If you went down to the gym today, or rather yesterday, then you may well have been able to confirm that elevated postures or body use really make work lighter.
Magnus and Alex (in this video on YouTube) were able to increase the number of repetitions by as much as 50% when working out, because standing or sitting correctly balanced (and without trying to ‘hold the body straight’) automatically organised the direction and containment of effort within their bodies, thus making them stronger.
The same ‘lightening effect’ can be acheived by anyone in any situation, not least in workplaces. The only problem is that people in workplaces (and gyms remember) are generally taught to sit, stand and move according to models for posture that lead to oppression and not elevation. We recognise the need to lighten the load, but unwittingly we apply theory that does the opposite. And when this doesn’t work, what do we do? We just try harder!
Interestingly, in 2007 the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work launched a campaign called “Lighten the Load”. According to the agency “Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common work-related problem in Europe – 25 % of the EU-27 workers report suffering from backache and 23 % complain about muscular pains.”
I contacted the Agency’s representatives here in Stockholm at The Swedish Work Environment Authority and arranged a meeting. I was curious to see how they would react to my claim that the things being taught about posture and body use were contributing to the onset of MSDs such as backache.
I met two physiotherapists and one behavioral scientist and demonstrated the difference between oppressed and elevated postures – something that was obviously completely new to each of them – and then showed them that the way people are taught to sit and stand (plumb line aligned, etc) corresponded to the oppressed postures they had just tried. They were perplexed, but added that there really was nothing they could say or do about this because they are not allowed to make recomendations regarding specific ergonomic methods.
The fact that currently accepted models for good posture, safe lifting, and so on could possibly weaken the body and increase the strain on the lower back and other joints seemed to be something never before considered, until recently it seems. Researchers have at last concluded that there is a difference in the way the body is loaded when running with shoes as compared to running barefoot (read article and watch video here). While barefoot runners land on the balls of the feet first, shod runners land on the heels. “Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing,” which helps to lessen the impact by “decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land.” If you watch the video then the difference is immediately apparent.
From a Power Ergonomics perspective the difference is also very clear – barefoot runners run elevated (light and held up) while shod runners tend to run oppressed (heavy). The other day I had the opportunity to confirm this once again while I observed around 80 people in an aerobics class at our local Friskis & Svettis in Stockholm. When they all ran around the room, I found it impossible to pick out anyone who was running lightly. Everyone seemed to be plodding around.
While exercise is obviously good for us, there is a real difference between exercising elevated and exercising oppressed. If we truly want to lighten the load – as the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work wish us to - then we must first conceptualise the two fundamentally opposite ways in which the body is balanced and held (elevated vs oppressed). Without this we are like drivers who do not notice that the hand brake is on while we are driving.
Whenever I stop and take a step back I sometimes get the feeling that we are like dogs chasing our own tails. We use so much energy and make so much effort, but to what purpose? From homo sapiens to homo omnistressens, from human being to human doing, ever rushing, never satisfied, even to the point where we seem prepared to sacrifice the very world we live in and are dependent upon.
Many years ago it struck me that we often perceive our existence as if it consisted of two basic parts – ‘me’ and ‘my life’. ‘My life’ consists of all the things around me that ‘I’ work and struggle to attain, put into order and maintain – money, relationships, education, a home, at least one car, a load of TVs, a job, pension, holidays, etc. A lot of effort goes into managing this huge portfolio of ‘things’, people and events, all so that I will hopefully in the end feel satisfied and happy inside. The more I have, the more I need and the more I become involved in this endless management – and endless struggle – to create and maintain order on the outside so that I can experience order (calm and peace) on the inside. I call this ‘working from the outside in’ (the red lines in the diagram below).
