Fitness: Does Form and Posture Matter Much in Exercise? [Video]

fitnessIn the fitness profession, perhaps the proper form and posture to do most exercises do not matter much. In a recent article on The Personal Trainer Development Center, fitness professional Joy Victoria from Toronto, Canada, questioned and explored whether the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and cueing clients to move in a pre-mediated range of motion and posture is the right thing to do. Victoria wrote  in the early part of her coaching career, her understanding of what was considered “proper” or “perfect” was based on an “absolute” premise that yielded very little variability in human movement. “There is no one perfect way to do something. There’s only what is right for that person,” she wrote. Not every client or athlete can fit into what most fitness trainers perceive as the proper form. “Maybe our ideas need to change, it is not always the form.”

This shift of thinking and paradigm in the fitness industry is somewhat new, contradicting the stereotypical image of a personal trainer micro-managing every detail of a client doing a barbell squat or push-up: “Knees and feet forward. Keep your stomach in. Chest up!” The belief is that poor form or posture can lead to pain or injury. While this belief has been upheld in the fitness industry for decades, numerous scientific literature and studies have failed to show a strong correlation or a causality between poor posture and pain. Science writer and former registered massage therapist Paul Ingraham of Save Yourself wrote a detailed description and analysis of whether posture really matters or not. First, he defined poor posture as “an unnecessary and problematic pattern of physical responses to postural challenges.” A postural challenge is “anything that makes it hard to maintain more or less upright function,” such as attempting to lift a heavy couch or sitting and typing with the laptop at chin level.

The context of poor posture should also be noted, Ingraham added. For example, an old man with a stooped posture may have spinal stenosis or some kind of spine disease. If he were to stand and walk upright, it may cause him much more pain. In fact, a Danish study from Aalborg University that was published in Journal of Pain in 2011 showed that a change of posture can be caused by pain. Thus, pain can cause “poor posture,” not always the other around. Thus, people with hunched shoulders, anterior pelvic tilt, “upper-cross syndrome,” and a host of other “dysfunctional posture” may be an adaptation to steer away from pain.

Sometimes posture is a reflection of a person’s emotions. In a study that was published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in January 2012, researchers Vanessa Bohns from the University of Toronto and Scott Wiltermuth from the University of Southern California wrote that people who adopt certain body poses change their hormonal levels and increase their likelihood to take risks. In one experiment, participants who adopted a dominant, more confident pose had higher pain thresholds than those who adopted neutral or submissive poses. In the second experiment, subjects who were paired up with another subject who displays a dominant pose resort to a submissive pose, which lead lower pain tolerance.

To say that posture and form does not matter much in exercise and movement entirely also has its flaws in thinking and application in the sports and fitness fields. “Yes, form does matter when we look at elite performers in any sport. We see certain aspects of their movement converge relative to what you see in the general population,” stated fitness professional Rafe Kelley, owner of EvolveMovePlay.com in Seattle, Washington, in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice.

However, you will also see many that don’t. Look at arm angles used by different pitchers in baseball or the different stances of the hitters. The line between what is generalizable and what is idiosyncratic is unclear.

Kelley said there are basic aspects of movement which can be considered a commonality among most athletes and the individual’s preference of moving. For example, jumping and bounding requires a cycle of hip flexion and extension, and an effective punch in boxing requires a good force linkage between the ground and the fist.  “Then there are aspects of movement that are individual and important that is specific adaptations to the structure and neurology of given individual that allow them optimal performance but are not generalizable to other athletes,” Kelley explained.  “And finally, there is movement noise, aspects of an athlete’s movement patterns that have no overall impact on performance.”

If there is something that Victoria and Kelley can agree on, it would be that there is no single universal “rule” or “form” for everyone. “The difficulty in looking at a movement pattern is what part of the variation falls into each category is not totally clear,” Kelley continued,

Our knowledge of the body as a system is far lower than we often admit, the tools we have to bear on the question of perfect form are very imperfect. So we should be trying to identify the common factors that generally have positive or negative impact on performance across the population, as well as individual factors relevant to a given athlete. Within this, it is important to be open-ended and allow the athlete to be adaptive and not constrained by a completely rigid idea of perfect form.

