As discussed in previous posts “Sitting in Chairs” and “Hamstring Stretch,” many people spend a lot of time with a rounded back. It’s hard to think of an occupation that doesn’t require continuous bending over throughout the day. Whether you sit or stand at a desk, perform physical labor, look after small children, play sports—most activities induce you to lean forward at some point in some way. While there’s nothing wrong with this, the act of bending forward or hunching over is often the cause of chronic pain for people who have been doing it the same way for a long, long time. I’m going to share a few ways to help change things up and give your sad back muscles a break.
When your back is rounded, the muscles of the back are working in the position they most dislike—stretched out, long and taut. They can still do this work, and since you are making them do it, the suck it up and prepare to be here for a while, which means they get tight and things get stuck down. Muscles thrive off variety. To keep your back muscles happy, you need to give them alternate lengths at which to work so they can maintain their flexibility.
There are other ways to bend over besides rounding your back. If you use them, your back muscles will get the variety they crave.
The first step is to straighten back up again so your vertebrae are stacked on top of one another like building blocks. Then, think of your hips as a hinge, letting the bend come from the hinge, not your spine. It helps to imagine you are sticking your butt out because compared with rounding the back, the butt is going to feel like it’s way up in the air. As you bend, keep your spine in that same “stacked” position in which it began and stop bending over if you feel your back start to round. This kind of bending shifts the heavy work from your tired back muscles over to the hamstrings and other leg muscles. If you can’t reach the ground while keeping your back from rounding, this indicates your hamstrings might benefit from some stretching, massage, or other attention.
Even though the person on the right in the image above has kept their knees straight, it’s fine to bend your knees when lifting a fairly heavy object. Focus on keeping your back flat and your shins vertical so that the hamstrings and not the quadriceps take on the heavy lifting.
It is crucial to look at yourself in a mirror at least the first few times because while you may feel like you have kept your back flat, it could still be rounded. The body is good at adjusting its sense of “normal” based on how you move all the time, sending you biased information on what you’re actually doing.
Another way to bend down that is especially good for lifting heavy things is to squat. I won’t go into squatting form just yet, so if you have reasons to avoid squatting, such as painful knees, continue to listen to your body and your doctor. However, if squatting is something you can do without pain or worry, do it! There are many different ways to squat, and each of them will add variety to the way you use your muscles.
As in my “Slouching with Purpose” post, I don’t want to eliminate bending with a rounded back completely, but to make it more like dessert than the main course. It’s difficult and unnecessary to completely change a postural habit right away. Rather, start finding a few times here and there when you can bend from the hinge of your hips, keeping a flat back. Try using a squat a few times a day. With time, it will feel easier and more natural to do, and perhaps you will even notice your back feeling less sad, making it still easier to do.
I don’t know the whole answer to why bending with a rounded back is so prevalent compared to bending with a flat back. But one thing I know that makes it difficult to keep your back flat or to squat with good form is tight clothing. People in today’s culture are aware of how damaging corsets can be, yet we still wear many other kinds of clothes that restrict our bodies and movement. If you find yourself having difficulty keeping better posture simply because of tight pants, belts, or other articles, consider wearing looser clothing.