The problem with this approach is that it is very one-sided. It is limited, limiting and potentially destructive (just look at the way we treat our resources). Even if I succeed in getting everything into place, something always starts to move. Or someone else moves it! The lovely car I just bought gets stolen. The money I invested and that was growing so beautifully dwindles to nothing when the market crashes. The skills I had that were so valuable – become defunct and worthless. The love I found in my partner changes to indifference or hatred. Any part of the picture can change at any moment, threatening to disrupt the peace and harmony inside me that I worked so hard to build up and protect. Perhaps this is why I get so possessive and am prepared to fight to the death to defend anything that is ‘mine’ – because by losing the order ‘out there’ I risk losing the order ‘in here’.
Clearly there is a limit to how much I can control things and events out there. And yet it seems in my reflection that I still persist in trying to be in control of events, even those beyond my reach. What a waste of energy!
Since ‘order’ inside ourselves – manifested as inner calm, contentment, happiness or whatever you want to call it – seems ultimately to be high on our agendas (really, for what other reason would we work so hard?), perhaps there are other ways to help achieve this. Perhaps it is possible to work on this inner order directly – from the inside – instead of making it reliant upon the way external events turn out (the green lines in the diagram).
One part of this ‘creation of inner order’ would be to straighten out our posture and the way we use the body. Just understanding something as simple as elevation can help create a better order inside the body (which lengthens and opens up the body, lightening it and allowing for better breathing and a stronger presence). Just think about how oppressed postures and movement contribute to our daily struggle. Nothing on the outside can make this go away.
Calming the mind, dispersing the cloud of thoughts within which most of us live with is another part of this work. Just sitting down and making the effort to be still and silent for twenty minutes every morning and evening adds considerably to creating the inner order we seek, and that rushing around chasing our tails will never achieve.
Making inner effort to create and strengthen our inner order does not replace the effort we make to create order around us in our homes and at work. Of course, this has to continue. But the difference is this: when we work from the inside outwards, this changes our relationship to the world around us. Instead of becoming dependent upon things and events, it becomes easier to relax and be a little more detached. It is easier not to get caught up in all the BS and hype that is thrown at us. It is easier to maintain one’s sanity and one’s dignity in a world that appears slowly to be going mad. It is easier to just be, whatever happens.
Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat. Thanksgiving and Lucia are also just around the corner. Let’s stop a moment and do ourselves a favour – get into balance and calm our spirit, at least for five minutes. After all, a world in balance and harmony cannot possibly be achieved without people who first strive to achieve balance and harmony inside themselves.
A student of mine, Ann, recently learned how to sit elevated as opposed to sitting oppressed. After a couple of weeks though, she came back to tell me that something had gone wrong. Instead of sitting elevated she was now sitting leaning forwards – so much so that she had developed a stiff neck from having to hold her head up when working at her PC!
This is a classic example of translation error – something that happens when we inadvertently ‘translate’ an instruction to do one thing into an instruction to do something completely different.
When I first taught Ann to sit elevated I explained that the weight of the upper body should fall on the legs, ever so slightly in front of the sitting bones. Most people can find this and if you can test then you find too that people sit like a rock when truly elevated.
Having said this though, most people also feel that they end up sitting leaning slightly forwards (as when standing elevated) – even when objective observation (from other people) confirms that this is not so. Inside our heads we notice that ‘sitting elevated is more forward compared to sitting oppressed’. And so when we attempt to re-create elevation on our own, it is easy to think, “OK, now I need to move forwards a bit”.
But this is where we go wrong, because sitting elevated is not about moving forwards (or leaning forwards). It is about understanding which part of the body to sit on – the sitting bones or the legs (slightly in front of the sitting bones). Normal ergonomics training makes no distinction between elevated and oppressed use which is why no one distinguishes between the different parts of the backside that lead to postural elevation or oppression. For most people both are perceived as ‘sitting on your butt’.
One simple way to learn to find the right part of the backside to sit on is to begin by sitting on the wrong part and then move slowly forwards until you feel your body weight has shifted past the sitting bones to a point just slightly in front of them.
The point of the exercise is to understand this point of rest as opposed to others, such as the sitting bones themselves or just behind them. If you understand the differences it is easy to choose which one to land on when sitting down. You just ‘aim’ to land on the right part of your backside and then sit down and land on it.
