Good posture tips are floating all around online. The problem is, most of them don’t address how to maintain good posture while sitting. And with back pain on the rise for so many people, knowing the basics of sitting isn’t just about looking tall and confident. It’s about reducing chronic back pain, having more energy, and feeling good inside your body.
That’s why I’ve put together this comprehensive “Basics of Sitting” guide. Because more than just loading you up with good posture tips, I want to give you the foundation for proper posture and pain-free sitting.
Before we jump into it, first maybe we should discuss WHY we need a post that covers the basic of sitting – and why it’s at the foundation of all my good posture tips.
I mean, isn’t sitting so obvious?
The truth is a lot of people are doing some major damage to their body and experiencing some unnecessary pain from sitting poorly. These next few posts will focus on that most basic-of-basic daily action of sitting. But before we can jump into the actual “sitting” part, it’s time to take a look at the “main players” involved.
Basics of Sitting: What is involved?
Ideally, sitting requires a flexion (coming closer together in the Sagittal Plane) action at three joints:
- The Hips
- The Knees
- The Ankles
The knees and ankles pretty much just follow the lead of the hip. And whether it’s conscious or not, a lot of problems come from a misunderstanding of the hip joint. So… let’s take a look at it.
I will often ask my students, as a group, to close their eyes and point to their “hips.” These are the most common responses I get:
This is probably the most typical answer, which is understandable. When I was young I was told that these bony places just below the waist are my “hip bones.” These are actually landmarks on the pelvis known as the Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (ASIS).
This is another answer, not quite as popular as the first. With the image of an “hourglass” figure, it’s not too surprising that some people think the widest spot would be the location of our hips. (After all, if you are measuring your “hips” this is where you are told to wrap that tape measure around.)
This is the least common response, but I have seen it nonetheless. Unsure what the “hip” really is, some people just point to a general area, hoping the answer lies somewhere around it.
This is where an important distinction must be made. For many, the concept of “hip” denotes an area of the body (and in certain contexts that is true). Beyond the mass that generally gets lumped into our idea of the hip region lies the actual HIP JOINT. (A joint is the location at which two or more bones make contact—in this instance the femur and the pelvis.)
So why does this matter?
If you hold the idea, whether you are aware of it or not, that your hip joint is somewhere it isn’t, you may find yourself using different parts of your body (like part of your spine) to perform the role your hips were intended to perform. More on this later.
So where is the hip?
The hip joint is the place where the head of the Femur meets the Acetabulum.
Take a look at the anatomy of the pelvis and upper leg. Most people are usually surprised to see how much lower and closer to the midline the hips really are.
So where does that translate to us fleshy people? Please excuse the somewhat awkwardness of this next photo:
Your hip joint is a lower and closer to your mid-line.
I’ll address the actual “sitting” part in the next post. In the meantime, get to know your body a little better (specifically the hip joint) by trying the following:
Whether you can sense it in your own body, or see it in someone else, notice where the movement is initiating as you walk, sit down, or climb stairs. Do you notice a tendency to swing the leg from the outside of your leg or is there a connection from the inside? Does movement start at that low level of the hip or is it happening a few inches higher?
Move your hip joint. Consider the roundness of the head of your femur and the concavity of the acetabulum (the place where it articulates with the pelvis). Your hip is a true ball and socket joint which means it has a wide repertoire of movement possibilities. Notice what it feels like to explore the actions of the leg as it moves free in the hip socket.
The average person uses that pure femoral flexion action (aka: bending the hip) countless times in a day. Taking the time to better sense your own movement will not only give you a better respect for what your body can do—it is also a great step toward more efficient and graceful movement.
Good Posture/Bad Posture
Are you sitting with bad posture? I mean… like, right now? How are you sitting?
I like to people watch. I admit that freely. As a movement analyst it comes with the territory. I do my best not to analyze people I know (unless they ask me to), but I get a kick out of watching strangers–which I do frequently. I have been fascinated with the way people sit for a long time. (I know, I’m a nerd.) And since our world is becoming increasingly more sedentary, it is important to understand what all those hours of sitting can do to our bodies.
I want to talk about some of the most common issues I see. These are the most frequent signs you are sitting with bad posture.
One of the most common “issues” for people who tend to sit with bad posture, is the tendency to “tuck under.”
Check it out:
Remember how I said the hips played an important role in sitting? In the above instance, I’m not really using my hip joint to create a nice angle where my legs can bend and my spine can be free. Instead, I’ve curved my spine so that I am sitting on my sacrum. This leads to a strain in my lower back (not to mention a complete lack of core support—see my guts, they’re just “hanging out there”). You’ll also notice that my line of gravity (as denoted by the three red dots) is not really lined up.
Of course, sitting like this won’t kill you. And sometimes it’s good to change positions and let your body stretch. However, if you find yourself sitting here most of the time there is a good chance you will experience back pain (if you don’t already).
Let’s talk about the spine for a moment.
