What is considered good posture? According to the Physical Therapy Dictionary, good posture is defined as “the state of muscular and skeletal balance which protects the supporting structures of the body against injury or progressive deformity irrespective of the attitude (erect, lying, squatting, stooping) in which the structures are working or resting. Under such conditions the muscles will function most efficiently and the optimum positions are afforded the thoracic and abdominal organs.” By contrast, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons defines poor posture as “a faulty relationship of the various parts of the body which produces increased strain on the supporting structures and in which there is less efficient balance of the body over its base of support.”

To better understand the implications of this, let us consider how the position of the head can have an effect on the muscles of the neck and shoulders. The average human head is said to weigh approximately 10-11lbs. When it rests squarely upon the neck and shoulders, the weight is translated down the spine placing little to no strain on the muscles of the head and neck. According to physiatrist Rene Cailliet, MD, the weight of the head is effectively increased by a factor of ten for every inch of displacement. If your head pitches forward by 2 inches for example, you’re essentially adding an extra 20lbs of pressure to the surrounding structures! Doing so places the muscles of the neck and shoulders under tremendous strain. Research has shown that faulty postures can lead to bone and soft tissue changes, which in turn can create a whole host of other issues — such as chronic neck & shoulder tension and headaches.

The spine is made up of 33 individual vertebrae. Nine of these vertebrae fuse together through a process known as ossification by the time we reach adulthood – 5 in the Sacrum (S1-S5), and 4 (sometimes 3-5) in the Coccyx or tailbone. That leaves 24 moveable vertebrae: 5 – cervical, 12 – thoracic, and 5 –lumbar. The spine has what is known as primary and secondary curves. Primary curves are the curves in the spine that we’re born with; namely the thoracic and sacral curves. These curves are formed in the developing fetus and are structural in nature. Secondary curves on the other hand are formed in response to muscle strengthening and develop a little bit later. The cervical curve for example takes shape as the newborn learns to lift his/her head. The lumbar curve develops after this as the child begins to sit up. Because of the nature of secondary curves, they are more susceptible to being over and underdeveloped, and as a result can lead to faulty postures. Let’s take a look at some examples.

The first image in the diagram below depicts what is considered “good posture.” The plum line suspended along side the lateral view of the body serves a reference point for the head, shoulders, hips and feet. As you can see in the first image, the head sits squarely on the shoulders so that the ear is in front of the line. The shoulders are then evenly aligned with the plum line so that they don’t round too far back or too far forward. Make note of the gentle curves in the spine in relation to the faulty postures. When we get down to the hips, we see a natural tilt that is approximately 30 degrees. This is considered normal. An anterior pelvic tilt will show an increase of more than 30 degrees and posterior pelvic tilt will show a decrease of less than 30 degrees. As the line continues down to the feet, we can see that the anklebone sits just behind the plum line.

Faulty Postures

As we move on to the various types of faulty postures, we must first consider the degrees to which these deformities take shape. There are three classifications of postural deformities.

1st degree deformities: Also known as postural or functional deformities. These variations in posture are a result of muscle imbalances. There are no structural or boney changes and the person can self correct.

2nd degree deformities: Also known as transitional deformities. These are also due to muscle imbalances formed from soft tissue contractures. There are no structural or boney changes, but because these have become so entrenched, the person cannot self correct.

3rd degree deformities: These deformities are structural in nature. There are definite boney changes, which are congenital in nature or born out of degenerative changes. A person cannot self correct.

Faulty Postures

A) Here we see a relaxed faulty posture. Notice the increased angle of the pelvis. This is considered a 1st degree deformity and through strengthening of key muscle groups and postural re-education, this type of posture can be corrected.

B) A kyphosis is the result of an exaggerated, posterior curve of the thoracic spine. There are two different types:

  1. Kyphosis Arcuata: This considered a 1st degree deformity. Both the shoulders and the upper back are rounded forward. The front of the shoulders are rolled inward and the head and neck pitched forward. Poor postural habits as well as psychogenic causes (i.e. emotional and psychological) can lead to this muscle imbalance of the upper body.
  2. Kyphosis Angularis: This is considered a 3rd degree deformity. Also known as a “hunchback” deformity. This exaggerated posterior curve of the thoracic spine is often caused by osteoporosis or Pott’s disease – a tuberculosis of the spine.

