This article is adopted from a chapter from my book The Fencer and the Zen Body. I have adopted and modified it to suit the needs of athletes, sports-persons, or just anyone who wishes to improve their posture, body-alignment and their neuromuscular function.
“When posture is perfect, the movement that follows is also perfect.”
Taisen Deshimaru (Zen master).
Good posture is good structural alignment that permits the most efficient biomechanical functioning of the body. But good posture and good structural alignment don’t just happen. They have to be acquired, trained, and maintained. Poor posture adversely effects the biomechanical functioning of your body, putting unnecessary stress on joints, muscles, and connective tissue. This leads to injury and degenerative joint disease, and inefficient performance.
Efficient performance requires an understanding of what constitutes good structural alignment, and then training good neurological patterns until they become natural. In the Asian martial art traditions great emphasis has always been placed on training functional posture. The Japanese word for posture is shi sei, which translates as ”form and force”-a good description of functional alignment. Students perform thousands of repetitions of movements with the great emphasis placed on perfect posture and execution in order to develop flawless technique.
What then is good posture? Strictly speaking ‘Posture’ is a term that describes how the mass of the main components of your body – your head, torso and limbs -relate to the ground. If they stack up onto your feet in perfect alignment and balance, without any muscle tension or strain, and with the weight evenly distributed in your feet, you are said to have perfect posture. But if when you are standing up you experience any muscle tension anywhere in your body you have poor posture.
Since gravity acts on all your body parts, stacking all the main components of your body in such a way that the weight of this balanced ‘stack’ sits on top of your ankles, and your weight is evenly distributed in your feet, is the most bio- mechanically efficient posture. This balanced posture with your bodyweight aligned with gravity uses the least amount of muscle effort and energy.
Master Peter Ralston (arguably the worlds best martial artist) explained this concept perfectly when he said that one of the important principles of what he called “body – being” was to align yourself with gravity. Notice that this is something you have to do actively. You have to work at balancing your head on your chest, and your chest on your pelvis, and your pelvis on your feet in a perfectly vertical stack, when you are still and when you move. For many people this is not an easy thing to do. It can take a lot of training and practice to achieve a well aligned and balanced posture, and for it to become your natural state of “body-being”.
The most common pattern of poor structural alignment is a posture with the head and pelvis forward of the line of gravity, knees hyper extended (locked-out) and rotated inwards (or sometimes outwards), and ankles and arches of the feet collapsed inwards, pelvis tilted forward and shoulders rounded, with the bodyweight resting predominantly on the balls of the feet.
Figure 1a—Perfect postural alignment. Note that shoulders and hips are level and the hip-knee-toe alignment. Also note in the side view how the main structural elements of the body are aligned with the centre of gravity.
Figure 1b– Some examples of poor postural alignment. In the first image note how the pelvis tips forward (flexed) causing lower back to curve excessively (lumbar lordosis), the head to push forward and the knees to hyperextend. In the second image the shoulders and hips are uneven, the knees are internally rotated and the ankles are collapsed in (excessive pronation). In the third image the shoulders and hips are level but the knees are externally rotated and the ankles are collapsed inwards.
Kinesiologists have tests for good posture that usually involves checking your posture against a plumb line and wall grids. Their main drawback is that they have to be done by trained testers.
The following are two simple self- tests I have designed to enable you to determine if you have good postural alignment. I have called them the “Rabot Tests“ for good posture.
Figure2a—Correct alignment of ankles. Notice the gap between ankle bones.
Figure2b—Incorrect alignment of ankles.
If you failed one of these test you will almost certainly fail the other, since all the structural elements of posture are related. These tests can be valuable tools in reeducating posture, and developing a body awareness of what good posture feels like.
In summary, good posture is a structural alignment in which your head and chest and pelvis are balanced on your ankles, your knees pointing with your toes and your arms hanging to the sides with your shoulders and pelvis level with the floor.
“Body alignment includes much more than our posture. Alignment concerns the way we arrange our bodies and minds in relation to anything – body parts relating to other body parts or to the whole, or our body-mind relating to objects, the Earth’s gravity, or space. Alignment refers to the domain of the body’s awareness and structure, how the body is used, integrated, and arranged so that it performs most effectively and easily.” Peter Ralston.
The neurological patterns that determine the way your body is aligned and the way you move are called muscle engrams (also known as motor engrams). Engrams are muscle memory patterns that are similar to software programs in your computer.
Most of your postural habits and characteristic movement patterns would have been developed in childhood by instinctively copying the way your parents move. Biologists called this phenomenon “imprinting”. In the process of the evolution of a species this is a valuable survival tool. However, if your parents have poor posture habits there is a good chance that these habits will have been instinctively imprinted into your engrams.
Engrams are very hard to change. Research has shown that to change an existing muscle engram to a new one, you need to do 4000 to 5000 repetitions of the new pattern. This is why it is so important when learning a new skill to make sure you do it attentively, correctly and precisely.
