Good posture is seen to have many advantages. From an aesthetic point of view it can enhance image, sending out the right signals (body language). For an athlete it is seen to be essential. But what is a good posture? We recognise poor posture when we see it, as it is evident in the majority of adults regardless of athletic ability. But just to confuse the matter, people with an ideal 'plumb-line' posture can also have poor movement patterns. This is because it is not the shape that is important but how it is maintained. An apparent 'good' posture can be achieved with totally inappropriate muscular activity.
The distinguished physiologist Charles Sherrington once described our systems for maintaining posture as the 'most uncertain and untrustworthy of all'. This is not encouraging when all corrective methods for improving posture rely on the very systems that are the cause of the problem. The fact that posture can deteriorate suggests the fallibility of the controlling mechanisms. The conventional definition of good posture is the correct alignment of body parts supported by the right amount of muscle tension. This view has led to the development of exercises to tone up postural muscles diagnosed as weak in order to achieve the ideal shape. Attaining good posture then became an end in itself. However, these methods do not go deep enough to address the cause and are consequently based on a partial understanding of the condition. Posture is the manifestation of attitude and not simply a matter of muscle tone. Every pathway from the brain leads eventually to a muscle.
Our state of mind therefore influences every move and muscle action, to put it another way - we are what we think. A sports commentator may use the phrases, 'their heads have dropped' or 'the spring has gone from their step' to describe the losing side. In contrast the winning side will have 'their heads held high' or be 'walking tall'. It is no accident that many phrases used to describe attitude are bodily in nature, such as 'stiff necked' and 'spineless'. Words used to express physical attributes, such as 'balanced' and 'centered', are also suitable to describe character. 'Attitude' also applies to both. Non-Verbal Communication is an established branch of the behavioural sciences used extensively by the police and in the business community. We make many subconscious movements and gestures allowing others to read our thoughts or anticipate our actions.
Although poor posture is regarded by many to be a factor in performance, conventional exercises developed to address the problem fail to recognise the cause and cannot therefore offer a long-term solution. The wrong concept of a problem leads to seeking the wrong solution. In many cases, athletes experiencing difficulties with technique or repetitive injury do have poor posture. A poorly aligned body uses inappropriate muscle activity to move resulting in mechanically inefficient movement of the joints. However, it is wrong to assume that posture is to blame. The assumption that the problem can be corrected by strengthening the weaker muscles through exercise is misguided. This superficial approach ignores the cause and simply tries to correct the symptom.
Our body is shaped by how we use it. Habit determines use and subsequent condition of muscle; therefore it is the underlying habits that need to change. Poor muscle tone is not the root cause of poor posture; it is the mechanisms that control muscle that are at fault. Attempts to correct posture by exercise achieve, at best, temporary aesthetic results, or complicate the problem by consolidating the poor habits that led to the condition. Trying to correct posture through exercise involves the same faulty patterns guided by a poor sense of body awareness. If we can unknowingly get ourselves into this state, how are we to know the way out of it? I repeat, exercises do not change habits - they re-enforce them!
The initial mistake made by the pioneers of exercises to improve posture was to confuse the outward sign of poise, that is the good posture of gifted individuals, for the desirable goal. Changing the body to look right does not attain poise. Many of the systems designed to improve posture use a number of Alexander's methods, often without recognition, but have not appreciated the basic principles. It is not possible to take individual precepts from a philosophy and make them work as part of another. These systems advocate exercise to achieve the desired results whilst ignoring the essential step of preventing use of the habits that caused the condition. The methods designed to correct posture are flawed and based on the following misconceptions.
"We can control individual muscles."
We do not have direct control over individual muscles, only the movement. When we choose to move, the movement is organised by subconscious centres of the brain that do not contain individual muscle actions. Try to contract the biceps muscle without thinking of moving your arm and you can begin to appreciate how it works. What we sense is a feeling associated with that movement and not the muscle. We cannot know if an action lengthens, shortens or even uses a muscle, only that we have performed a movement we associate with the feel of it. One exercise system to improve posture even goes to the extreme of instructing participants to engage the postural muscles in each exercise to twenty-five percent of its strength! This level of control is just not possible. Injury and poor habits may lead to a change in the pattern through repetition of a degraded movement. Following injury, the actions of the muscle to prevent movement of the damaged area or to compensate for temporary loss of mobility become habit. These compensatory measures become part of the permanent pattern and will feel normal. The subconscious and habitual nature of movement combined with a lack of attention to the activity means deviation from the natural pattern may go unnoticed. If we do not have an accurate account of how we execute a movement, we cannot be sure of correctly following the instructions of a coach. Many coaches will have observed this when a pupil's actions bear no resemblance to their command.
"The problem is with the muscle."
Posture is the manifestation of attitude. Exercises designed to strengthen the perceived weak postural muscles do not get to the cause of the problem. If a muscle is weak, it is most likely through lack of use if not activated due to a faulty movement pattern. If you don't use it, you lose it! A muscle can also appear weak if it is habitually held tight because further contraction is not possible. Our shape is a result of an intricate balancing act involving every muscle of the body. Weakness in one area usually indicates excessive tension in another. The task of trying to achieve balance by working on individual groups of muscle is not only time consuming but pointless.