The counterpart to a kyphosis is a lordosis. A lordosis is an increased or exaggerated anterior curve of the lumbar spine. This means that the forward tilt of the pelvis is greater than 30 degrees. This is considered in most cases a 1st degree deformity. Some common causes could include obesity, pregnancy, or some form of muscle imbalance due to poor postural habits.

C) A sway back posture occurs when the angle of the pelvis is greater than 30 degrees and there is a forward shift of the pelvis, forcing the hip joint into hyperextension. As a result, a long kyphosis of the thoracic and upper lumbar spine develops. Considered a 1st degree deformity, this posture is usually the result of a muscle imbalance due to poor postural habits.

D) A flat back is the result of a posterior pelvic tilt (less than 30 degrees) which flattens out the normal curve of the lumbar spine. If not addressed properly this first-degree deformity, caused by a muscle imbalance and poor postural habits, can lead to a flattening of the thoracic spine.

E) A round back posture can either be a result of a kyphosis arcuata or a kyphosis angularis. In this representation, a flat back in the lumbar spine accompanies a kyphosis of the upper back. The angle of the pelvis is less than 30 degrees creating a roundness to the back. Notice the angle of the upper back in relation to the kyphosis represented in B. Notice also how the knees and lower legs are hyper extended.

Scoliosis: Another deformity of the spine not represented in the diagram is what’s known as a side bending or lateral curve of the spine – a scoliosis. A scoliosis can develop in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar segments of the spines. If the scoliosis occurs in only one part of the spine, it’s referred to as a “simple curve” or “C curve.” On occasion it can develop in several parts of the spine creating a “double/compound curve” or “S curve.”

There are two primary types of scoliosis. A postural scoliosis is considered a 1st degree deformity and is often the result of a muscle imbalance. An idiopathic scoliosis has no known cause, is considered a 3rd degree structural deformity, and is the most common form.

Developing good posture

For most of us, developing good postural habits can be a bit of a challenge. Some habits have become so entrenched and so much a part of who we are, that changing them will require some work. But the benefits are well worth the price.

Tight, contracted muscles have a way of restricting oxygen and nutrient rich blood flow to our cells. As a result, metabolic waste can accumulate in the tissue creating pain and imbalance. Chronically contracted muscles also burn up more energy and place an undue strain on the joints of the body. Over time these conditions can lead to illness, fatigue, and arthritis. Let’s not forget the psychological effects our posture plays in our lives. Walking around with our shoulders and our heads hanging low may initially be a way of coping with social anxiety or poor self esteem, but over time these postural habits can actually influence our state of mind. On the other hand, walking with our shoulders back and our heads held high has a way of creating and conveying confidence.

It all starts with awareness. Developing a certain amount of body awareness is crucial for any kind of change to occur. How many of us walk around stiff as a board and completely tense…without realizing it?! Check in with yourself a couple of times a day. Doing so will train your mind to catch moments of tension and contraction in the body before they set in below the level of awareness. Taking a break from the computer or office desk to get up and move around is a great way of doing this.

Exercise is the great equalizer. Whether it’s a full blown work out at the gym or a 20min walk in the park, getting your heart rate up and your body moving is a great way of breaking up stagnant energy and increasing blow flow to your muscles. And the powerful practices of yoga, tai chi, and Pilates can all help strengthen and stretch key muscle groups and create balance in our bodies.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind.

When standing:

  • Make sure your feet are shoulder width apart
  • Keep the weight of your body on the soles of your feet
  • Keep your shoulders square with your body
  • Pull your head back and tuck in your chin
  • Stand so that your spine is erect, your head rests comfortably on your shoulders and your arms hang loosely by your side

When sitting:

  • Sit up straight with small of your back pressed up against the back of your chair (doing so will help prevent slouching)
  • Adjust the armrests on your chair so that your arms rest comfortably at an angle of 75-90 degrees
  • Both feet should rest on the floor so that your knees are bent at approx a 90 degree angle
  • If you’re in front of a computer, make sure the monitor is placed at comfortable viewing distance to prevent eye fatigue and neck strain. Avoid angles that force your head to pitch up or down or crane to the side. Using ergonomically designed keyboards and chairs are a great way to start.

With the advent of social media and mobile devices, we now have a tendency to constantly be looking down at our phones and tablets to check emails, update our facebook page, send texts and tweets, etc… This is creating unprecedented amounts of head, neck, and shoulder issues. To avoid making this potentially harmful and rudimentary mistake, always make sure to hold your device UP so that it’s at eye level. And don’t forget to breathe….


joe-azevedo2Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.