Folks often think of posture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as in “I want to have good posture.” But in reality, when you think ‘good’ posture, what you are thinking of is stacked and aligned posture. And as you will see in this article, the best way to achieve stacked and aligned posture is not by pulling your shoulders back or drawing your belly button in.
What Is Posture?
Posture is how you organize your skeleton, tissues, and systems of your body to allow you to do whatever it is you want to do.
It is often presumed to be something you work to hold — like holding your shoulders back or your tummy in or your butt out.
Actually though, posture is being able to both hold and move through body positions with exactly the right amount of body tension needed to do so.
That is, you can move fluidly into and through any position you like, and your body organizes itself to do so with ease. This is the case both when the position you’re in is stationary, such as when seated, or when the position is actually a series of positions that make up the movement you are doing, such as when walking or dancing or cleaning up the kitchen after dinner.
Posture is automatic. In other words, you aren’t consciously holding your posture. Posture just is.
Sure, you can “pull your shoulders back”, but that’s not posture.
That’s just using intentional muscle tension to hold a position. If you let go of the tension in the muscles between your shoulder blades, your shoulders would fall out of that pulled back position you put them in.
Posture is simply the state of repose (or ‘position’) you maintain without extra effort.
One of my favorite mental images to understand a state of repose comes from the world of mechanics, and in particular, stacking and placing objects on angled surfaces.
The angle of repose is the steepest angle at which rocks or other objects do not roll down the slope but rather stay put on their own, without any extra support to keep them there. Like this pile of salt stacked along the sea, the angle at which it was stacked up is the steepest it could be stacked where it holds without extra effort to prop it up and without it slumping down.
Your posture is for helping you hold your body in a state of repose without needing extra support from intentional muscle contractions (or posture “correcting devices”) to do so.
Should You Pull Your Shoulders Back?
Pulling your shoulders back is akin to putting the rock on a steeper slope so that you then have to put a support under the downhill side of the rock to keep it from tumbling downward.
You can’t hold that position without intentionally contracting the muscles between your shoulder blades.
Not to mention, your skeleton is not held in place only by those muscles and so trying to improve posture just by squeezing them, or any other group of muscles, is far too reductionist and isolationist to be useful.
In addition, holding your shoulders back, lifting your chin up, or doing any of the other common things you might do to pull yourself into ‘good posture’ are all forms of rigidness and non-action. They are fixed poses rather than dynamic ones.
Building strong posture is about finding ease in your body, not rigidity.
And the path to finding more ease runs through a concept called oscillation.
Specifically, oscillation focuses on the ability to:
- Rotate the body (which is oscillation in one direction and then back the other direction)
- Shift from the left side to the right side of the body and back again
- Have access to the full spectrum of muscular tensions available to you
These oscillations are not just important for creating stacked and aligned posture – they’re also important for walking, running, going up and down stairs, and doing all of the twisting, reaching, and bending that comes with daily activities, let alone sports.
And in a real catch-22, as oscillation is lost, posture becomes more rigid and as posture becomes more rigid, oscillation gets lost.
Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT, sees this in his clinic and he noted it in an article he wrote for my website: “Just watch most anyone walk and you’ll notice a lack of symmetrical rotation in the body as people tend to stay stuck on one side (almost always the right).”
How To Find Better Posture Through Ease
It is tempting to think that there must be a specific muscle you should engage, like pulling your shoulders back or sucking your belly inward.
But what you should really be thinking about is coordinating a multitude of your body’s muscles, its systems, and its structures (ie, bones and joints).
Nothing in your body works in isolation. In order to have stacked and aligned posture, you need your breathing muscles to work in harmony with the muscles that help to hold you upright, and you need your joints to be able to hold a neutral position, and you need your nervous system to feel safe.
To help you get started today, I’m giving you an exercise from my course that addresses all of the things needed for better posture.
This is the low seated reaching exercise and it is a small but mighty first step towards building better posture:
Ready for the whole body approach to posture, healing your aches and pains, getting strong, and being capable?
Take my Becoming Unbreakable Workout & Lifestyle Course.
Module One takes you through a detailed Assessment to learn what your unique body needs.
Module Two guides you through exercises and lifestyle experiments to uncover what works best for your body.
Module Three supports you with workouts and training to build your body to be Unbreakable.