What are we trying to achieve if we do not know what is the correct tone for each muscle? In recent years there has been a move toward 'functional exercises' designed for a specific sport. The theory is that each sport will place demands on a particular group of muscles so exercises can be used to strengthen those required by the athlete. Yet if these muscles are deemed to be essential for their sport then surely the athlete participating in that sport should already have the appropriate strength where required. Changes in one part of the body achieved with exercise will bring about, often unexpected, results in another. Muscles perform their function as directed by the controlling mechanism. Postural exercises call into play the same mechanisms that created the poor condition in a more vigorous manner. The result is 'stronger' muscles at the mercy of the faulty controlling mechanisms. The careless driver now has a more powerful car.
"We know what good posture feels like."
The knowledge of how to maintain good posture has never been at a conscious level. The absence of poor habits allows good posture in children without us having to 'do it'. Once habits start to interfere with the process and posture deteriorates we cannot know what to do to get it back. It is foolish to believe we can improve on what should be a natural process by trying harder. In order to perform corrective exercises it is assumed an individual knows how to use the muscle in question with the appropriate amount of tension. If we had this ability we would never have developed poor posture initially. The underlying condition causing poor posture cannot be used to improve it. Poor posture is a symptom and should not be addressed by direct means. To know what good posture 'feels' like, we need to have it.
"To correct posture we need to try harder."
In fact the opposite is true. The centres of the brain that mediate the postural reflexes are at a level below conscious awareness and are therefore beyond our direct control. Any attempt to correct posture by a conscious act will interfere with this process. The common response by those wishing to 'correct' their immediate posture is to stiffen up, shorten the back, hold the breath and adopt the military stance. Young children are often used as an example of good posture, yet they give no consideration to it. They allow it happen by not interfering with the process. To achieve 'good posture' we need to learn what not to do so as not to impede the righting reflexes.
"Good posture improves performance"
As described earlier in this article, good posture does appear to promote efficient movement, however we need to go deeper to understand why. This view puts the cart before the horse. It is the ability for efficient movement that promotes good posture. Good posture is an indication of poise consequently poor posture is a sign of lost poise. A poised athlete moves freely with minimal effort and is not pulled out of shape by excessive muscle tension. The athlete without poise uses inappropriate muscle action in all activities, including the exercises prescribed to correct posture. If an individual has poise, corrective exercises are unnecessary and could even lead to its loss.
If an individual does not have poise, corrective exercises are counterproductive serving only to complicate the problem. Postural exercises may show improvements to shape, but by whose yardstick and at what cost to poise? The shape is not important. A better shape and sense of feeling stronger is not necessarily a good result. In a poised individual the appropriate muscular activity to maintain balance is activated by postural reflexes. When the reflex excites the muscle we experience only the movement, not the effort. For example when the patella (knee) reflex is tested we have no sensation of applying effort to move the leg because we receive feedback of effort only if we have voluntarily activated the muscle. In standing we do not need to voluntarily control muscular activity directly and therefore should have little sensation of strength. If we 'feel' stronger we are probably overworking the muscle.
Exercises for developing specific muscles do not promote the balance and integration required for poise. New habits are learnt by using muscle to perform moves that may not correspond to their natural function. The postural reflexes in conjunction with the learnt pattern co-ordinate muscle activity for balance without the need for extra effort.
Exercises designed to aid athletes could therefore have the unexpected side effect of restricting movement. When we engage the habits developed through exercise to attain what we assume to be 'correct' position or movement, we interfere with preparatory actions for movement. I believe targeting the postural muscles for specific exercise encourages inappropriate use for actions that they are not intended to perform, ultimately leading to loss of poise.
Poise is not acquired through conventional exercises that generally concentrate on the muscle. As discussed earlier in this section, many exercises lead to loss of poise through the piecemeal approach to developing individual muscles or muscle groups in isolation. Poise comes with an understanding and experience of free movement.
Balance is vital for poise. The common response to perceived loss of balance is to stiffen in order to prevent a fall. We need to feel at ease with movement to remove the fear of falling. When we use inappropriate corrective actions in response to a perceived loss of balance we increase the risk of a fall. The grace exhibited by practitioners of the martial art Aikido is due to their ability to fall without fear of injury. Regardless of the condition of the nervous system, balance can be improved by learning how to eliminate the unnecessary preparatory acts that we usually associate with a given movement. Applying the wrong kind of effort leads to a misuse of our mechanisms for movement. Once our complex systems for balance are impeded all resulting muscular actions will be corrupt and inappropriate. Poise can only be attained when the habit of interfering with the mechanisms for balance is removed.
Anthropologist Raymond Dart wrote:
"Poise, however, is not acquired like physical strength through the performance of exercise and sport, but through restful study and observation. Poise is a body state achieved only by steady and carefree education of the body and maintenance of balance. Poise is a character of repose or rest in the good body, whether it is in the relatively static positions of lying, sitting or standing or is actively in progressive motion during the activities of life's daily routine or of sport."
In my experience, one of the most effective ways to acquire poise through study and observation is The Alexander Technique.
Roy Palmer is a Teacher of The Alexander Technique and author of The Performance Paradox: Train Smarter to enhance performance and reduce injury. More information can be found at http://www.artofperformance.co.uk He works with sports people of all abilities to recognise and overcome performance-limiting habits.