If you’re like most computer programmers, this is probably what you look like for a large portion of the day, hunched over your desk at a computer for hours on end. It sucks. I know because I’ve been there.
The head is forward (1), shoulders are slouched (2), back is arched (3) and your hips form an angle of less than 90 degrees (4). The evidence is overwhelming that sitting this way is really bad for you. Slouching can cause problems with headaches and jaw pain, gastrointestinal problems, give you a beer gut, even cause you to perform poorly at your job and wreak havoc on your perceived confidence. In order to avoid these problems, a number of experts advise improving your sitting posture.
This what the textbook “correct” sitting posture looks like. The monitor is positioned at or just below eye level so that the head is straight (1). The shoulders are back and the back is slightly arched (2). The elbows form a 90-degree angle (3) so that the forearms are level.
It’s true that sitting properly may improve your overall posture, but it’s only part of the story. For me, the improvement was marginal at best. I still walked around with slouched shoulders and with my head forward. About a year ago, I made a concerted effort to change that.
I’ve always struggled with posture. It doesn’t help that I’m tall and lanky, which seems to exacerbate the issue. So, last April, when I was offered a free personal training session as part of my new gym membership, I took it as an opportunity to learn more about posture and training.
At the first session, the trainer puts you through a series of exercises to try and determine overall fitness and if there might be any areas which need improvement. Even though I would consider myself a relatively fit individual, I had trouble with exercises focusing on the abs and glutes. Why?
The Kinetic Chain
In physical therapy, there is a concept known as a kinetic chain. Essentially, the idea is that no joint can be evaluated in isolation. The body tends to compensate for injuries or muscle imbalances in one area by propagating the imbalance to other muscles and joints. An imbalance in the hip will propagate to the back and shoulders, for instance.
In my case, I believe I developed a muscle imbalance in the hip resulting from hours sitting at a computer. When you are sitting, your abdominal muscles are not being engaged. Furthermore, the hip flexor muscles are contracted which can shorten them over time.
With shortened hip flexors and weak abs and glues, the result is an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, meaning that the hips are excessively tilted forward. Some amount of anterior tilt is normal, and the back naturally has some degree of arch, between 4-7 degrees in men and about 7-10 degrees in women. Mine was closer to 15 degrees. The anterior pelvic tilt propagates up the kinetic chain, resulting an excessive back arch. The excessive back arch means that the shoulders and head must come forward to compensate.
Regardless of whether you are sitting with proper posture or slouching, you will still run into these problems. Of course, sitting properly will help, but it may not be a solution in itself – at least, it wasn’t enough for me.
The solution for an anterior pelvic tilt is actually fairly straightforward in theory – strengthen the abs and glutes and stretch the opposing muscles, the erector spinae and hip flexors. In practice, it’s a little more complicated.
I continued to do roughly the same workout routine I’ve done for years, but I modified it to focus on those goals. I added planks and hip abductor exercises to my weight training routine. I added stretches for the erector spinae and hip flexors. I also started doing pull ups with a reverse grip so as to focus on the deltoids (delts) to try to pull my shoulders back.
I also recently switched to a standing desk, which appears to be a trend among developers these days. I definitely like my standing desk, but I don’t believe it is a solution in itself. In fact, a standing desk can actually cause injury for individuals that have been sitting for years if the switch is abrupt. Standing tends to put more stress on the lower back if you previously had problems with weak abs or glutes. When I first switched, I definitely felt pain in my back, so I dialed it back and gave my body time to adjust.
It’s been almost a year since I decided to focus explicitly on posture. My posture has improved dramatically, though it still isn’t quite where I’d like it to be. In other areas, however, I’ve noticed very clear benefits. Since my shoulders are farther back, I’ve noticed that I have much greater mobility on exercises like the bench press. It’s easier for me to lift things off of the ground and my butt actually has some curvature to it, which I’m told might help with the ladies, though I can’t provide any scientific data to support that assertion. A problem I had previously with shoulder impingement is essentially gone. I can stand for longer periods of time without feeling fatigue. So, in short, I am making progress.
Posture is probably something I will struggle with for the foreseeable future. However, I have found ways to improve my posture gradually. The bottom line is that our profession is inherently unnatural in that it requires a great deal of time to be spent in a stationary position. To the extent that we can break up that pattern by taking breaks, stretching, working out and remaining mobile, we can be better, healthier, longer-living. more productive and sane developers.