True and False Teachings about Good Posture

While "good posture" is considered a sign of good movement health, there are true and false teachings about how to achieve it.

The popular view of good posture is that it is something you have to maintain; it's a "good" holding pattern.  The concepts, "neutral spine position" and "alignment", fall into this category.  "Shoulders back, chest up, stomach in" are typical instructions for maintaining good posture.

The popular view and the typical instructions I have described constitutes a false teaching about good posture -- and by false, I mean detrimental.

Here's why:  It adds strain to an already strained muscular system and unnaturally restrains movement.

The common teaching about good posture assumes that good posture is not the natural or free condition and that one must therefore do something to maintain it. This view may seem reasonable and inevitable; "If you don't do something to maintain good posture, you're left with the poor posture you had, already."

But an unrecognized truth underlies this assumption:  Most people are beset by habitual muscular tension patterns that drag them down from good posture, tension patterns of which they are unaware because they are so used to them, tension patterns formed at the time of injuries or of emotional stress (i.e., nervous tension).

In actuality, good posture is the easiest condition to maintain -- if you are free of habitual tension patterns.  If not, then you must do something to counteract those tension patterns, to restore good posture.  That's the condition most people are in.

This assertion may be hard to accept until you have experienced the reality of what happens when you get free of your habitual tension state.

Massage and bodywork typically seek to alleviate habitual tension, but with rare exception, they do not alter a person's postural set because to do so would require a second step:  to develop better coordination.

Coordination is the basis of good movement, good posture, good alignment.

Posture, viewed another way, results from moving into a certain shape and holding it.  It's a function of movement.

Most movements are developed by learning.  So is posture.

The difference is that injuries and stress change movement patterns in lasting ways that are commonly beyond the ability of people to change; these movement patterns persist on automatic.  That's why teachings about posture recommend counter-actions to those movement patterns.

So, what's the answer?  Are we forever destined to poor and worsening posture as we grow older?

The answer is, no.  But what is needed is a way to undo habitual muscular tensions formed by injuries and stress, not to counteract them (either through "good posture" disciplines or through strengthening of muscles).

Such a way exists.  The discipline of clinical somatic education teaches and employs exactly such a way.

All animals with a backbone do a certain action instinctually upon arising from rest, as they become active.  This action, commonly mistaken for stretching, involves a strong muscular contraction followed by a leisurely relaxation; different animals have different patterns, but all do it in some form.  This action pattern called, "pandiculation", refreshes the brain's body image and purges accumulated tension. Birds do it by shrugging their wings back, reaching their legs back, one at a time, and then flapping their wings; cats and dogs do it by first bowing, arching their back, and then shaking.  Humans do it in the natural "yawn and morning stretch" (different in performance from the calf or hamstring stretches athletes do).

Clinical somatic education uses techniques that activate this genetically-present action behavior methodically and in a magnified way to free people from the grip of tension patterns formed by injury and stress.  In the case of clinical somatic education, we apply the contraction/relaxation behavior to places where the person holds tension; with injuries and stress, these tensions always exist in patterns, so it's not a matter of "releasing muscles", but of releasing entire patterns of tension.  The result is a lasting release of muscular tension.  Then, we teach movement patterns that link muscle groups together in certain inherently well-organized patterns of coordination, to replace less well-organized pathological patterns.  It's a lower-effort, easier, more efficient condition of living.

No longer is the person dragged down from good posture by habitual muscular tension.  (S)he is free to stand and move at her or his full stature and in the easy balance that free and well-coordinated movement permits.

The results of pandiculation distinguish the good posture of freedom from tension from the 'good posture' maintained by pitting one muscle group (used to maintain good posture) from other muscle groups (held tight by the lingering effects of injury and stress).

Easy balance is the natural state, whether at rest or in movement.  Good posture isn't something you maintain; it's nearly effortless, the product of good balance and good coordination.

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Read a research article on pandiculation.

To see and hear how we apply pandiculation to back trouble, view Back Exercises for Lower Back Pain.  See other examples of pandiculation instruction in the somatic exercises shown on YouTube channel "Lawrence9Gold".

Read articles on movement health conditions, such as sciatica, stress conditions, such as headaches, and on postural distortions, such as unequal leg length, at Somatics on the Web

Core Exercises -- What is Core?

A common misconception exists about core exercises or core workouts -- even, or particularly, among some athletic trainers.  The misunderstanding of which I speak is, "What is 'core'?"

Commonly the muscles of the abdominal wall are considered, "core".  This is incorrect.  Those muscles are surface, the way the skin of an apple is surface to the apple core.

The core muscles are the deepest muscles; they lie closest to the bone (or body center) and exert the greatest control of balance and coordination.  Among them, the psoas muscles, the quadratus lumborum, the diaphragm, in the the trunk, and the scalene muscles of the neck and the muscles of swallowing in the throat, as examples -- all of which affect spinal alignment, and thereby, balance.  Strength is not their primary contribution, and so the notion of "core strengthening" is inherently misguided.

What is sought through core strengthening is usually stability, but stability doesn't come from strength; it comes from balance.

Balance is a consequence of close coordination between opposing muscles and between muscles and their synergists (helpers).

When a person gets musclebound, as often happens in physical conditioning programs and in cases of injury, close coordination gets distorted, as one muscle or muscle group overpowers another.

Easy balance is impossible when one is in that condition; the person is inherently unstable and muscle tone must shift throughout the body to compensate for those imbalanced in a less-easy stability.

More than that, a person cannot strengthen what they cannot feel, and one can't feel the core if one muscle group overpowers the other.  The core can be sensed only when muscles are closely coordinated in a condition of easy, dynamic balance.

Even if core strengthening exercises give equal attention to strengthening all muscles in the (supposed) core group, they don't necessarily give attention to both freeing musclebound muscles and developing balanced (i.e., equal) control/coordination of all of those muscles.

More than that, if muscles of the peripheries of the body, e.g., legs, arms, neck, are musclebound or poorly coordinated, they cause unbalancing pulls from the peripheries of the body to the core.  They cause instability that cannot be corrected by core strengthening; they can be corrected only by restoring suppleness and balance among opposing muscles and among muscular synergists (mutual helpers).

So, approaches at core conditioning must have the following two elements present:
  • alleviating musclebound conditioning
  • developing balanced coordination
That said, I'd like to point you to an example of a core conditioning program that does just that: called, "The Five-Pointed Star", one of a number of programs people use to alleviate pain, to recover from injury, and to cultivate balance and suppleness.

Another program that has garnered special interest concerns the psoas muscles, Free Your Psoas, also has that effect.  Recognizing that the peripheries affect the core, this program presents a whole-body approach to freeing and integrating the psoas muscles.

Articles on psoas muscle functioning can be found at Somatics on the Web (somatics.com).  Other core-workout programs can be found there, as well.

RELEVANT ENTRIES:

Psoas Muscles | Core Integration | Free Somatic Exercise: The Dolphin, Part I

Psoas Muscles | Core Integration | The Dolphin, Part II