There are three really basic observations that you should be aware of:
A healthy spine has CURVES.
A straight spine is a dangerous thing. (If you want to know why, ask me and I will tell you.) If you are sitting with a tucked under pelvis, the integrity of the lumbar curve is dramatically thrown off. And when you change one curve, you affect the entire spine.
The spine is connected to the pelvis.
The fused joints of the sacrum and the connected coccyx (tailbone) create a bridge that connects the posterior “wings” of the pelvis.
The spine is connected to the head.
Again, tension or problems in any one of the three components (spine, head, or pelvis) will affect the entire spine. (And seeing how your spine is home to your spinal cord, the health of your spine affects your nervous system… which, yes, affects your whole body.)
Along with the picture above, there are two other common “ways of sitting” that I have often witnessed:
This one I refer to as the “forward head problem.” This definitely falls under the “sitting with bad posture” label. We are in a world where our attention is increasingly channeled straight ahead, usually at some sort of screen. Rather than letting whatever object we are looking at come to our eyes, we find ourselves straining our head forward to see. As you can tell, this affects the entire spine and pulls off our line of gravity again. We will have a hard time releasing our shoulders with this going on—thus most people who do this experience tense shoulders, neck, and (yup, you guessed it) back pain.
The final “common issue” I see involves less of the spine then it does the muscles that attach to it. Trying to “levitate” or pull ourselves up is a major problem. Not only do you look afraid (as you should be), but the constant contraction of the muscles of the shoulder girdle is exhausting to say the very least.
Sometimes this is a result of a desk that is too high that makes us we feel we have to “lift our arms” to do our work. If this is the case, consider sitting on a phone book or a balance disk (which will also help with core support). And always try to release (don’t push) downward as you are sitting. Consider Newton’s law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you release down in the chair/earth, the chair/earth can push back. When the earth pushes back we will experience a beautiful lengthened posture through the intelligent design of the skeletal/muscular system’s tensile forces.
Does sitting “right” ever feel…painful?
When I was in my teens, I remember encouraging my younger brother to have “good posture.” We’d be in church and I would sit up tall, look at him, and make a “I’m sitting taller than you” look. He’d roll his eyes and then grumble something under his breath as he would sit up as tall as he could. Since he is over 6’ tall it wasn’t hard for him to “sit taller” than me. However, after maybe ten seconds of trying to be good, he’d sigh and then sink back into his slumped posture. (I’m happy to report that he cares a lot more these days about his posture.)
Why does sitting with good posture hurt for some?
The truth is that if we are used to sitting poorly it can be really exhausting or uncomfortable to sit “right.” We have so many preconceived notions about what “good posture” really is.
So what does good posture “look” like? Well, I don’t know if this is the BEST example, but it’s the best I got:
Sitting with Good Posture
Sitting with good posture happens when you are folding at the hip joint (rather than “tucking under”) so that your spine is free. The line of gravity (as marked by the red dots) lines up so that your ears are roughly over your shoulders and your shoulders should dissect your hips (again, thinking of the joint, not necessarily the “fleshy mass.”) Another great indicator is to consider your “sitz” bones on your pelvis. The two rounded protuberances are our natural “seat.”
Pretty basic, right?
The problem is: If we view posture as a static position, we start to bind our flow by contracting our muscles to “hold the shape.” We usually stop breathing, which among other things decreases our ability to find our core support. We start pulling our energy inward, which as it turns out, is really exhausting.
If we can view our alignment as dynamic (or changing) then we are in a whole new game. Here are some of the things that help me keep my posture alive instead of dead.
Good Posture Tips
Find an image.
Whether it’s lines of energy, flowing streams of water, or whatever—finding an image that creates subtle motion is a great way to “let go.” Consider the downward release of energy into the earth and the buoyant spring back from the earth—creating a constant exchange of flow and energy.
Even if you practice good posture all the time, nobody should sit all day. Spiral the spine. Dance around. Get up, walk, bend over, arch the back, look at the ceiling. Here is a great 2 1/2 minute clip you can follow right now to feel more energized while at your computer.
Let it come to you.
If you are looking at a computer, reading a book, visiting with a friend, or just watching TV–rather than straining your eyes forward, imagine the image coming up to meet your gaze. Allow the back of your head to be aware of the space behind you from time to time.
Practice your best bobble head.
Making sure your neck isn’t “locked” into a strained position with your neck, try jostling the head around in tiny movements to encourage a free head/neck relationship.
What I love most about “proper” sitting is that it immediately makes me feel more energized, alert, and connected. Sitting with good posture is enlivening! My core is engaged instead of “hanging out.” And I am more aware of how my body works and recuperates.
Ready to take it to the next level?
Forget good posture tips – if you want to really recharge your body and restore your natural (beautiful) movement habits then listen up. I’ve been training individuals just like you for years. I’m ready to help you feel comfortable in your own skin, reduce chronic tension, and feel beautiful from the Inside Out. Check out my online training program here to learn how.