If you do this, then automatically you land in an elevated position. It is not a matter of sitting down in any old manner and then correcting this by ‘moving forwards’. If we do this then inevitably we end up where Ann ended up – leaning forwards with a stiff neck!
This is because we will never really know when to stop. Each attempt to correct by moving forwards will be added to the result of the previous attempt. Why? Because each time we move forwards and get slightly used to it, it starts to feel less slightly forwards. Then the next time, we have to move more forwards in order to feel the same difference we felt the first time. We only stop when we end up leaning so far that we realise that something is obviously wrong.
Translation error like this occurs all the time. It is a major challenge for anyone teaching Power Ergonomics. I hear every day how people ‘hear’ things I have never said, so that sitting elevated becomes ‘sitting leaning forwards’, and standing elevated becomes ‘standing on your toes’ or ‘standing leaning forwards’.
The remedy is very simple – just listen or read carefully, and try to understand the point of each exercise so as to avoid going off at a tangent.
Every now and then I am asked by people who exercise at gyms how they should eat before and after training.
This wasn’t a problem before, because we all had something called Time – time to prepare, time to relax and time to enjoy.
For Homo omnistressens there is never enough time and so it is easy to cut down on ‘less important stuff’ such as preparation, relaxation and even enjoyment, just in order to keep up the high pace of living that is associated with leading a full life. Multi-tasking knows no bounds, as anyone who habitually showers, shaves, pees and exercises at the same time will testify.
The practice of Yoga has been around a lot longer than our modern civilisation, and so there is every reason to accept that most of what works in yoga is based on sound empirical experience. For example, not eating for two to three hours before practice and for at least 30 minutes after practice provides us with a reliable benchmark from which to proceed in our own lives.
Those in the habit of stuffing themselves full before rushing into the gym and then popping a couple of energy bars directly afterwards could try not doing this for a week or so, just to see what the difference is. Try and eat at least a couple of hours before – or if you really must eat then try to eat something light at least an hour before. Afterwards sit down for 10-15 minutes and drinking some warm green tea – not coffee or iced drinks – and try to observe your body as it calms down.
As for what to eat – I find the old adage of ‘a little of everything’ works pretty well (except it is getting harder as portions get larger!). I’ve met fit and healthy people from all walks of life who were on every imaginable kind of diet or on no diet in particular. Quite honestly I could never really see much difference between them.
If you watched the video “Power Ergonomics at the Gym” then you may be forgiven for thinking that it is all a bit too good to be true.
One ‘problem’ with Power Ergonomics is that many improvements in performance are both instant and of a greater magnitude than is often expected. For example, I suggested to Alex (in the video) before he went off to the gym for the first time that he might experience a 15-20% increase in performance. But even this, he admitted later, made him think, “Yeah, yeah, sure”. The fact that the increases were up to 50% was something I let him discover for himself. I knew that if I had said this from the beginning it would probably have put him off all together.
Something similar happened many years ago when I held a training program for some golf pros in Båstad, in southern Sweden. One participant, British born instructor Jimmy Suckling, kept exclaiming, “It can’t be this easy! Where’s the catch?” despite obviously measurable improvements to his more than 60 year-old technique. He had by then been teaching golf professionally for more than 45 years and the improvements he experienced were just then ‘too good to be true’ because they took him way beyond his expectations.
So what is the problem? Either the improvements are for real or they are not. If they are not, we still have to explain away the heavier weights, increased number of repetitions or the fact that golf players hit further.
Alex thought initially that he was imagining the improvements until he had experimented so many times that he was forced to conclude otherwise. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and this is what Power Ergonomics is about. It’s not just a nice new theory. It’s about discovering true hidden potential and then realising that having everyday access to this potential is unusual or ‘too good to be true’ only because we are so used to living and performing without it.
This is what Alex Grundberg and Magnus Alenesjö have been doing for the last seven weeks, after having first tried out the basics of Power Ergonomics at Axelsons Gymnastiska Institut (Scandinavias largest school of Complementary and Alternative Medicine). Both are studying to become Massage Therapists and both work out regularly at a gym. Alex is also a qualified Personal Trainer.