So how do you best change these muscle engrams in order to develop good posture? In my experience there are three essential elements in developing good posture. These are;
Let us look at these in some detail:
Body awareness is what your body feels like when you are standing sitting or moving. Spatial awareness is being able to feel where your body (or any part of it) is in relation to other objects in space – in this case the floor.
To develop this you need to improve your ability to feel your body. Unless you have previous experience in a movement-related-art such as dance, most of your education would have been based on visual or auditory stimuli. As a result of this your brain is used to learning things from visual and auditory stimuli. When it comes to learning physical skills ‘body-learning’ or learning by ‘feeling-awareness’ is more successful.
“Regardless of the body’s condition, it is an object, and as an object is a whole. To effectively relate to being a body, we must feel all of it, every part and aspect, and as one whole. In this way, we can relax the whole, structure the whole, balance the whole, move the whole, and use the whole body. It is our inability to feel the whole body that’s prevents powerful use and proper balance. Many difficulties that appear as clumsiness and ineffectiveness can be traced to the lack of whole-body feel.” Peter Ralston.
Try this experiment; Put your palms together and lock your fingers together. Make a note of which thumb is on top. This is a good example of a muscle engram. Now change the way all your fingers are locked together, so the other thumb is now on top. You may find this tricky, or you may find it relatively easy. Either way you will find it definitely feels different, strange, or even wrong. This is because you have done a movement that is different to your engram. Now try changing the pattern a number of times. Notice that if you try to change it by looking at it and trying to work it out it will feel awkward. However if you tune into how the new shape feels like, you will be able to repeat it much more easily.
Concentrating on developing a “feeling memory” when developing a new engram, that is tuning into what a new movement feels like, will greatly enhance your learning of new motor skills.
Working on improving your body awareness and spatial awareness is the key to correcting your posture and developing new functional postural engrams. Here are two most important things you need to do to correct your posture:
The word pelvis is derived from a Latin word that means basin. It is basin shaped. One of its functions is to hold your internal organs or “guts” in place. It is also a major structure that allows your torso to articulate with your legs in a way that makes locomotion possible. Most importantly when considering efficient movement it is the “center” of your body.
In order for you and your the pelvis to function efficiently in containing your guts, allowing you torso to connect with your legs in such a way that it allows your legs to move your body properly, your pelvis needs to be level and positioned directly on top of your ankles. Not positioning the pelvis correctly over the ankles results in complex patterns of muscle dysfunction that will affect locomotion and structal alignment. This poor postural pattern is all too common and is the root of most back and knee pain problems.
A pelvis that is level and correctly positioned over the feet is the corner-stone of good posture. The first Rabot Test above, should have determined if you pelvis is correctly positioned or not. The next step is to develop a body sense of what a level pelvis feels like. Start by standing sideways to a full-length mirror with your feet facing forward and parallel, legs straight and knees unlocked (loose). Now turn your head sideways and look at yourself in the mirror. You will notice that the midpoint of your shoulder is directly above your ankle bone. Regardless of how good or bad your posture is your shoulder will be in line with your ankle bone. Now check the position of your pelvis (the point where your thigh bone joins your hip) and your head (a point just behind your ear). The chances are they will be forward of the line of your shoulder and ankle and your pelvis will be tilted forward and down, to a greater or lesser degree.
Now slowly move you pelvis back until the point where your thigh bone joins your pelvis is in line with your shoulder and ankle. Feel the changes that happen in your body. Notice that as your pelvis moves back your weight moves from the front part of your feet towards your heels and towards the outside edge of your feet. As your feet roll out the arches of your feet will rise up and the front of your feet and toes will feel relaxed. Your heels will ‘dig’ into the ground and any tension in your calves will disappear. As you move back your trail-bone will tuck in slightly and your pelvis will level. The knees will roll out a little and the curve in your lower back will get less.
Now, notice the changes in your body. Notice that your sternum lifts up and out a little, your shoulder blades roll back and down, your head moves back a little, your chin tucks in a bit and the back of your neck straightens and lengthen, making you feel a little taller. It is quite possible that you will ‘grow’ taller by 1 cm to 2 cm. Finally notice that your diaphragm feels relaxed and your breathing is much more comfortable. Et voila good posture!
Now check if your posture is perfect but applying the Rabot tests. Push your knees back and lock them out. You should fall back. If you don’t your pelvis is still too far forwards.
Maintaining your posture put your feet together and take a look at the gap between your ankles. If it is one to one and a half fingers –widths wide you are doing fine. If it is less your knees need to roll out a little more.
Use all this information to develop a body sense of good posture. Remember that the position of the pelvis is the key.
If you have experimented with correct pelvic position you would have started to get a good idea as to what your feet should feel like.
