A Better Way to Understand (and Improve) Posture

By on March 5, 2024

Our view of muscle is, very often, narrow-sighted. We think of muscle as what we use in order to move our joints. We think of the hip abductors, for example, as being muscles we use to abduct the leg – to move it sideways, away from the centreline.

But, in fact, this is just one small part of what muscle is for. You could argue that the far more critical role of the hip abductors, is to prevent hip abduction. That is, to prevent the legs from being pulled together by the adductors. 

A certain amount of tension exists in the abductors. A certain amount of tension exists in the adductors. And these work in combination to keep the legs in place.

This process is ongoing all the time. It becomes even more important as we walk and run: to help keep our legs straight and our knees stacked below our hips.

This occurs throughout the body at all times. Different muscles have different resting lengths and resting tone and this contributes to various forces on the joints as we sit, walk, and stand. This is what results in our posture.

When that balance is thrown off, this is what creates what we might think of as a “poor” posture. This is a simplification, but it’s also something that we need to unpack. Because poor posture will not only increase your risk of injury and pain: it can negatively impact everything from the way you breath, to your digestive system, to your confidence and appearance.

What Creates Poor Posture?

So, how does this happen? Because the body adapts to the demands placed on it, this means that hours of long sitting can actually remodel the body. We see this in common issues such as kyphosis (hunched shoulders), pelvic tilt, weakened glutes, and short, tight hip flexors.

Sitting at the desk and typing with the arms stretched forward and neck pitched downward, means that the pecs and other muscles spend huge amounts of time in a shortened position. Eventually, this shortened position becomes the resting state. Now, even when you mean to stand straight, you are still hunched over.


But this is just one common example of what can go wrong. For example, many of you will know that I’ve suffered with back pain, historically. This is caused, at least in part, by a sacroiliac joint fixation. That is to say that my sacroiliac joint has become stiff – shorter on one side – and this can place pressure on the sciatic nerve.

One possible explanation is my tendency to sit with one leg crossed – specifically my left leg crossed – underneath the other. I used to be a freelance copyrighter and would sit in coffee shops for hours typing literally tens of thousands of words in a single day. The coffee shop chairs got uncomfortable quickly, so sitting on my own leg helped to alleviate this. Over time, this may have caused an imbalance.

And that movement pattern is so ingrained in both my motor cortex AND my muscle tissue, that I have to constantly remind myself not sit like that any time I now go to sit down. 

Gluteus Medius

Of course, these kinds of postural issues can cause pain and discomfort, although the link between posture and pain isn’t quite as clear cut as we might imagine – more on that in a moment. Imbalances can also impair performance, though, as we aren’t able to express power to our natural potential, or move through a full range of motion.

There are a few things to consider, here. One is the difference between muscle stiffness and lack of mobility. Stiffness refers to this resting length and resting tone. This can be altered both acutely and chronically. But stretching such that you are able to touch your toes won’t necessarily result in an ideal posture at rest. Your body might still default to that resting position.

Physical Changes and Posture

So, what is physically changing that results in the new posture? Partly, this is due to changes in the brain. Overtime, a new posture becomes habitual and the new neural pathways may become so ingrained that it is now challenging to stray from them at all.

However, it is also due to physical shortening of muscle tissue. Your pecs and hip flexors spend so long in this short position that it can reduce sarcomeres in series. That is to say that there are fewer contractile proteins arranged end-to-end within the muscle fibre. Time spent in the shortened position provides a signal via intracellular signalling processes (mechanotransduction) resulting in altered gene expression and the resulting shorter muscle fibres. Over time, this shortening can become pronounced enough to be visible to the naked eye. 

Depressing to think that our production-focussed society has literally remodelled our bodies to become more efficient work machines – and less efficient for life and self-expression.


Finally, these static postures can also cause changes in the fascia. Fascia is a tissue that surrounds the whole body like a clingfilm wrap and even surrounds the muscles and organs – even protrudes into the muscles. Fascia contains its own proprioceptors and motor units, meaning it can sense tension and produce force – it’s not just an inert stuff. It contributes to the tensegrity – full body tension – that keeps everything where it should be. Thanks to fascia, tension in one part of the body can signal an entirely different muscle to contract through myofascial force transition. It is overly simplistic to think of the body as a series of hinges.

Fascia, like muscle, responds to demand and alters its shape in response to specific strength and pressure signals. Fibroblast cells will then lay down the collagen and collagenase as needed to make these changes. 

This is also one reason why issues or tightness in one part of the body can result in problems elsewhere (other factors being the kinetic chain and compensatory movement patterns). It’s also why relaxing the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot can improve whole body mobility. 

Keep in mind that we sit for up to 8 hours a day at work and more when we get home. If you think that ten minutes of stretching is going to be enough to counter that HUGE stimulus, you have another thing coming. You can’t overcome a habit of biting your nails by *not* biting your nails for ten minutes a day.