Last Saturday morning we met up again at the Friskis&Svettis gym in Huddinge to find out what they thought about it all. Both were quick to admit that they had initially been sceptical. After all, the promise of a 20-30% increase in performance really sounded too good to be true. But they were keen to give it a go and after around six weeks of practice and experimentation both of them had concluded independently that this increase in power was no exaggeration.
First Alex tried walking, jogging and running on a treadmill – oppressed and elevated. After that each of them tried a selection of exercises, comparing the first set done standing (or sitting) oppressed with a second set performed when elevated. For a couple of exercises we looked at what happened when performing standing elevated directly after performing to exhaustion while standing oppressed. Here are the results…
Walking (5 kph), jogging (15 kph), running (19 kph) (Alex): Oppressed: heavy throughout, feeling of moving backwards on the treadmill when running fast (very hard to maintain), Elevated: light, easy and fun at all speeds (read also Alex’s comments further on).
Squats (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (13 reps), 2nd set: elevated (17 reps), 3rd set: oppressed and then shift to elevated when exhausted (12 increasing to 17). Difference 4 and then 6. I.e. 31% increase in set 2 (compared with Set 1) and 42% increase in set 3 (compared with first 12 in Set 3). Expected outcome: decreased number of reps in both sets 2 and 3.
Shoulder lifts sideways (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (14 reps), 2nd set: elevated (16 reps). Difference 1 = 14% increase.
Biceps curls (Magnus): 1st set: oppressed (10 reps), 2nd set: elevated (15 reps). Difference 5 = 50% increase.
Standing rowing (Alex): 1st set: oppressed (13 reps), 2nd set: elevated (15 reps). Difference 2 = 15% increase.
Shrugs (Magnus): 1st set: oppressed (14 reps), 2nd set: elevated (19 reps), 3rd set: oppressed and then shift to elevated when exhausted (10 increasing to 15). Difference 5 and then another 5 = 36% increase in 2nd set and 50% in 3rd set).
Arm cycling (Alex): Oppressed sitting (leaning back against backrest): heavy, focus backwards while working forwards (divided effort), Elevated sitting: easy, light, focus forwards, Elevated ( ‘straight back’: weakened performance (like oppressed).
The increases in power/performance varied from 14% to 50% and so the promise of a 20-30% improvement is actually quite modest.
Alex commented afterwards that: “the biggest difference between oppressed and elevated was definitely during the jogging/running part and the squats. While running oppressed, it felt like my body wanted to run the opposite direction. My inward curve of the lower part of the back started to increase and this really just became more obvious as we increased the speed of the treadmill. By then I was really struggling to stay on it. I must have looked like a fat duck getting chased by some predator or something. Unlike during the elevated running, where I felt LIKE the predator: fast and extremely light. And also I felt like I didn’t have to meet the ground with my feet as many times as when jogging oppressed. During the squats the difference also became very obvious. While doing it oppressed my body felt like it was working not only downwards but also backwards, instead of just upwards – which was the feeling while doing it elevated. I think this is a recurring feeling when comparing oppressed and elevated posture during different activities.”
Magnus added that not only did he perform better, but he also now has no backache and experiences less muscle stiffness after training. Backache is otherwaise a common problem for gym goers, and one likely cause is to be found in the oppressed postures taught by trainers (in exercises that are supposed to help prevent backache!). Indeed, Alex made it very clear that he had always been taught to exercise in an oppressed manner (albeit unknowingly), both as a client when he first started training at his gym, and as a student then studying to become a Personal Trainer. He was completely tuned in to keeping his back straight, his shoulders back and stomach in as well as standing balanced on his heels in almost every exercise, and he had always passed this on to his own clients, believing just like everyone else, that this was a good recipe for ‘correct posture’.
