Posture – Why Your Back Hurts

updating imageWe’re all born with near-perfect postural alignment. Watch a toddler walk, stand, reach overhead and squat and you’ll see tremendous mobility and safe strong joints.

It’s pretty much downhill from there.

North American culture has us spending an inordinate amount of time in the sitting position. A great deal of time and effort goes into preventing us from expending, well, time and effort when it comes to moving around in our daily lives. Items on shelves are always within arms reach, if we have to move very far we hop on an escalator, an elevator or get in our cars; and a job that involves spending much time on one’s feet or lifting something heavier than twenty pounds is considered “strenuous.”

Over the course of a lifetime, people tend to develop postural imbalances. Much of this is due to the chair-bound culture. The head tends to drift forward into the dreaded “turtle head” posture; the lower back sways into a position known as lordosis, the upper back hunches forward, the scapulae wing out, the upper arms rotate internally and the palms end up facing backwards like Fred Flintstone, the knees get wobbly and the hips get tight, and the ankles become stiff and crunchy.

No part of the body functions in isolation. The entire body is connected through a variety of means.

A Symphony, Not a Solo

Muscles do not contract individually; they do so in a synchronized fashion, like a symphony. If you bend down and pick your kid off the floor, a chain of muscular contractions from your feet all the way through your arms occurs in order to make that happen. When the body has a postural imbalance, these “kinetic chains” are forced to be directed through an inefficient and potentially harmful series of muscular contractions.

Likewise, the joints all function in a synchronous manner. Some joints are meant to be stable, meaning that their main purpose is to restrict undesirable motion. Other joints are meant to be mobile, meaning that they are meant to allow desirable motion. The shoulder, (gleno-humeral joint) is meant to be mobile and has a large range of motion. The knee, however, is meant to be stable and only moves in a very specific direction, through a specific range. Muscular imbalances and inefficient kinetic chains tend to hinder the mobility and stability of the joints

The Mobility-Stability Continuum

The joints are referred as existing on what is called the Mobility-Stability Continuum. This is because the joints alternate in fashion. The ankle should be mobile, the knee should be stable, the hip should be mobile, etc.

Here’s the outline:

  • Joint — Need
  • Foot — Stability
  • Ankle — Mobility
  • Knee — Stability
  • Hip — Mobility
  • Lumbar Spine — Stability
  • Thoracic Spine — Mobility
  • Scapula — Stability
  • Gleno-Humeral Joint — Mobility
  • Elbow — Stability

Most of the postural problems common in North Americans are due to the reversal of this continuum. When a mobile joint becomes less so, the joints above and below it increase in mobility in order to compensate. Likewise, when a stable joint becomes looser, the joints above and below it will become more stiff.

One of the most prominent examples of this is within the hips and lumbar spine. The rotational range of motion of each vertebrae of the lumbar spine is only about one to two degrees. Going beyond that invites injury. The thoracic spine, however, which is located in the upper portion of the back, has vertebrae capable of up to 9 degrees of rotation per segment. The hips, meaning the joint between the femur and the pelvis are also highly mobile.

The average North American, due to the limited physicality in their daily lives and the amount of time spent hunched over in chairs, develops limited range of motion within their hips and thoracic spine. The lumbar spine becomes more mobile in order to compensate and endangers itself. This is a major part of the reason lower back pain and damaged lumbar discs are so common.

A mobile lumbar spine is not only an injury waiting to happen; it “leaks” energy during any athletic movement and makes the athlete weaker.

The root cause of imbalanced joints is muscles on one side of the joint that are too loose and weak while muscles on the other side of the joint are too tight and constantly under excessive tension.

Two Major Culprits:

Hip Flexors

Two of the biggest culprits are the hip flexors and the muscles of the upper back, particularly those which retract the scapulae (shoulder blades).

Due to the amount of time spent in the sitting position, the hip flexor muscles become increasingly tight. Due to a neurological phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition, when a muscle contracts the muscle on the opposite side of the joint relaxes. In the case of tight hip flexors, the primary muscle that gets shut down is the glutes, aka your butt.

Now, when you go to pick up your kid off the floor, the aforementioned kinetic chain must work past weak, neurologically inhibited glutes in order to transfer force. It does so by increasing the amount of force directed through the muscles above and below the weakened muscle in the kinetic chain. These muscles are the hamstrings and muscles of the lower back.

In addition, many people develop a compensation for weak glutes in which they shift the kinetic chain anteriorly, putting their bodyweight onto their toes and lifting their body first by using their quads to extend (straighten) their knee, and then using their over-worked lumbar muscles to hyperextend the lower back.

Think about it: how many athletes have you heard of tearing a hamstring or a quad during a sprint? Now how many times in your life have you ever heard of someone straining their glutes? What about the lower back? I bet you can think of just maybe one or two people who have overly tight lower backs.

