Posture, Anxiety, and Weight Distribution

Posture, Anxiety, and Weight Distribution

If there is one fundamental physical practice everyone should be aiming to master, I would suggest that it is learning to manage your centre of gravity. In my experience there is a high likelihood that your mobility restrictions, your under-active glutes, your lower back pain, limited (relative term) strength output, and even your inability to relax, are all derived from improper distribution of weight.

Posture is nothing more than a representation of how you manage your centre of mass (COM). This will dictate which muscles are concentric or eccentric in orientation, which ones you can feel working, which ones you can’t “turn off”, which ones feel tight, which ones feel weak etc. It is a response to your strategy for putting force into the ground to keep yourself standing up and looking forward. This will directly impact your strategy for creating propulsion and moving through space and even how you breathe. All of these different factors are directly fed back to the nervous system and brain and play a part in your overall interpretation of your situation within the environment.

When we think of mindfulness and relaxation practices, it is of paramount importance that we adopt postures with minimal muscular tension. The way in which we manage our breathing in terms of the space the air occupies, the musculature we use to draw air in, the range of motion for expansion and compression all impact how effectively we can downregulate our nervous system. If we think of trying to be mindful and quiet our anxieties, it is a much harder task if we stay at the inhalation end of the breathing spectrum and if we clench our fists and squeeze our muscles. But this relay between the physical body and the psychological mind is taking place on a constant basis; not merely while we meditate. I am not suggesting here that your posture is causing your anxiety, but it is important to acknowledge that the chronic characteristics of our physical state promote and reinforce certain mental states. As Tom Myers observes: when you are uptight and anxious, you must assume the posture of someone who is uptight and anxious. If you are depressed, you must adopt the posture of someone who is depressed. The body is a physical representation of the mind in many cases and we all intuitively understand how body language demonstrates our thought processes. The relay works in both directions. If you lift your chest and stand with your shoulders back, it can often placebo you into feeling more confident. And equally if you feel less confident, you are likely to physically shy away with your posture. So if we are to have a holistic approach to tackling the epidemic of anxiety in our modern culture, we must consider the feedback the body is providing to the mind, and fundamentally this is about how we manage our COM.

If you stand up and perform what I call the “Michael Jackson” by leaning far forward over your toes you will notice a few things. You will notice that certain muscles become tight. And you will notice that certain joints change position relative to each other. You will notice that you can no longer rotate as easily or as far. You certainly wouldn’t be able to perform a deep squat. As we operate in a world where everything is in front of us, the most common flaw in weight distribution is for people to be pitched forward in this manner. This means compression of the backside and expansion on the front side of the body. An image that many of us are familiar with is that of a child stood with their bellies pushed right out forward as a comfortable way to stand. The extension of the spine here puts force down into the ground and means that you can stand with passive orientations supporting your frame, and no muscular effort. The problem is that as one thing goes forward, another must go back at some stage, or we simply fall over or end up looking at the sky or the floor. Often you will see knees come back. Once again, this hyperextension puts force into the floor, but unfortunately puts you into a position where your hamstrings cannot leverage any effective action to pull you forward when moving. With the pelvis tilting forwards and following the lumbar spine, the glutes are also taken out of the equation. This makes people highly reliant on their calves and lower back to propel themselves forward. If you take this compressive strategy further and keep moving the pelvis forwards through space, you will find it will eventually switch into a posterior tilt. The glutes almost have to “grip” to keep you from falling forwards. These people have butt cheeks that stay very clenched, but often remained underdeveloped because they are never given the option to lengthen. Compression here is a common source of sciatica because the nerve simply has less space than it should.

Looking up from the pelvis, we see that the rib cage has to tilt backwards in compensation. This is seen as a rounding of the upper back. Often this means the rib cage moves away from the shoulders which can result in all sorts of different issues typically assessed as impingements, scapular dyskinesis, rotator cuff “weakness”. A common issue that I see is that the change in position means the serratus has no leverage and the traps become responsible for protraction. We then see the neck hyperextend because the priority of the posture is to keep the eyes forward, regardless of how it gets there. Chronically shortened tissues of the neck is a big factor in why so many people experience tension headaches these days. This is more commonly experienced on the right-hand side because, once again, our COM is biased towards the right more so than the left. This means more weight and compression on the right-hand side which makes breathing and expanding a job for the left. In this scenario the right ribcage does not elevate, and it is actually excessive length from the right side being dragged down which causes the tension.

The thing to appreciate about all of this is that each of the movements or orientation examples listed above are not inherently bad. They are strategies to deal with weight distribution within a flexible, integrated frame. They are all normal capacities the body should have access to for certain situations. However, when your COM is pitched away from a centre point, your options are reduced. When your options are reduced, the distribution of gravitation stress becomes limited. When stress is focussed on specific tissues for long periods, issues arise. When you stand in a centred or, dare-I-say, “neutral” posture, you have the option to do the afore mentioned “Michael Jackson” manoeuvre. If you try it when you’re already compressed forward, you won’t successfully go anywhere other than the floor. It’s impossible to move into a space you already occupy. If you start a bicep curl from a fully flexed position of the elbow you have nowhere to go. If joints and muscles orient into one end of a movement spectrum and you hold that position for a month, a year, a decade straight- not only will your functionality diminish, but you will likely experience discomfort. Only by restoring the range of movements options can we improve that situation.

Many people will resort to stretching and or strengthening in order to address these problems. Neither will work. Your strength work will very likely reinforce the positions to which you already have access. And stretching will simply allow you to subvert the appropriate constraints of the systemic movement making it easier for your body to maintain a compressed state. We need to use an intervention that re-educates the body to manage its COM. Typically this involves shifting weight backwards, or towards the left. It is important that we establish reference points like the left heel in order to do this. It is amazing how often you will find people who do not know what it feels like to sense their left heel on the floor; and once they do its remarkable that they can breathe more easily, feel muscles relax, and sense the potential of the glutes and hamstrings to move them. Understanding how to identify where you COM is relative to your structure is the key thing that can unlock your movement potential in terms of even muscular development, general mobility, and distribution of mechanical stress.