With this in mind it is worth considering Alex’s closing remark: “In the very beginning I thought all this sounded like bull***t. But at the same time I wanted to believe it cause hey, who doesn’t want to lift more in the gym or find the regular jogging tour much easier run? So when I increased at the gym I really thought it was due to the result of the classic placebo effect. But then I started to experiment some more and it didn’t really matter if I tried the elevated posture in the beginning of the exercise or in the end when being fatigued, I always increased and found the weight easier to lift when standing elevated.”
So, if you go down to the gym today…
I wrote in Standing 101 that practicing elevated standing may raise the following questions:
why do you feel as if you are leaning forwards, or even about to fall forwards?
why do your calves feel tense?
why do your feet start to ache?
why does it feel as if your whole body is making extra effort to stand like this?
If you experience any or all of these, then it is important to know that everything is fine (even it it does not feel this way!). These are the four most common ‘complaints’ the body has to changing its way of being held when standing, and each is easily explained.
The feeling of leaning forwards occurs because re-positioning (re-balancing) the body puts it more forwards relative to its old position. This does not mean that you are leaning forwards, even if it feels this way (any more than the feeling of a room spinning when you are dizzy means that the room really is spinning). Of course this feeling disappears the moment you shift back into your old way of standing (with your weight further back) – because this is what your body and brain are used to. If, however, you practice elevated standing for a day or two, then the feeling of leaning forwards will most probably disappear. Your brain acclimatises itself to the new position – this new way of balancing, holding and controlling your body – with the end result that if you return to your ‘old way of standing’ then you will almost certainly feel as if you are leaning backwards.
The calves feel tense or tight because standing elevated causes them to be stretched ever so slightly. Standing elevated lengthens the calf muscles and so they are bound to complain. Standing with your weight further back will stop the complaining because the muscles are allowed to return to their habitual length. The sensation of tightness can be perceived as ‘something wrong’ or as something to be accepted as a part of the process of re-educating your body. While the feeling of leaning forwards passes after a day or so, tightness in the calves usually takes longer. How long is hard to say because accumulated tension levels vary from person to person – it may take a few weeks or months or sometimes longer, it all depends. For me it took many months because my calves were as hard as iron!
If your feet start to ache when you stand elevated then it is simply because they are not used to carrying the full weight of the body in this new manner. Stand with your weight comfortably on your heels and you should be able to feel how the fronts of your feet relax and become passive. Repeat this every day for the next ten years and what will happen? The muscles in the front of your feet will gradually weaken, because they do less work. Indeed after many years, they may even start to ‘solidify’ as they lose their natural suppleness and flexibility – something many elderly people are familiar with. When you stand elevated, you force your feet out of early retirement and of course they complain! Suddenly the fronts of your feet are forced to carry the full weight of your body, doing the work they were designed to do. The muscles and tendons in the feet then become stronger and more flexible as they respond to the challenge of carrying the body. The trick is to just keep them working and ignore the complaining (with a little rest in between, of course) until it passes.
If you feel that your whole body is making extra effort when standing elevated then this is just an extension of the previous ‘complaint’, only this time it is a reflection of how unfamiliar your whole body is with holding itself up correctly. Regular practice (self re-education) will prove to you that it does become easier to stand elevated. In the end you feel nothing at all, which is the way it should be. Indeed, on one occasion many years ago, I was travelling home on the subway and was so tired that I fell asleep standing – without holding onto anything. I didn’t realise I had slumbered until I suddenly awoke at my station. I was both surprised and inspired by this new experience.
It is easy to get distracted by these complains (and any others that may arise), and then give up, allowing them to function as excuses for returning to your old habits (even when these habits may be contributing to LBP or other disorders).
A certain amount of conscious effort is therefore necessary in order to re-position the body and keep it there – until it learns to automatically maintain this new position on its own. This is not unlike the extra conscious effort necessary to break any well worn habit such as smoking or driving on the side of the road that ‘feels right’ in countries where they drive on the opposite side.
MUBA tests help strengthen our resolve to practice because:
they correct any tendency to unconsciously ‘wander back into old habits’ (which in my experience happens to everyone during the first period of practice), and
every time we compare elevated with oppressed standing (using the tests) we are once again reminded of the true differences in function.