Consider what this eventually does to your glutes. They weaken and atrophy. This isn’t just bad for athletic performance and health. It means you don’t look so good naked, either. How many times have you ever heard a woman say, “I really wish my butt wasn’t so gosh-darned firm! Why can’t it just be saggy and flabby like everyone else’s?”

Scapular Retractors

The second major culprit in flawed posture is the musculature of the upper back. Americans are hunched over in desks or chairs all day and attention-thus the arms-is typically directed straight ahead. The muscles of the chest are chronically tight and shortened, while the muscles of the upper back are chronically weak and lengthened. This pulls the shoulders forward and causes the arms to rotate internally.

The Pencil Test

Try this test: Hold a pencil in either hand with the pointy end facing your thumb. While standing, casually drop your hands to your sides as you normally would. The degree of tightness in your chest and the resulting imbalance in your shoulders will determine where the pencils point. If they point straight forward, congratulations, you have great posture. If you just stabbed yourself in the thighs, it means that your humeri (upper arm bones) are severely internally rotated and your shoulders are in a dangerous position.

Having the shoulders pulled forward in this way tends to cause the scapulae (shoulder blades) to wing outwards.

The Back-Slide Test

Here’s another test. Have someone pass their hand across your upper back. If they could touch your spine at all, your shoulder blades are pulled drastically forward. Ideally, someone should be able to pass their hand across your back and feel only an empty space between your shoulder blades where your spine is.

Having the upper arms rotated and the shoulder blades constantly winged out places the muscle of the upper back into a constantly lengthened, weakened position. Just like the glutes, they start to weaken and atrophy. As this happens, the upper spine is pulled further forward into a hunch by the dominant muscles of the chest. This is known as kyphosis.

In order to maintain balance and keep your head looking forward, the cervical spine (your neck) must now pitch forward and curve more drastically. This is the posture referred to in scientific circles as “Turtle Head.”

This hunched back position tends to worsen itself over time, as it becomes increasingly difficult to retract the shoulder blades down and in over the top of a hunched spine. This creates a worsening cycle of weakened muscles followed by a more drastic hunch and worsened shoulder alignment.

It Starts At the Foot

Postural flaws go all the way down to the feet. Another problem that develops over time is weakened, unstable feet that result from a lifetime of being encased in shoes that may as well be plaster casts. This weakens the muscles and joints of the feet in the same way that wearing a cast on your arm year-round would weaken that arm

A book by Simon J. Wikler, D.S.C. cites a study comparing the differences in children who were permitted by their mothers to go barefoot occasionally during childhood and those who were strictly prohibited from doing so. He found that children who sometimes forewent shoes had: “Less deformed toes, greater flexor strength, more ability to spread the toes, denser muscles on the bottom of the feet and greater agility than those who had never gone barefoot, plus a wider range of hip circumduction and more flexibility of the gluteal and hamstring muscles, which gave them more ability to touch their toes when their knees were held stiff.”

Being that the foot is the first joint in the stability-mobility continuum and that it is supposed to be stable, weakening it can lead to a host of problems all the way up the body. Weak, loose feet lead to excessively tight ankles, which lead to weaker, looser knees, which can cause tight hips, etc.

This doesn’t mean that you have to forego footwear altogether and spend the rest of your life walking around the office barefoot and braving the broken glass in the parking lot, but you can enable your feet to function as they were designed to by using footwear that is less restricting. Nike Frees, Vibram Five Fingers, and Vivo Barefoot footwear are all examples of shoes that do a great job of simulating being barefoot while still offering some degree of protection from temperature and broken whiskey bottles.

Stop using shoes with giant pads in the heels. The ones with little shocks are even worse. Your body was not meant to function this way. Try running barefoot through your yard or down the hallway and pay attention to the way your feet land. Your body is meant to absorb shock through the balls of the feet, then the ankle, then the knee. Landing on the heel and relying on your shoes to absorb shock is a complete affront to natural biomechanics and weakens and potentially injures the joints while promoting imbalances. One need only look at the exceedingly low injury rates among Kenyan and Tarahumara runners who frequently dominate the world’s distance running competitions while seldom wearing shoes to see real-world proof of this concept.

Summing Up

In conclusion, the daily life of the typical North American puts one at risk for a comprehensive variety of postural flaws. A good deal of the programming in the Barefoot Fitness system is designed to correct these flaws and promote long term health and performance.

To this end, as a member of Barefoot Fitness, you will frequently hear cues to do things such as pull your shoulder blades back and down, use your glutes to drive a movement, keep the sternum high, tightly brace your abs, etc. These cues are all crucial for producing and developing good posture, which is an all-important factor in the way your body eventually looks, feels and performs

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About Craig Weller 5 Articles

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The lifestyle of Special Operations and the unconventional “Accomplish the Mission By Any Means Necessary” mentality led Craig to develop his unique philosophy of physical training, which, as an instructor, he used to train other Spec Ops Forces on three different continents in highly austere conditions.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness.

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