All foot problems, fallen arches, bunions, hammer toes, and even painful conditions such as planter fasciitis and heel-spurs are all caused by bad posture. No arch-supports, orthotics or corrective foot-wear will produce a lasting result on correcting poor postural engrams. Poor posture over a long period of time can cause structural changes to the feet that may need surgical correction. However, for the surgical correction to have a lasting effect there has to be some change to the posture.
Therefore if you wish to be successful at any sporting activity, help prevent injury and protect your self against degenerative changes to your joints, and enjoy a long and pain free life, you need to develop good posture, starting with your feet.
As I have already said, if your pelvic alignment is good you will have the right feeling in your feet. If you pelvis is positioned over your ankles correctly, you will feel as if most of your weight is towards the outside edges of your feet and your heels. You don’t really need toes to stand, but you do need them to walk. So there is no need for your toes to press into the ground when you’re standing. If your weight is correctly distributed in your feet you should experience no muscle tension in your feet or calves. Although, at first you will feel like you are standing mostly on your heels and outside edges of your feet; in reality your weight will be evenly distributed over your whole foot. It is only because you were used to standing with your weight towards the balls of your feet and the front part of your foot that you now feel as if you are standing on the outside-edges of your feet. When you are standing correctly your weight should be evenly distributed between your heels, the heads of the first metatarsals, and the heads of the fifth metatarsals of your feet.
There are two arches in your foot; the longitudinal arch and the transverse arch. Notice that when your foot is weight-bearing correctly both the arches are relaxed and ‘sprung’, making the foot feel relaxed and ‘alive’. If however your weight moves forward in the foot the arches collapse and the toes start to ‘clutch’ the ground and the foot feels tight and ‘dead’.
Work on developing a good engram of a relaxed foot, with the weight evenly distributed in the foot. The shape that you feel as the foot makes contact with the ground should always be the same regardless of how wide or narrow your stance is and regardless of the weight distribution between the two feet.
With practice and time, using the ideas we have discussed you will be able to develop good functional posture. You might have noticed that I have not discussed moving posture. Standing still or moving the basic principles of posture are the same.
The ideas we have discussed so far are mostly to do with getting a sense of what good posture feels like and how to build on that until you develop good functional engrams. However, there is another way of correcting dysfunctional neuromuscular patterns by the use of specific exercises. During the last century, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, and various exercise gurus came up with exercises to correct postural problems but these exercises produced very poor results. This is possibly because they were designed without the benefit of the modern understanding of functional biomechanics.
Until recently remedial exercises for posture problems were based on what came to be known as the “lengthen and strengthen” principle. According to this principle, a postural problem is caused by one muscle group being weak, while its opposing muscle group is too strong. Therefore, if you stretched the strong muscle group (strong muscles being shorter), and strengthened the weak muscle group you would restore balance and correct the problem. For example; if your problem is round shoulders, this is said to be caused by the muscles in your chest being too short while the muscles between your shoulder blades are too weak. So according to the “lengthen and strengthen” principles, you should stretch the chest muscles and strength the back muscles in order to correct round shoulders.
The fact that the “lengthen and strengthen”* principle has never worked has not stopped physiotherapist and some osteopaths and chiropractors not to mention exercise therapists, from recommending it.
Postural problems are caused by complex patterns of neuromuscular dysfunction. Round shoulders for example, may be caused by a flexed pelvis; which in turn may be caused by dysfunctional loading of the feet. The tension in the chest muscles is merely an effect of the problem and not a cause. Stretching them will have no corrective affect whatsoever on the round shoulders. An important fact to remember is that you cannot have just one postural problem. If one aspect of your posture is bad, all the others will be affected to a greater or lesser degree, and correcting any one element will improve all the others. The exercise system I would recommend for improving posture is the Egoscue Method, designed by Pete Egoscue. His excellent book, Pain Free, he covers all the dysfunctional muscle patterns that affect posture, and gives exercises menus to correct them effectively and in a surprisingly short period of time. If you choose to use exercises to help you achieve good functional posture, you cannot do better than to use the Egoscue Method. In his book there are a number of self tests to diagnose muscle dysfunction and exercises to correct them. My advice would be to start with menus for feet and work up**, until you pass the Rabot tests. Then get into the habit of checking your posture from time to time. Bad habits have a nasty way of sneaking in when you are not paying attention.
**Here is a useful tip; you can use negative heel shoes to speed up the process of correcting posture. Negative heel shoes are produced by a company called Kalso Earth Shoes and have heels that are a little lower than the front of the shoe. They force your bodyweight to move backwards and slightly towards the outside edge of your foot. This levels your pelvis. They also encourage you to keep your weight towards your heels as you get up from a chair or climb stairs. This encourages your knees to push into your feet, and prevents your bodyweight from tipping forwards towards the balls of your feet. When you first wear them, you will feel very strange since they force you into a position that is different to your existing (bad) engram. However, they will help you change your engrams very quickly since 5000 steps are only about two miles of walking.
[*] The “lengthen and strengthen” principle has some value in correcting some muscle imbalances, but when it comes to correcting postural problems it is useless.