If you persevere with this you will discover that a little temporary discomfort is a very small price to pay for the many health and performance benefits that true elevated standing (and sitting, moving, etc) gives you access to.
If you read “Sitting 101″ then I hope you are curious to know how to stand truly elevated, i.e. in a manner that is easy, light and energising, and that also lessens the load on the neck, shoulders and lower back. The problem today is that many attempts to ‘lift the body’ fail because they unwittingly lead to oppressed use.
Standing elevated is actually very easy IF you understand the way different choices of balance affect the body. To understand elevated standing it is important that we acknowledge the difference between standing correctly balanced over the front or balls of the feet and standing incorrectly balanced over the middle of the feet or over the heels. Unfortunately most of us (including most medical experts and personal trainers) have never been taught to make this distinction - unless we play sports like basketball. Only then do we all seem to agree that you have to stand and move from the balls of the feet because this is what enhances the coordination and control needed to be able to react and move quickly.
Standing is a little more complicated than sitting because the upper body must also be correctly balanced over the legs, which themselves may be correctly or incorrectly positioned.
Oppressed standing occurs when the weight of the whole body is over the middle of the feet or heels and the weight of the upper body is allowed to shift backwards so that the pelvis starts to tip backwards. The support along the front of the chest is weakened causing the shoulders and head fall forwards. The arms become less connected with the whole body which is why extra effort to carry or control things has then to be made from the shoulders and upper back. It is the long term use of the arms in ‘disconnected mode’ that leads to the accumulation of tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back that then causes discomfort, stiffness, pain and eventually disability.
No amount of ‘pulling the shoulders back’ or ‘straightening the back’ will correct the tendency to collapse or the need to ‘work from the shoulders’, because these ‘corrections’ are too shallow (which is why they have to be repeated thousands of times ad infinitum). Nor will treatment of the muscles and joints correct the way the WHOLE body is balanced and directed, even if treatments undoubtedly do provide relief. These interventions fail most often to cure the aches and pains caused by misuse because they do not address the basic mechanism that governs the way oppressed standing is created and maintained.
To get into elevated standing try the following:
1. begin by standing normally, with your weight distributed equally on both feet, which should be spaced naturally apart and not together or wide apart
2. go up on your toes – this will lengthen your body naturally; if you wish you can imagine that you are trying to look over a fence
3. keep yourself tall (maintain your length) and come down SLOWLY.
4. when your heels touch the ground STOP WITHOUT DEVIATING, i.e. without shifting your body weight backwards; the whole under-surface of your feet should be in contact with the ground, BUT your body weight should be centred over the front or balls of the feet only.
5. repeat this sequence a few times and observe very carefully; if you discover any tendency to shift backwards after the heels touch the ground then repeat until this is eliminated; in the end you should be able to go directly up and down without any lateral movement
If you have access to someone who knows how to do MUBA testing then you will be able to confirm that this standing is very stable and strong and also very secure.
If you cannot test this standing posture then you will either feel good about standing like this – it will feel light and easy – or you won’t. If you don’t then it is very likely that you have have some questions. For example:
· why do you feel as if you are leaning forwards, or even about to fall forwards?
· why do your calves feel tense?
· why do your feet start to ache?
· why does it feel as if your whole body is making extra effort to stand like this?
Because oppressed and elevated use are fundamentally opposite strategies it requires a little patience as well as tolerance for the fact that your body will probably complain a little (just as it will if you go to a gym for the first time in a number of years). I’ll explain more about this in more detail in the next article. In the meantime have a go and see what happens and at the same time consider the following: current thinking about posture and body use, most often based on plumb line alignment, ‘straight back thinking’, and middle of feet or heel standing (or sitting bone sitting) is reflected directly in the oppressed use (and associated disorders) that far too many of us are struggling to escape from.