While it seems that form and posture are not as dogmatically important as most fitness professionals think, Victoria added a few guidelines for both trainers and trainees. “Find out what a client can do well and easily first,” she wrote. “A movement that’s awkward, painful, and is causing a client to guard themselves (holding their breath, grimacing, flinching, shaking), and requires a ton of cueing is probably not a good exercise for them at the moment.” Victoria suggests trainers should avoid categorizing clients and attempt to “fix” their problems when there may be none. “The mind is the control center for what we experience physically. You can have pain without injury and injury without pain. The more you re-enforce the idea that you are broken, screwed up, or asymmetrical, the more you will re-enforce pain-related symptoms.” Thus, form and posture may not matter as much in exercise if the underlying cause of the problem is not addressed.

By Nick Ng

Sources:

The Personal Trainer Development Center
Save Yourself
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Journal of Pain
Interview with Rafe Kelly, owner of EvolveMovePlay.com

4 Responses to "Fitness: Does Form and Posture Matter Much in Exercise? [Video]"

  1. Matt Whitehead   August 26, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Nick, thanks for the article and starting a discussion about form, posture, pain, and exercise. I both agree and disagree with pieces of this article. I agree that pain and emotions affect our posture, but posture can also cause pain and affect our emotions. While I think it is very important to treat each and every person/client/patient as an individual and personalize everything to them, we must also remember while people look different (short, fat, skinny, tall, etc) we all share the same underlying human design. The basics of which is we are upright bipeds. In order to function our bodies have symmetry left to right in our musculoskeletal systems and our major load joints are designed to be vertically aligned one on top of the next (ankle, knee, hip, shoulder) when viewed from the front, back and sides. When our joints no longer align this way several things happen: it can cause stressful friction and pressure on joint surfaces leading to arthritis and cartilage damage; it changes muscle length and tensions around the joint which can lead to muscle strains, cramps, and pain; in an attempt to stay upright and mobile our body will compensate for the misaligned joint and cause problems throughout the body. Most people with any chronic painful musculoskeletal problem (that wasn’t hit by a car) has postural imbalances that are responsible for the pain and correcting the postural imbalances will decrease or eliminate the pain allowing the person to continue being active. Doing any strengthening exercises on a misaligned body will only strengthen the imbalances leading to more pain and injury in the future. Read more on my website: http://www.oregonexercisetherapy.com/blog

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  2. Tabitha Farrar   July 30, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I totally agree. Another thing that I have noted is that all too often physical therapists try to “fix” postures that are not causing any pain or discomfort but are textbook incorrect. The the patient does experience a whole host of problems due to the adjustment messing with the way their body has learnt to operate over a lifetime.

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  3. Tabitha Farrar   July 30, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for addressing this in an article. There is no direct answer to this, and I think that an individuals form can often be unique to them. However I teach intro yoga classes and there are certain things- .i.e elbows into the sides in chaturanga to keep supraspinatus -safe that are pretty important and very under taught. I tend to fall on the side of good alignment as having worked as a sports massage therapist also, I have treated too many injuries that could have been avoided.

    Having said that, we are all different, and certainly in yoga some students actually respond better and therefore achieve greater alignment of both mind and body with an instructor that leaves them alone more than I do 🙂

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    • Nick Ng   July 30, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Thank you, Tabitha. You are correct on that we are all different, and certain types of activities demand different kinds of movement and postures, which are usually transient.

      In wing chun kung fu, the posterior pelvic tilt and “upper-cross syndrome” that Janda had described is part of the training and “ready” position, as depicted here in the link below. Such posture may be labeled as “dysfunctional,” but in certain context, it is functional and is not indicative or causal to pain.

      http://wingchunarnis.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/bruce-lee-yip-man-b.jpg

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