Administrative Postures - A Workshop for RADMIN Festival
This workshop was originally developed for RADMIN Festival in February 2019. If you’d like me to come and coach it with you or your organisation, do get in touch.
A (VERY ABBREVIATED) HISTORY OF POSTURE
The idea of “good posture” is vague, with opinions varying pretty wildly within and between the worlds of fitness and medicine. Our general feeling is, perhaps, that if we don’t sit and stand “correctly”, we are damaging ourselves. Interestingly, most recent evidence suggests that this is not the case. Why, then, does the idea persist?
Let’s begin by considering where it comes from.
The historian Sander L. Gilman begins his Notes Toward a History of Posture by identifying the double meaning usually hidden within the word:
Posture as a means of optimising performance of a particular activity
Posture as an expression of social rules about how to sit, stand and present oneself in order to be considered human, modern, civilised etc.
The idealised, upright, static position that we probably would all adopt if asked to assume “good posture” has its origins in late 16th century Flemish military drills - specifically, the resting posture or “attention”:
A straight line from top of head to feet
As Gilman describes, the purpose of these positions were to enable soldiers to load, shoot and reload in unison. Books of these illustrations called “posture books” were used widely in the European militaries. This posture was “manly, erect and upright”. It was not natural - it was mechanically rehearsed as a means of enforcing military discipline and collectivism.
In the 18th century, this training of the body moved into civilian life. “Posture-masters” taught gentlemen how to walk in this military way and by the late 19th century this had spread to women too.
Evolutionary theory incorporated posture. Charles Darwin, in his Descent of Man, claims:
“I can see no reason why it should not have been advantageous to the progenitors of man to have become more and more erect or bipedal”.
So, to be less upright is to be less human! It doesn’t take long before this pseudo-scientific concept is weaponised against the “savage races” of European colonies, and against perceived moral degeneracy (of the working class) within Europe.
The industrial revolution of the late 19th century brought interesting developments that mirror the current postural paranoia. Machine work was blamed for encouraging poor posture, and further machines are invented to counteract this, mimicking farm work, alongside programmes of “systematic remedial exercises”... The parallels with our current situation - big box gyms filled with exercise machines and classes supposed to “fix” us - are hard to miss. And all this to get us to a posture best suited for firing muskets in 16th century Holland!
CURRENT POSTURAL SCIENCE
In their wonderful book, ‘Overcoming Poor Posture’, Steven Low and Jarlo Ilano give a two-part definition of posture:
Your current posture is the result of your body’s adaptations to the demands you place on it. Your body builds strength and flexibility where demand is placed on it, and loses strength and flexibility where no stressors are applied.
Posture is more than just a static position you hold throughout the day. It’s the result of a variety of factors like habits, neurological reflexes, physical adaptations and time.
Some things worth noting in their review include:
“Poor” posture doesn’t correlate with back pain
“Good” posture does seem to confer some psychological benefits - feeling more confident and powerful, increasing pain tolerance
There is no single “good” posture. There are postures that are more efficient and more likely to prevent injury during certain activities, but even these will vary between individuals
Being able to move into and out of various task-dependent postures will help your body function better on a daily basis
THE SITTING POSTURE
So many modern jobs involve sitting for long periods of time. In the UK, adults of working age sit down for an average of 9.5 hours each day. As we get older, this increases. Sitting for long periods is associated with poorer mental health, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from all causes.
Going to the gym and getting stronger can make a difference (a 2016 review paper found that “high levels of moderate intensity physical activity seem to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time”), but the imbalance of time spent sitting vs. moving will mean that that activity occurs within the boundaries of reduced mobility we have developed through our time at the desk.
If we imagine sitting, we most likely think of someone at a chair with their knees and hips at ninety degrees, head slumped forward, chest down. Our bodies are fantastically adaptable and so will make themselves really good at this – we might develop a weaker bum (glutes), shorter muscles at the front of the hips (hip flexors), reduced shoulder, mid-spine and ankle mobility etc. This all makes sense, given what we’re asking our body to do – to stay in that single position for extended periods of time.
Thinking back to school, when we were first made to do this, I can remember sitting in a variety of ways – cross-legged on the floor during assembly, on one heel when I got bored in class, squatting on the playground – but now I’m less varied. We’ve grown into specialists – able to sit still for far longer than we could at school, and even choosing to do it on our lunch breaks too, when before we may have been running around.