The irony of this is that this thinking - that contradicts our efforts to use the body in a strong and healthy manner - is the thinking that is most often referenced and encouraged by health experts all round the world – including manual therapists, ergonomists, rehabilitation specialists, personal trainers and even researchers and doctors.
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Over the years I have met and coached hundreds of people who train at gyms, including Personal Trainers and health specialists. Almost all of them had learned to keep their backs straight, shoulders back, etc. as well as keep their weight over their sitting bones (or over heels or middle of feet) when exercising. And yet despite regular exercise and despite continuous attempts to maintain ‘correct posture’ and ‘correct balance’, many still suffered from lower back pain (LBP), shoulder pain and/or neck pain.
What nobody had ever explained to these people was how the above ways of balancing and holding the back and body would create the oppressed body use and oppressed postures that not only weaken the body but also help to maintain or even exacerbate aches and pains in the lower back, shoulders and neck.
This weakening of the body occurs in gyms (and other places, such as offices and factories) because the difference between oppressed and elevated use of body is not yet sufficiently understood.
Unfortunately, the general belief today is that strong, elevated sitting postures are created by ‘keeping the back straight’ or by keeping the body ‘plumb line aligned’ and balanced over the sitting bones.
But this is not true, and this is the root of our dilemma. The best sitting posture is achieved when the body is balanced onthe thighs, just in front of the sitting bones, because this is the position that invokes natural elevation, where the body is strongest and most stable and at the same time most relaxed.
The surest way to sort out the ‘recipes’ that really do created elevated use from those that don’t is by testing the function of a posture (MUBA). That is, by testing the way it works when subjected to loads that threaten to distort it and then assessing the control exerted to prevent distortion – is . Unfortunately recipes for ‘good posture’ based on plumb line alignment or ‘keeping your back straight’, etc. fail these tests consistently, because the ability to maintain mechanical cohesion is automatically weakened the moment this thinking is applied.
If you have tried the exercises I described in Sitting 101 you might like to try the same thing at your gym. That is, compare exercising while sitting oppressed with exercising while sitting elevated. Don’t be surprised if you find that exercising from an elevated posture feels much stronger and easier compared with exercising from an oppressed posture. The difference varies from person to person but a 15-20% power gain is not unusual.
Anyone can make this often dramatic shift and since most people use the body in an oppressed manner (even at gyms), most of us have everything to gain by exploring this matter a little further.
Then, when you have found that you do get 15-20% more power it might be worth asking your gym manager for a corresponding reduction in membership fee.
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Tired of sitting and aching? Tired of trying to sit straight? Tired of being told to keep your back straight? Then stop trying to keep yourself ‘properly aligned’ and learn instead to balance your body correctly – so that sitting becomes easy!
I’m kicking off this blog with sitting because sitting comfortably (in any chair) really is very, very easy – once you sort out the conceptual confusion that causes us to struggle.
Much of the struggle we have with sitting can be directly related to the way we are taught to use the body – most often in a stiff and unnatural manner involving various ways of keeping the back straight or body statically aligned, that actually weaken and de-stabilise the body instead of strengthening it.
- elevated sitting – OK
- oppressed sitting – NOT OK (avoid at all costs!)
- leaning or lying – OK
Elevated sitting means sitting correctly balanced (not using a backrest), so that the body is automatically held up and so that no extra conscious effort is necessary to ‘keep the back straight’ or the body (plumb line) aligned. When you sit correctly balanced the weight of the upper body is directed towards the front of the pelvis. This keeps the spine free from unnecessary pressure, allowing it to relax and remain flexible, even when sitting still. It also keeps the thorax open so that the diaphragm can move freely and deeply. When correctly balanced the body is automatically pushed up, rendering all habitual attempts to ‘hold the body up’ or ‘straight’ completely unnecessary.
Elevated sitting is easy to find:
1) start by sitting on your sitting bones
2) tip your whole upper body forwards, so that your upper body weight shifts onto your thighs, just in front of your sitting bones
3) stop the moment you feel the pressure on your sitting bones ease off
4) don’t try and ‘improve your posture’ by straightening your back, pulling back your shoulders, pulling in your stomach, etc. This will just mess things up. Just sit still and relax without collapsing.
