As someone who dealt with a repetitive strain injury for about 8 years, lost my voice for 2.5, suffered for brutal shin splints for half a year before running a marathon having done no training, I know a thing or two about physical dysfunction and taking our bodies for granted.
Having spent so much time being on the “other side” of health, I have an awareness of my body few people seem to share.
Most of the physical dysfunction we end up experiencing in life is not due to the so-called “normal ageing process,” it’s a result of using our bodies incorrectly.
Repetitive use of our bodies from positions of compromised stability eventually cause muscles and tendons to wear out or break down.
Chronically improper posture and patterns of movement result in bad knees, lower backs, and the dreaded “falls” that elderly individuals are often at risk of.
And while improving our body mechanics won’t delay the reaper indefinitely, it sure as hell will improve the quality of life.
Take it from me, someone who couldn’t talk, drive, hold a knife and fork, or write limericks for a number of years because of totally correctable misuses of the incredible biological machinery each of us possess.
So here are 8 common, every day movements we’re doing wrong, and some simple fixes that will drastically improve our mobility, flexibility, endurance, ability to generate power, balance, and more:
I found this to be a shocker, but most people don’t know how to stand. A fairly basic and important body position.
The first problem we have to correct is the duck-foot pose. Most of us stand with our toes pointing outward, which compromises balance and deactivates important muscles normally used in standing (meaning other muscles have to pick up the slack).
We want our toes to point directly forwards. If you think about pushing your feet into the floor and then trying to turn your toes outward, this is the proper foot position and tension. Your knees and hips will be in the proper places and you will feel much less fatigue from standing – after your body adjusts to the new position.
The second problem is body alignment. Most people have their hips thrust way forward or back, and their bones are stacked like a Jenga tower on the precipice of collapse. The first fix is footwear. High heels are OUT. Our footwear should be level between heels and toes – or better – going barefoot. Your weight should be evenly distributed between the front and back of your feet.
Next, we want to align our feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head vertically. The best way I’ve found to describe this verbally is to find the pointy spot on the back of your skull, imagine a string attached and pulling up, up, up and slightly back. By trying to make yourself as tall as possible, you don’t have much choice other than proper alignment.
Working on your standing posture should help fix some of the mistakes we make while walking, so the main issue I want to address is not posture, but mechanics.
If I were to ask you to stand up straight right now, feet together, and then start walking, 95% of the population would raise one leg and place it forward, landing on their heel first (as their leg is stretching out in front of them) then pull their next leg up.
This is a huge waste of energy. The proper way to start the walking motion – and to do all walking – is to lean forward until gravity pulls us over. Then we put out a leg to catch ourselves – directly UNDER our body, landing mid-foot. Then, as we continue falling forward, our next leg passes through and repeats the pattern.
This is the proper way to get activation of the glutes, hamstrings and quads, use less energy, and prevent ugly things like shin splints from occurring.
The benefit of working on standing posture first is that the neutral foot position (instead of duck-footed), is it will help us preserve our knees and ankles and prevent these spots from collapsing on impact.
There’s been a lot of sitting hysteria in the media lately. Talk about how it;s bad for our health, we should be doing more standing, or at least sitting on a yoga ball.
This is all nonsense. Sitting is a completely safe, healthy, natural position to be in – if we do it right. Furthermore, if we are in a compromised position when we normally sit, thinking that using a yoga ball or standing will somehow correct this is flawed thinking of the highest order.
Proper standing alignment helps with this one too – the big no-no I want to address here is that we tend to tuck our bottoms underneath ourselves when we sit, resulting in horrible upper-body posture and reduced breathing capacity.
To sit properly – whether or a chair or the floor, is to imagine that we have a tail coming out of our tailbone.
Start by following your spine all the way down. When you reach the bottom, this is where to imagine your tail. It should never, ever be sat on.
Another way to think of this is “putting your behind behind you” – literally sticking your butt slightly behind the rest of your body.
Now, you should be able to feel your weight on your sitting bones, and draw yourself up as you did in the standing exercise. Congratulations, you just made that 8 hour stint in front of the computer screen a whole lot easier!
If you take a moment to notice the people you meet during the day, you’ll probably see that 90% of them have their shoulders rounded forward. One reason for this is our standing and sitting posture, and another is that we reach and grab objects improperly.
First of all, our shoulders need to be returned to a neutral position, not rounded forward.
Many people make the mistake of pulling their shoulders back and puffing out their chest in an effort to fix this dysfunction, but this only creates more tension – and the position can only be held until our back muscles tire.
A truly neutral shoulder position doesn’t require such stress and tension, it should be a fairly relaxed pose – though some muscle activation will likely be necessary to re-teach ourselves the proper position.
