Move - Strength

The Relationship Between Posture, Stress, and Chronic Pain

by Jon Lynch, MS, CSCS, RSCC

Intent is a word commonly used in the performance training industry. It is often said that a great coach administering an average program is far more effective than an average coach administering a great program. This is because a great coach is able to direct emphasis toward important aspects of the training program. But what is the most important aspect of a particular workout, exercise, or long-term training program? As you may have guessed, it depends. 

Posture is not as simple as your mom telling you “sit up straight”. Rather, it is a product of common daily actions (like sitting, driving, or using a smartphone). 

There are an infinite number of variables that might influence certain aspects of exercise prescription. There is also a simple, lowest common denominator that all physical activity affects, and is affected by. A single trait, which, if prioritized can enhance the effect of any training program.  Posture

Posture is not as simple as your mom telling you “sit up straight”. Rather, it is a product of common daily actions (like sitting, driving, or using a smartphone). Actions which are continuously executed result in an enhanced ability to recreate, due to increased neurological proficiency. Without an intervention, this cycle can significantly exacerbate poor posture, leading to chronic pain during daily life. This is because an improvement in posture is essentially a reduction in the amount of tension placed upon the bones by the muscles. 

image one

Buckminster Fuller coined the term “tensegrity” in the 1960s – a term which is refers to the blending of tension and integrity. This concept is key to understanding how posture actually works. The body is a system of tensile structures designed to bear weight (bones), and contractile structures (muscles) designed to hold those tensile structures in place. In a “neutral” tensegrity structure, you have equal lengths of tensile structures, and equal tension on tensile structures, as seen in Image 1. As the length-tension relationship between contractile structures changes, so does the shape of the tensegrity structure. Applying the law of conservation of energy, we know that there is an equal an opposite action between tensile structures. As any given contractile component shortens, others must lengthen equally to accommodate the movement. With this model we can appreciate how any given posture is simply the result of how muscles have continually contracted in order to navigate our world. 

Continual postural tension will cause some contractile structures (muscles) to be concentrically contracted (or locked short) and other to be eccentrically contracted (or locked long).  It is worth noting that BOTH of these muscle groups are actively contracting. The resonance of pain in this example will generally occur in the muscle which is eccentrically loaded, as it is being pull on to the point of extreme length (think of holding a stretch for an extended period of time – not comfortable). The good news is that even a slight improvement in posture can result in profound positive results. This is because the nervous system accommodates posture, and over time gets used to the positions of poor posture, assuming a new biomechanical baseline. When this action is reversed pain, a result of tension, can be quickly resolved. 

The key to resolving pain-causing tension is the physiological principal of reciprocal inhibition.  Reciprocal inhibition is defined by the NSCA as “relaxation that occurs in the muscle opposing the muscle experiencing the increased tension”. The idea here is that certain muscles push and others pull, actions that when performed concurrently will counteract each other. The brain knows this, and when a pushing muscle is concentrically contracted the pulling antagonist must relax for movement to occur. When attempting to improve posture, the goal is to reduce the length-tension relationship between agonist and antagonist muscles. 

This can be done by implementing exercises which stimulate concentric contraction in muscles that are eccentrically loaded. 

a great coach administering an average program is far more effective than an average coach administering a great program

In applying this principle, we will refer to the most fundamental stabilizer of the body – the diaphragm. When any form of stress is experienced it will affect the ability of the diaphragm to dome upon exhalation. This is due to the sympathetic nervous system putting the body into fight or flight mode, which results in a cascade of sympathetic muscle tone designed to prepare the body for survival. Many of individuals who experience chronic neck, back, or knee pain are subject to this cycle of sympathetic muscle tone exacerbating asymmetry in our body’s tensegrity structure.  

Intent is critical to fixing this issue.

Intentional exhalation will force the diaphragm to dome, and begin to reverse the pathology of stress. This can be effective be done periodically throughout the day by using various popular breathing techniques. In training, it is important to focus on maintaining “tension” within our core. This can be done by creating pressure within the core by contracting the obliques, transverse abdominis, serratus anterior, and abdominal floor concurrently. By creating tension in the core muscles, tension is actively reversed from the extremity, thus the pathology of stress is reversed. This technique can be used in almost any strength exercise to enhance the effectiveness of the training, and relieve any pain that may be associated with certain movements. As the body experiences concentric contraction of the core muscles, posture will be enhanced by reducing the tension between agonist and antagonist muscles. This causes a cascade of positive adaptations, including increased pain-free movement variability. 

To improve posture, you’ll need a combination of good intentions, high understanding, and deliberate practice.

Jon Lynch is the Director of Sports Performance at the University of Maine. Find more on Jon here:

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More on posture from the Good Athlete Project:

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