That’s not to say that strengthening antagonist muscles and stretching those that have become shortened isn’t a useful practice. But this should be a strong enough stimulus to have a real effect – a move like the swan pull is a good example. Here, you pull your body weight upwards by retracting the scapula. Treat this as you would a bodybuilding exercise to really feel the target muscles and stimulate hypertrophy. 

Arched Pull Up Swan

This move is particularly effective because it teaches us to pull the shoulder blades back – to retract the scapula. This is how we should actually fix hunched shoulders; not by tilting the ribcage upwards to create the illusion of a better posture.

Note that these concepts apply to tendons, too.

Contracting and releasing the muscles can help to provide some temporary relief from stiff muscles. Both the targeted muscle and the antagonistic (opposite) muscle will relax immediately following this contraction thanks to autogenic and reciprocal inhibition. In short, when you contract one muscle forcefully, this causes the opposite muscles to relax, so as to allow for unrestricted movement. Likewise, this also causes the target muscle to relax when it is subsequently released. 

This is one reason that stretching the arms out and/or yawning are so effective – this is called a “pandiculation” and is also what an animal will do when getting up from a long period of sitting. We can actually use this to then reach into a deeper stretch – as we see with Muscle Energy Techniques and PNF stretching, for example. Overcoming isometrics can also be used in tandem with stretching, for this reason. 

More Strategies for Improved Posture

We also need to combine this training with other strategies – taking regular breaks from sitting, for example. That means getting up to do other things and trying to move around as much as possible. Set yourself a timer and create opportunities to move around your environment. 

A common refrain from physiotherapists is that “your best posture is your next posture.” That is to say, that there is no perfect posture. The problem isn’t hunching per say but rather the amount of hunching we do and the duration. Stressing over maintaining the perfect position at all times is not particularly productive.

As Jeff Nipard discussed in a video on posture, there isn’t a huge amount of evidence for a direct link between poor posture (such as “text neck”) and chronic pain. 

I know that it’s just as possible to get a bad neck from looking up all the time. I know because I worked for a company called Jump Zone for a while. I stood on a giant trampoline and bounced people up and down who were attached to harnesses above me. I got a pretty sore neck. 

As a side note – it’s worth keeping in mind how things from our history can have knock-on effects for our posture and movement, even years later. 

And you wouldn’t want to only be neutral, either. As you’d lose all range of motion. 

No two postures are the same, and what’s important is that your posture be functional for the current task. 

With that said, it’s still important to emphasise the particularly damaging nature of sitting in a chair or hunching over a phone thanks to the fact that it puts multiple muscles in a very shortened position for a long period of time.

Back stretch

As we’ve seen, this can result in movement that isn’t as biomechanically sound, setting you up for injury or simply stifled performance. This posture also looks bad – making you appear shorter and less confident. This can have a knock-on effect on your mental state. The hunched position also makes it difficult to breathe as deeply as the lungs are chronically compressed. The nervous system, circulatory system, and even digestive system are also compromised in this position.

That’s why, even short breaks throughout the day might not be enough to help you move optimally. Instead, you should look to spend a similarly large amount of time in positions that actively counteract the sitting position.

How can you do this? If you want to go this far, then a good option is to try breaking your day up by task. Answering emails? Then why not place your laptop on the floor, lie on your front, and rest on your elbows as you type. This will put the spine into extension and, depending on the position of the laptop, allow you to draw the elbows back more.

Spending periods typing from a standing position is also a good idea. A standing desk can help with this, or you can stand and walk around while on the phone. 

If you meditate regularly, why not make an effort to do so with the scapula in a retracted position and neck gently lifted. 

Doorway stretch for shoulder mobility

Try incorporating multiple, lengthy, static holds. Ido Portal recommends that everyone can benefit from 7 minutes of hanging from a bar, for example. This is to be done cumulatively, not in one go. 

And look for other aspects of your life that might be harming your posture. I identified my tendency to cross one leg as a problem. How about if you drive long distances, regularly?

Or look at how few grown men and women can get into a deep squat with their heels flat on the ground. This is partly due to the poor ankle mobility and constantly extended toes that are a result of wearing shoes with a heel and soft sole. Take a look at your own feet right now – if you see a ridge where your toes point slightly upwards compared to the rest of your foot, that’s thanks to the years of poor posture they’ve endured in shoes. This makes it much harder to then push through the ground to create force when running. 

Finally, it’s also worth noting the big impact that mental state can have on posture. I’m not only talking about the way we slouch when we’re feeling sheepish, or otherwise alter our body language in accordance with our moods.

I’m also talking about the way that simply being stressed causes the body to become tense, further shortening the muscles and creating potential pain and discomfort. Exacerbating the issues caused by long periods spent in awkward positions. 

One of the very best things you can do to improve your posture immediately then is to just relax.

Go on, try it. 

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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