Think You’ve Got Perfect Posture? Think Again.

If you spend any time looking around the Internet for information on posture, there’s one thing you’ll start to see over and over: No matter how good you think your own posture is, there’s something wrong with it. The posture gurus have seen it time and again in their own patients, and even in their general observations of people on the street, so they feel confident in assuming you’ll be like most everyone else. There is an ideal posture, and yours doesn’t stand up to it.

Whether you’ve got a forward head, rounded or elevated shoulders, a hunched back, an anterior pelvic tilt, pigeon toes, or duck feet, there’s something not quite right—and there’s a decent chance that if it’s not causing you pain already, it will at some point in the future.

Bad posture is incredibly common, they say; almost nobody has perfect posture. A few of us are born with congenital postural problems; others are compensating for illness or injury; and many of us—perhaps most—have fallen into our poor posture as a result of long-term employment or lifestyle habits. They’ll warn us of kyphosis, lordosis, flat back, sway back, and upper crossed syndrome. Various postural conditions are said to result in pain to the neck, shoulder, back and lower back, knees, and hips.

perfect posture

As mentioned above, posture that varies from the ideal could be something we’re born with—something that’s beyond our control. Or it could be that we hold ourselves a certain way because we’re avoiding pain or discomfort. Or we may have a strength problem, where certain muscles are weaker or tighter than their counterbalancing partners.

Problems then start to occur when we spend long periods of time in less than ideal positions—continually compressing or misaligning susceptible areas of our spine, for example. This puts pressure on the spinal nerves, which can cause all kinds of problems, even in seemingly unrelated areas of the body.

So what’s wrong with me?

It’s difficult to do a self-analysis of posture problems, and devising your own treatment program isn’t any easier. But here are some of the commonly cited conditions and their related anatomical causes:

Forward Head: stiff muscles in the back of the neck / weak front neck muscles

Elevated Shoulder: shortened trapezius / weak serratus anterior

Rounded Shoulders: tight pectoral muscles / weak middle and lower trapezius

Hunched Back: poor upper back mobility / weak back muscles

Anterior Pelvic Tilt: tight hip flexors / weak glutes

Pigeon Toes: tightness in outer thigh / weak gluteus maximus and medius

Duck Feet: lack of flexibility in hip muscles / weakness in oblique muscles and hip flexors

It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into specific exercises to counter each of these conditions. If you’re serious about improving your posture, you might want to consider working with a trainer who can develop an overall fitness plan unique to your needs. You’ll also want to take a close look at how your typical daily activities might be affecting your posture. How much time do you spend staring down at that phone in your hand? Do you spend long, uninterrupted stretches at an ergonomically awkward workstation? Do you tend to slouch forward with your elbows on your desk as you work?

On the other hand …

But you should also know that there’s a counterargument to this idea of “perfect posture.” A lengthy, heavily footnoted article at painscience.com details the science behind the idea that posture is much less responsible for pain than has long been assumed, citing studies and anecdotal evidence casting doubt that correlations even exist between pain and many of the classic postural problems we’ve listed above. Even where pain exists alongside a postural condition, the author argues, we can’t discount the idea that the posture could well be a compensation for preexisting pain, rather than vice-versa. Further, when so few people actually conform to this “plumb line” ideal of posture, maybe all these problems we’ve identified aren’t really problems at all. Maybe they’re just the best way we have of going about our business, whatever that business might be.

Recapping the full article is more than we can do here, but it’s worth a look if you have the time.

And finally, the one thing everyone agrees on—whether we’re seeking pain relief, looking to extend the life and functionality of our musculoskeletal system, or trying to make postural changes for whatever reason—is that exercise is key.