Striving for "Perfect Posture?" Choose Movement Variability Instead!

By Dr. Ellie Somers
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There’s this myth floating around that we’ll damage our spine if our posture is less than perfect. As a physiotherapist, I'd like to challenge that idea. Why? Because our bodies love variability and as it turns out, our spines are part of our body.

Have you ever tried to sit in “perfect posture” for more than two minutes? It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? The reason it’s uncomfortable is because of the rigid nature of the position and, more importantly, the lack of variability, which doesn’t allow the body freedom to move naturally.

Is There Such a Thing As “Perfect Posture?”

During my physiotherapy studies, I distinctly recall learning how to use a plumb line to assess a person’s posture and look for their “imperfections.” Finding these imperfections was not hard because everyone has them. This assessment was the first time anyone ever told me that I had “anterior pelvic tilt” and “forward head posture” in standing.

This plumb line postural assessment planted a seed of fear and negativity in me: the feedback I had been given about my body was that it was “wrong” in some way — that the way I stood in this world, quite literally, was “wrong.” As a person who happens to be a physio, I’m tired of this harmful messaging, particularly as it pertains to women and girls.

Anterior pelvic tilt and forward head are normal. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, neither of these positions is dangerous, or precursory to deterioration or damage in our spine. Yet the impression behind this assessment is that this posture is incorrect or “wrong.” I take issue with this type of messaging for several reasons, the main being that there is virtually nothing that shows us our bodies will deteriorate if we’re not in good posture all of the time.

I believe the ability to achieve “perfection” is impossible and that when it comes to posture, as Greg Lehman might say, “our next posture is our best posture.” The human body is highly capable of handling countless numbers of movements without any ensuing damage.

In fact, if we dig into the research on some of this, one such article that looked at variable lifting postures found that a squat posture (bending at the knees with a stiff posture) actually had slightly higher loads on the lumbar disks than the stooped lifting posture (bending at the hips with a flexed posture) [1]. This is not to say that squatting is bad, far from it. It’s simply to say that neither type of movement is dangerous and our bodies can handle both.

While the literature on spinal loading is still quite controversially discussed [2,3], if we consider how harmful it is to tell a person they were made incorrectly, in any way, we might begin to gain an understanding of why variability is valuable.

Variability in our movements and posture is important, because of the need for our bodies and minds to tolerate day to day activities, without needing to think about what our spine is doing during those activities.

Research shows us, that the words we use with people can do a lot of harm [5]. By simply telling someone that bending over is “bad” for them, we create an environment that lends itself to fear. Fear of one’s own body and how to use it.

Fear is an important thing to understand because fear avoidance has been significantly linked to worse outcomes in patients with nonspecific low back pain [4].

While the fear-mongering messaging that’s so prevalent in the media is only a piece in the puzzle of lower back pain — which happens to be the number one musculoskeletal issue in the U.S. [6] — this is something we, as coaches and physiotherapists, can actively work to change. By helping each person we see feel more comfortable in their body, and to move in the way they want, we can decrease their fear and focus on what they can do.

Adding variability into our day gives us the opportunity to explore and get curious about what our body can do and in what positions it can do it.

This mindset requires the removal of fear and the welcoming of trust. Sometimes this takes practice or coaching from the right person. Coaching can encourage us to explore movement in different ways and this is truly a wonderful thing.

Why Is Movement Variability So Important?

If someone were to ask me why movement variability is so important, my answer would be simple: for perspective.

Perspective gives us the opportunity to change our viewpoint or attitude toward something. As a physio, I want to teach people that bending forward doesn’t damage your spine. (I want to scream it from rooftops!) As a woman, I want to encourage women and girls to feel confident in their bodies in ALL ways. This means in their ability to move in the way they choose, to stand the way they do, and to sit however feels best.

When we encourage women and girls to believe that perfect posture is the one and only answer to reducing their pain, to being able to lift a weight off the ground, or to developing the assurance to ask for a raise, we ultimately diminish their ability to feel comfortable and confident enough to get in the gym, explore, create and discover their truest selves.

I love scrolling through powerlifters doing deadlifts on Instagram. The amount of variability in their lifts is amazing. A lot of the time, you’ll see these lifters lift with rounded spines. They are lifting the heaviest weights in the world with “imperfect posture.” How is this possible without causing harm?

It’s possible because of our body’s ability to adapt with training. Adding variety in our movements allows us to become comfortable with those new movements. The more variability we add, the more movements we get comfortable doing, and the more movements we are comfortable doing, the more resiliency we breed.

Movement variability provides us with an opportunity to gain confidence, learn new skills, test the limits of our body and our mind, as well as break down old belief systems and build up new ones.

So move your body in all the ways you want, relax, breathe into discomfort, and challenge what you once believed so that you can expand your ability to move in every possible way.

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About the author:  Dr. Ellie Somers

Dr. Ellie Somers is a physical therapist of 10 years, with a special focus on treating the female athlete. She has a background in sports performance and rehab, including extensive training and education in the science of pain. She started her practice, Sisu Sports Performance & PT, in Seattle, WA with the goal of empowering female clients to help them reach their unlocked potential. She hopes to keep women actively engaged in sport and activity for their lifetime. Dr. Somers has spoken at the Women in Physical Therapy Summit in New York City as well as at several continuing education courses and professional conferences. She is a lover of soccer, running, heavy things, craft beer, and the great PNW. You can follow Dr. Somers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

References

  1. Dreischarf et al. In vivo loads on vertebral body replacement during different lifting techniques. J of Biomech. 2016 49:890-895
  2. Hsiang SM, Brogmus GE, Courtney TK, Low back pain (LBP) and lifting technique - a review. Int J Ind Ergon. 1997 19:59-74.
  3. Van Dieen JH, Hoozemans MJ, Toussaint HM. Stoop or squat: a review of biomechanical studies on lifting technique. Clin Biomech. 1999 14:685-696.
  4. Wertli MM et al. The role of fear avoidance beliefs as a prognostic factor for outcome in patients with nonspecific low back pain: a systematic review. The Spine Journal. 2014 13:816-836.
  5. Darlow B et al. The enduring impact of what clinicians say to people with low back pain. Ann Fam Med 2013;527-534.
  6. Storheim K, Zwart JA. Musculoskeletal disorders and the global burden of disease study. Ann Rheum Dis. 2014 73: 949-950.

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