If you find the right position (point of balance), you will find that elevated sitting is very restful. You will be able to sit still and remain calm because your body, being light, won’t disturb itself.
Oppressed sitting means sitting balanced incorrectly, i.e. with your upper body weight on or behind your sitting bones, so that the lumbar spine flattens and the upper body starts to collapse into the all familiar C-shaped posture that many people display in their daily lives (with rounded shoulders and head thrust forwards). This collapse has to be counteracted using conscious physical and mental effort to help ‘pull the body up’. Oppressed sitting is oppressed because the upper body bears down upon itself - even when this is ‘corrected’ by consciously pulling the body up. Oppressed sitting not only puts a strain on the spine, neck and shoulders, but also restricts the function of the inner organs and diaphragm.
Oppressed sitting is also easy to create:
1) balance yourself on or behind your sitting bones and notice the way your body ‘wants’ to move downwards
2) try ‘sitting up and keeping your back straight’ and after a while you’ll notice how you gradually let go as you get tired or get involved in your work, only to find you have collapsed again. Then you’ll have to pull your body up again…and then…
Leaning or lying means using the backrest to support the upper body. We know that this works, but still some people feel guilty about doing it (because they had ‘sitting up’ drummed into them). Interestingly, recent research confirms that 135 degree leaning is best for the spine. The same research concludes too that good old 90 degree sitting upright puts the greatest strain on the spine (read more about this here). This research does not however differentiate between sitting upright elevated and sitting upright oppressed.
If you try elevated sitting as I have described above there is a good chance that you will feel it is too far forwards. As a result you may be tempted to correct this by pulling your body backwards until you find the balance that you are familiar with. If you succumb to this ‘correction’ then nothing will change and there will be nothing new for us to discuss. So, for the time being, just sit still and give your body a chance to ‘try on’ this posture, even if it does feel a bit strange.
Because it may feel ‘wrong’ I recommend testing the function of the posture, by subjecting it to a physical loading test (see MUBA). This is more reliable than judging ‘straightness’ (which really doesn’t tell you anything useful) because it evaluates your ability to maintain the mechanical cohesion necessary for maintaining comfort and natural use over longer periods of time (which is what most of us are looking for).
In this particular exercise you can ask a friend to push you from the front, while you remain focused on sitting still (i.e. not focused on wilfully pushing back). The push should be made against the top of the breast bone. Make contact first, then push and feel the response by maintaining contact (i.e. don’t shove or prod).
If you are seated correctly and if you are not trying to ‘keep your back straight’, then when you are tested you will feel immediately that this posture works very well. I.e. you will feel, despite the force in the push, that you can easily keep your posture and that it feels immensely stable and strong, and yet at the same time very relaxed and calm. Don’t be surprised if you start smiling while you are being tested – the unified response you are experiencing is usually perceived as very positive. If you then do the same test when seated on your sitting bones and/or with your back straight (stiffened), then your friend will be able to push you backwards – even if you make additional effort to prevent this from happening.
A second test, administered from above onto the shoulders (the person testing stands behind), will also reveal that elevated sitting is structurally very stable (strongly held up) and that oppressed sitting is weaker (i.e. less able to carry the load).
If you do not have the opportunity to test in this manner, then for the time being trust that what I am saying really does work. Give it a chance and do your best. Find the correct balance, relax your back and upper body and sit still for a few minutes. Give your body time to get used to this position so that you can evaluate it more thoroughly. Sitting ‘more forwards than usual’ when sitting elevated is not unlike driving a car on the other side of the road in a foreign country. It’s right to drive on the ‘wrong’ side and that’s why it feels wrong – until a few days have passed, when it stops feeling wrong and starts to feel right!
Until next time read more about elevated and oppressed sitting here. See then if you can work out what you need to do to avoid oppressed sitting. If you crack this then you will be well on your way to making sitting a thousand times easier than you could ever have imagined!