We have been thinking for a while about writing a blog about how sitting most of the day is, well, EVIL! Since the majority of people do sit most of the day, we're sure you can identify with the "desk posture" to which we are referring: rounded shoulders, tight lower back, shortened hamstrings...and these are just the physical effects! Sitting can also leave you feeling sluggish and tired, making the thought of going to the gym far less appealing.
To substantiate our opinions, we went online to find articles by experts about the perils of sitting. Our thought was that we would find some articles that spoke about the PSOAS, the large,deep muscle that flexes the hip, and how a shortened psoas due to long bouts of sitting wreaks havoc on your lower back and posture…..
Instead, we found a slew of very DIRE articles about the long term implications of sitting -- articles far too grim for us to include here! Surprisingly, the articles spoke mainly about the PHYSIOLOGICAL ramifications of prolonged sitting as opposed to the BIOMECHANICAL repercussions.
Soooooooooooo, we decided just to speak to our experience!
For those of you who may not know, we did not become professional dancers until AFTER working in multinational corporations in Tokyo for four years. In other words, we sat at desks all day long for four years! And we each threw ourselves into work, so stayed at the office long hours....so we stayed sitting for long hours! When we finally decided to get back to dancing we were 27….which is OLD in the dancing world! The first thing we noticed about our posture (once we realized vast improvement was necessary) was that we walked and stood in a constant, albeit slight, hinge forward from the hips. Of course, at the time, we weren’t familiar with the term “anterior tilt”, so we called it “duck butt." We thought our butts stuck out and looked like little ducks. But actually, we were walking around in permanent hip flexion all the time!
When your hips are in a constant state of hip flexion -- even to a small degree -- the muscles around your hip joints get tight in the wrong places, loose in the wrong places, and ultimately unbalanced. This, of course, throws off your balance as well! We know this firsthand! After our FOUR YEARS of desk work in Japan, we came back to graduate school at Columbia University in NYC, we started taking dance classes again, quickly realizing that we were ENTIRELY “out of whack”. It felt like aliens had invaded our bodies…. we couldn’t jump well, couldn’t balance well, and most definitely could not turn well! At the time, we only attributed the decline to “not dancing”.
Now flash forward 19 years! We know MUCH more about the human body now, as we have owned and operated our studio for 15 years, and have had the benefit of seeing many different bodies throughout the years. Combine that with the inherent knowledge of the how our bodies FELT differently when approaching exercise after sitting all day vis a vis after walking, dancing, and, well, NOT sitting, and you have two people who TRULY understand the repercussions of sitting all day!
So here are our findings:
Sitting, because it keeps you in a constant state of hip flexion, not only shortens, but also WEAKENS the hip flexors. Short muscles are not necessarily strong muscles!
Sitting keeps the glutes in an elongated, passive position... they are certainly NOT being strengthened!
Sitting on a ball or "sitting up straight" is certainly better for your spine, than sitting slouched in a chair, but the hip joint will still be flexed.
When your hip joint becomes accustomed to constant hip flexion, finding neutral hip placement is challenging! Slight flexion feels like "neutral," so then you walk, stand, etc, in slight hip flexion.
When you're in constant hip flexion -- even if your spine is technically neutral -- the psoas is still shortened and is pulling on the lumbar vertebrae. This causes back pain.
But how do you know if your hip flexors are short, or weak, or both?
There are a couple of tests that you can do.
1) The Thomas Test --- for tightness
We HIGHLY recommend that you visit the link for a full description of the test, but in a VERY small nutshell, in the position above, if your thigh does not touch the table, your hip flexors are tight. If the knee is also bent 70 degrees or less, your rectus femoris is also tight, and if your leg abducts during the test, your IT band is tight.
2) Psoas Strength Test
The video on this site explains both the Thomas test (above) and this strengthening test extremely well, but essentially, you sit right on your sit bones with your pelvis and spine neutral, hands behind the head. Then, lift one leg off the ground without changing spinal shape or rotating the pelvis to complete the movement. Because the psoas is the only hip flexor that acts on the hip past 90 degrees of hip flexion, if it is weak, you either will not be able to lift your leg, OR you will compensate in some way (by tilting or rotating the pelvis).
So what exercises can you do?
Actually, and very simply, you can use these tests to both strengthen and stretch your psoas.
We recommend you do the strength test first.
Paying careful attention to the position of your pelvis and spine (they should be neutral), lift one knee up, using your hand(s) if necessary, as high as you can without disrupting alignment. Then, release your hands and lower the leg as slowly as possible.
Alternatively, you can do the same test with your arms down by your side, using them as support as you lift each leg.
Then, the Thomas test can turn into your stretch! Just make sure that the pelvis stays neutral and the lower back does not arch!
One more exercise we'd like to add here is a simple shoulder bridge. Strong glutes make for a more relaxed psoas (due to reciprocal inhibition), so make sure you do both a double leg shoulder bridge and a single leg shoulder bridge.
And here's a stretch you can do virtually anywhere: Stand up and stagger your legs, making sure your sit bones are aiming toward the floor. Then, bend the front knee, allowing the back leg to bend slightly, but mainly focusing on that hip moving into slight extension. From there reach the same arm as the back leg up over head and into a side bend... YUM.