Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Chairs: a necessary evil.
After all this time sitting on earth, humans still haven’t managed to master their design. Wheely office dealies, consuming couches, porcelain thrones, bar stools, La-Z-Boys…no matter what chair I find myself in, sitting for too long results in pins and needles in my butt and a Quasimodo status hunch. The fact of the matter is that we didn’t evolve to sit comfortably in chairs. Unfortunately, deep-seated bad habits can lead not only to acute pain and discomfort, but ultimately to chronic changes in our connective tissue (neuromyofascia), ill functioning muscles, severed nerves and the like. We are turning into a chair-shaped society…How can we take a seat without the seat taking us? If sitting is inevitable, let’s learn to do it right. First we have know what the spine wants, then we have to learn to keep it there. Let’s learn to sit like a champs… The most important factor in understanding proper sitting mechanics is understanding the function and integration, fundamentally, of the spine. Imagine the spine as a tent pole with three main sections. This tent pole is staked into your pelvis through the lumbar spine, which, continues upwards up to the thoracic spine (midback and ribcage) and eventually connects neck and head through the cervical spine. The spine, like a tent pole, can take pressure and bend from all directions, but it is most natural and baseline when stacked and aligned.
To get a feel for the connection between segments, try this simple exercise. Start by sitting up straight without any back support and gently rocking your pelvis forward and backward without any particular effort to keep the spine neutral. Small movements, just enough to feel your ishial tuberosities (pokey parts on the bottom your pelvis) against the chair. Rock the pelvis as far back as you can and note how the low back rounds and your chest falls. Now reverse the motion, tilting the pelvis forward. Note the tension and arch in the low back with the rising of the chest. Can you feel how the base of the spine guides the course of the upper two segments. It acts as a sort of postural rudder. Ideally in a proper seat, the pelvis is neutral, the ribs are over the hips and head between the shoulders. Our smartphone generation has a nasty habit of breaking the connection of these segments by jutting the head forward and down. Every inch of forward head posture can increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds. Not only does this cause abnormal compression on the vertebrae, it destroys neural pathways and can cause a lot of pain and ultimately dysfunction.
Often when we think we are sitting up straight, we are actually just yanking the shoulders back and jutting the chest forward without properly aligning the head on the shoulders and the shoulders on the hips. The head is still falling. Envisioning a “sky hook” can be helpful (mentastics, anyone?) where there is an imaginary string leaving your head and hooked to the sky. With the sky hook in place, the head doesn’t drop. So, rather than thinking about “sitting up straight”, think sitting back and aligned: crown to coccyx. This will naturally pull the head and shoulders slightly up while still staying rooted in the hips. Okay, so you get that the spine has to be aligned…but how do we keep it there? Integrating the bracing sequence, outlined in Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard, is an actionable step towards a more aligned spine. This simply means organizing spinal segments through muscular activation (we’re not talking a full on clench here, but rather about a 20% effort). To sit like a champ, you have to do this before you sit, because as soon as you plop on a chair, your glutes go to sleep, which compromises the stability of the lumbar spine. So activating before you sit (and again every 30 minutes or so) is really the only way to properly stabilize from the base. The name “The Bracing Sequence” makes the process sound like a whole ordeal, but it really takes just a few seconds and after a while it will come naturally. The steps, from standing, are as follows:
1) Create torque and externally rotate from your hips by “screwing your feet into the ground”. The feet don’t actually move, you’re just creating a force to activate the musculature of the hips. Right foot will torque clockwise, left foot counterclockwise. Note the tension created in your hips just from this subtle movement.
2) Clench your butt a bit to activate glutes and get the pelvis in a neutral position
3) Take a deep, diaphragmatic breath in. You should feel the belly expand on the inhale. This step activates your abs while maintaining that neutral pelvic position with the glute squeeze from step 2.
4) Balance your ribcage over your pelvis. You might feel a little more swayed forward than usual.
5) Pull head back, keeping gaze straight and chin at an even level. Roll shoulders back slightly into external rotation (as if facing palms forward), coming into a proud, open chest posture.
The bracing sequence gets everything set up right, so when you transition to a seat, you maintain activation and can still stabilize from the base, keep ribs over hips, shoulders over ribs and neck over shoulders. Combining a braced and neutral spine with the idea of using the low back as a rudder means that when you lean forward, your pelvis should tilt and take the ribs and shoulders stacked, at a tilt rather than a round. And when the pelvis is rocked back, the whole torso tilts with it. Not breaking at the sections of the spine is the way to avoid those aches and keep your sit healthy and strong. Return to the bracing sequence before you sit to maintain an active stabilization. As you adjust your seat throughout the day, consider the first exercise that helped you feel how the low back guides your direction. After a while, the body will remember the feeling of a braced and aligned spine and will (somewhat) automatically return to that feeling. It will begin to feel natural. It takes time and practice, but if you are someone who sits all day and experiences residual discomfort or pain, the bracing sequence will be key to keeping the spine healthy. If you must sit, sit smart.
Of course, tools joint mobility, massage and self-myofascial release are there to help you out when you do get those somewhat inevitable aches and pains. On Thurs. Jan 7, 5 pm mst, I'll be teaching a self-care workshop themed "Undo Your Computer Posture" in collaboration with The Wellness Center. We'll be using movement and the Rad Roller tools to get into problem areas associated with sitting all day. (To learn more about why Self-Myofascial release is effective, check out my other blog Do it Yourself.)
Now go out there and sit like a champ!
Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett