As a yoga teacher I talk a lot about postures and the transitions between them; I have had many serious discussions about how to align in a yoga posture—the Sanskrit term is asana— and what strength and mobility benefits you might get from each one. But the postures that are most important are not the ones that we might practice during a yoga class, but rather the ones we practice all day. The postures that we take for granted are the ones that shape us most deeply. How do we walk? Or reach for objects, or lift them? How do we sleep? How do we stand? Sit? Move from standing to sitting? And how often do we do these movements? How much time are we spending in them?
Our bodies did not evolve to hold a static posture for long periods of time, or to repeat the same movements all day long. Until the industrial revolution the vast majority of us were moving most of the time, and in a large variety of ways. Now the average American spends 13 hours a day in one posture — sitting!* In Kelly Starrett’s book Deskbound he relates a story about a group of Division 1 college athletes who were training 4 hours a day, but the rest of their time was spent sitting in chairs—12 to 14 hours. Most of us spend much less time in active athletic movement, and even more seated. The effect of sitting on these athletes was causing injuries, and preventing these athletes from achieving their goals.*
Tally for yourself the hours spent at your desk, at a table eating, on the couch, driving, or with your guitar or piano. Chances are you will discover that you spend an enormous amount of the day sitting. There are lots of studies out on the overall negative physiological effects of sitting*, but in this post I’d like to start exploring some of the musculoskeletal basics. What are some of the common effects on your muscles and connective tissue of sitting for prolonged periods of time?
- Hip flexors shorten and stiffen.
When. you sit the muscles that pull your legs towards your torso —the hip flexors—are shortened. Spend enough time sitting and these muscles adapt to this position—they stiffen, develop trigger points, grow weak, and lose range. One of the most important of these hip flexors is your Psoas Major, which connects your spine in your low back (lumbar vertebra) to your thigh bone (at the lesser trochanter of the femur). This muscle has attachments to your diaphragm; tightness here can negatively affect your breathing mechanics.
- Hip extensors (gluteal muscles) grow weak.
Sitting also turns off the muscles in the lower half of your body. Your butt – which is an important spinal stabilizer, and central in the relationship between your pelvis and ribcage – forgets its main function; it stops firing properly, cascading into a domino effect. When your glutes aren’t working, something else has too. Muscles start to do work they aren’t designed for, and so get very grumpy — leading to stiff hips, and a painful low back. Some people call this gluteal amnesia. Often the upper portion of the hamstrings will also stiffen. Most often the pelvis tips back and your torso slumps forward causing a ripple effect up your body. And the more time you spend sitting, the more likely you are to lose range of motion at the hips – especially extension, the opposite of flexion – the ability to bring your leg behind you from the hip joint. If your gluteal muscles aren’t firing, extension of the hip becomes even more difficult, creating strain on the lumbar spine, which will attempt to take over.
Try this simple self-test for hip extension to find your current active range. If you find the movement difficult, continued practice will help retrain the muscles to fire more quickly and strongly. If bending your knee lifts your hip off the ground then your rectus femoris is probably shortened and stiff; if trying to lift the knee off the ground causes back pain then your psoas or iliacus might be to blame. It’s possible that both need work.
If you are not able to lift your knee you can try the movement with your belly and pelvis on a folded blanket or pillow; or stretch out your hip flexors first with a mobilization like King Arthur’s Pose and then retry the movement.
Levine, James A. Get up!: why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 70-71.
Chau JY, Grunseit AC, Chey T, Stamatakis E, Brown WJ, Matthews CE, et al. (2013) Daily Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80000. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080000