A few weeks ago I was cruising NPR as I often do, and was excited to find a recent piece titled, “To Fix That Pain In Your Back, You Might Have To Change The Way You Sit” - https://www.npr.org/636025077
Sounded good to me - sitting is the new smoking, right? Anything in the media promoting greater body awareness is music to my ears. The article held promise, but sadly, like most health and fitness stories online, it stank.
The animated graphic on the landing page of the article says it all - it shows a skeleton in three sitting positions. Go take a look right now at the graphic by clicking here: https://www.npr.org/636025077
Go ahead, I'll wait :)
Okay, welcome back. As you can see in the graphic, one skeleton is a C shape (the entire spine is in flexion, including a posteriorly tilted pelvis). The next is somewhat C shape (the upper “thoracic” spine is still dumped over into flexion, but the pelvis is more neutral). The last one is what the writer claims to be the ideal - a neutral thoracic spine and an arched lumbar spine with dramatic anterior pelvic tilt.
The article is a fine example of an incorrect theory that millions of people will hear and trust because doctors have been interviewed. Their argument is that back problems in Western culture have increased not because of how long people sit, but because of the way we sit. I can almost believe this premise, although certainly overall physical weakness and obesity have plenty to do with the prevalence of back pain in our country. The problem with the article lies in the guidance that listeners are given to “fix” the way they sit.
Listeners are told that most people are sitting with their spines in the shape of a C. In other words, they are being told that they are sitting in thoracic/upper back flexion (likely), and also lumbar/lower back flexion (maybe), and posterior pelvic tilt (probably not). Listeners are then told to “untuck” the tailbone for healthier sitting posture. As we know at TrueFN, most people sitting in a chair (or walking around, or standing) are already in anterior pelvic tilt, a lazy weak-abdominals position that is the default for most people because it’s brainless. This article is instructing people to do two stupid things: cram themselves into FURTHER anterior pelvic tilt, and don’t worry much about the upper back. For most people, this is terrible advice.
The guidance to “not worry” about addressing the upper back while sitting is ridiculous. In a chair, thoracic flexion is not only crappy for the shoulders and neck, it also pulls your mid and lower back into flexion, which might make someone FEEL like their spine is then a giant C shape, but in fact it looks more like this:
Notice how the sitter is in lumbar flexion (BECAUSE the upper back musculature is off and the weight of the top of the body is pulling forward and stretching the lower back muscles into flexion) AND anterior pelvic tilt. These are NOT the same thing!
There are some chairs (like deep bucket seats) that might mash someone into a true C shape, pelvis and all, but most chairs are about 18” high and people sitting in them with relaxed abs are bound to sit in anterior pelvic tilt. Think about sitting on an average toilet. It’s why the squatty potty was invented, to get people into pelvic neutrality through deeper hip flexion (passively - in other words, without actually using musculature) so they can poop better without thinking about it.
Telling American sitters on their 18” chairs, as the “experts” in this NPR segment do, to try and “push their butts behind their spines” while seated (especially while ignoring their upper back muscles) just smashes those people further into weak open-abdominal positions. The “expert” essentially told people to arch their lower backs while sitting, whereby making a weak-cored population even weaker. This chronic position can also tighten up the erectors around the base of the spine. Remember that our erector muscles run the length of the spine BUT they are the best example of multi-joint muscles in the body. Every vertebra is a joint. If you’re just melted into a chair, you can be in thoracic flexion, lumbar flexion, AND anterior pelvic tilt. When the idiot expert in this piece instructs the interviewer to grind her a$$ back behind her in the chair and the interviewer says she suddenly feels her lower back relax, all she’s feeling is her erectors not being as stretched anymore through her lumbar. Guess what? This can be achieved by straightening the upper back instead. Then you are free to align your pelvis into neutrality by engaging your abs. Smashing your pelvis into extreme anterior tilt is not the answer to back pain.
No matter what kind of seat someone is on, good sitting posture means engaging your upper back and your abs. Period. Other than ignorance of how the human body really operates, I have no idea why someone would advocate for the opposite.