take a Movement break every 60 minutes. Try a 60 second walk.
Next week I will describe the phenomenon that keeps your back muscles from pulling yourself into a correct posture while sitting. And why we want to prevent it from happening.