To achieve this, we need to roll our shoulders backwards – up, then back, then down. This locks them in place the way pulling directly back won’t do. Feel free to do multiple shoulder rolls to loosen up before settling into your new neutral position.
Now, in order to keep this healthy pose, we need to learn how to grab object properly.
One of the first things we do when we reach for an object is thrust our shoulder forward in order to increase the length of our arm. This immediately compromises our posture, which will require another shoulder-roll to reset. If we don’t reset our posture, the compromised position will remain until it becomes the new “normal” and we end up with the attractive, caveperson, rounded-shoulder slouchy look.
From now on, our reaching and grabbing will be done keeping our shoulders stationary. It will feel like you have scrawny little T-Rex arms at first, but you’ll soon discover it’s actually easier to grab and grip, lift and hold, as you haven’t thrown out the strength of your upper body by displacing your shoulders.
You can make this easier by keeping your elbows pinned to your sides until the healthy shoulder position becomes a habit. Once you achieve that, your body won’t WANT to displace your shoulders and proper mechanics should become automatic.
My arch nemesis for a long time, typing from a compromised position causes millions of people to suffer from repetitive strain injuries. I did for 8 years before getting all my body mechanics in order.
First of all, we need to be sitting properly, and with our shoulders in a neutral position – so take a look at those sections first if you haven’t yet.
If you’ve done that, then the main problem to overcome is typing with a bent wrist – which drastically shortens (or lengthens) the tendons and muscles in our forearm. Repeated movement from this position will eventually cause pain and dysfunction in even the strongest, most genetically gifted individuals.
Even if you don’t have an ergonomic keyboard you can keep your wrists in a neutral position when you type:
This is largely a function of keeping your keyboard at the right height – approximately in line with your elbows. Think about having T-rex arms. Your elbows should be pinned to your body.
To type, your hands should come together slightly. When I’m in a good position my pinky fingers are over the “A” and “semicolon” keys and my index fingers over “V” and “N.” If I rest my pinkies on the keys, my ring and middle fingers will also touch the keyboard but my index fingers will not.
Now, your body will have slightly different size and proportion than mine, so you’ll probably have to experiment a bit with this – remember, this isn’t a dogma you have to force yourself to follow. Your body will know what feels best.
Cyclists often make mistakes in two of our previously discussed categories: displacing their shoulders from their proper position in order to increase their reach and grab the handle bars, and not keeping a neutral wrist position on the handlebars.
Think of your shoulders and wrists as locked-in-position. The only places you may move in order to grasp the handles are at the waist and elbow. You may have to bend over more in order to reach the handles, but ultimately this will decrease the stress on your arms and upper body – and give you more power in you upper body since your shoulder position hasn’t been compromised.
It might not feel like a big difference over a 2km ride, but bike 20km or 200km, and you’ll be glad you got your posture in order.
You’ve probably heard that most people breathe incorrectly, only using a small percentage of our lung capacity, and that to fix this we need to start taking deep belly breaths.
This is predicated on the logic that our diaphragms expand and contract vertically, and since there are no bones in the way of this vertical movement, it’s the easiest and most natural way for our lungs to move.
However, this isn’t the whole story.
Observational studies of humans in the wild – un-modernized tribal settings, have shown that the way humans naturally breathe is to expand their ribcage in every direction. So yes, there is the vertical expansion of the lungs which is the current in-vogue technique, but there’s also massive expansion and contraction of the entire chest cavity.
We think of our bones as being rather static things, but they’re really not, and in this case they’re part of a dynamic system. If you’ve ever struggled with upper body tension – in the upper back, shoulders, neck and/or jaw, then breathing deeply into your chest will eliminate most of this tension (it worked amazingly well for me and was how I fixed my missing voice problem).
To do this, you can visualize your chest expanding to the front and back. It may seem difficult or unnatural at first, but your lung capacity will be greatly improved, you’ll get more oxygen flowing through your body, and over time your chest will actually become bigger as all the tight muscles that have been contracting your chest get balanced out with the ones expanding it.
This is a lot of stuff to work on, and change won’t happen overnight. Posture isn’t nearly as sexy as training for marathons or doing a 3x body weight bench press, but it’s the stuff that makes those amazing feats of strength and endurance possible, as well as ensuring that we’ll be able to experience the joy and freedom of moving our bodies for as long as we live.
I consider myself blessed that I lost those abilities in my early 20s, and will live the rest of my life knowing just how precious the ability to use our bodies without pain, tension, discomfort, or difficulty is.
So right now, pick 1 or 2 areas to start working on, and commit yourself to a month of focused, aware training in these areas. There is no better investment you can make in yourself, and the payoff is truly priceless.