In one of Katy Bowman’s books, I read about a pioneering study that explored this. In 1955, the American anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes presented the results of his survey of postural habits from across the world. He had identified hundreds of different resting poses (see diagram below), including eleven using chairs.
He explained how there were various factors influencing which pose was adopted:
Sex: pregnancy and lactation make some positions uncomfortable
Taboos: fear of genital exposure
Gender: some poses seen as masculine and others as feminine
Clothing: restrictive clothes, revealing clothes
Footwear: heavy boots, high heels etc.
Artificial supports: chairs, rocks, pillows etc.
Terrain and vegetation, if sitting outdoors
Social class: in some places it’s “uncouth” to squat
Fashion: some ways of sitting are cool, others aren’t
Despite finding hundreds of archetypes, he said that this body of research was still limited, partly because our paltry concepts of “standing, chair-sitting, and recumbent positions” had delayed enquiry into other ways of sitting:
“The English postural vocabulary is mediocre – a fact which in itself inhibits our thinking about posture.”
(He goes on to give an early Western shout-out to yoga – “Quite the opposite is true of the languages of India, where the yoga system has developed an elaborate postural terminology and rationale”).
He concludes with a statement that still seems relevant today:
“Physiologists, anatomists, and orthopedists, to say nothing of specialists in physical education, have dealt exhaustively with a few “ideal” postures – principally the fairly rigid attention stance beloved of the drillmaster, and student’s or stenographer’s habits of sitting at desks”
He speculates about what we might learn from expanding our ideas of resting postures, and how that could influence health and design.
The American physical therapist Gray Cook has suggested that a joint-by-joint approach, rather than a movement-based approach, may be the future of training. For many of us, jumping straight into movement-based training may lead to injury if we haven’t taken into account existing dysfunction in the body parts we will be using.
If we consider the body as a stack of joints with a particular functional characteristic, we can notice alternating patterns of mobility and stability:
Ankle = mobility
Knee = stability
Hip = mobility
Lumbar spine (lower back) = stability
Thoracic spine (mid-back) = mobility
Scapula (shoulder blade) = stability
Glenohumeral (shoulder) = mobility
All of these joints work together in chains. When asking our body to do unusual movements, we may find that lack of the functional characteristic of a joint will cause movement dysfunction in the next joint up from it.
For example, lack of mobility in the ankle may cause lack of stability in the knee.
Generally speaking, the joints we want to encourage mobility in have a tendency towards stiffness and those we want to be stable tend towards laxity.
This joint-by-joint approach to movement suggests picking exercises that develop the desired functional characteristic in each joint.
Below are some suggestions of exercises that meet this criteria and may help counter the effects of sitting:
Massage: neck and side of head
For time / stretch: hand-resisted contractions
For time: chest drop between chairs (I couldn’t find a video for this, sorry - imagine you are in a push-up position with each hand on the seat of a chair. Lower your body through the gap between the chairs, keeping your hands on the seat. Allow your back to arch. Feel your shoulder blades come together, a stretch across the chest and arching in the mid-back.)
Stretch: wall slides
For reps: half-kneeling thoracic twist
For time: back extension
Stretch: wall bridge rotations
For reps: curled-up hip extension
For time: supine glute max isometric
Stretch: calf wall stretch
Just pick whatever you fancy working on based on how you feel - it’s pretty hard to do too much of any of this, so mix things up and explore the techniques that make you feel best and do those as often as you can. Perhaps you could set an alarm every 20-45 minutes that you’re working and then get up and do one of these things?
Guidance for how long to do things for:
Massage: aim to spend at least a couple of minutes on a single tender spot, or 3-5 contract/relax cycles.
For reps: aim for 3x12-15. If you can do that comfortably, make it more difficult by adding resistance
For time: aim for 30 seconds. If you can do that, make it harder.
Stretch: hold for at least a minute, or 15-20 reps.
The idea of a single “good posture” is a fallacy, and there’s weird history behind it
However, for specific tasks there are ideal postures and it’s worth learning these so you can perform effectively and without injury
Sitting for long periods can lead to health problems, weaknesses and movement restrictions
If work means you can’t sit less, sit differently - maybe try some of the poses that Gordon W. Hewes collected
Break up long periods of sitting every 20-45 minutes with some of the exercises suggested above. When you sit down again to work, try a different pose.
It’s probably also a good idea to start doing regular, progressive strength training at least once a week. Weightlifting is fantastic if you can find a decent gym (like ours!) with a good feeling and good coaches, or bodyweight stuff is brilliant too.