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Is Slouching Good for your Back?

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 57 – October 2000

According to John Gorman, a chiropractor and former mechanical engineer, slouching and slumping are good for the back. I read it recently in a newspaper, thanks to a patient of mine who passed on a cutting of the controversial article; but I was already familiar with the theory having read, few years ago, two books from John Gorman on the subject. To the inveterate slouchers amongst us i.e. the majority of people, this idea is highly seductive.

However, the slouching topic invites questions and discussions. For example: if slouching is good for backs, how then can we explain the prevalence of bad backs since this highly addictive posture is adopted by all but a few? Is ‘slouching-therapy’ based on the principles of homeopathy: treating the patient with agents which are themselves capable of producing the very symptoms the patient wants to get rid of? After all, slouching has had the long reputation of being the cause of back pain. Are we really able to turn this accepted idea on its head? Let’s investigate.

Gorman, who paradoxically is a keen supporter of the Alexander Technique, says that slouching, squatting, and sitting on the floor are good for the back because they “maintain the mobility of the hip joints and give a rounded, flexible back.” I wonder, en passant, who wants a rounded back? He recommends sitting on the floor, with the hands clasped around the bent knees, for about half an hour every day, saying that this fully slumped position “stretches all the muscles and joints of the whole spine.” To support the soundness of these postural habits he refers to the people living in the underdeveloped world who use them constantly.

‘Slouching’ and ‘slumping” have a negative connotation synonymous with collapsing, concertinering. When Gorman uses these words I believe he means ‘flexing the spine forward’. ‘Flexing forward’ does not imply shortening and compressing, ‘slouching’ does. These two words are not interchangeable and should not be used loosely lest words lose their meaning.

If Gorman advises us to ‘slouch’, it is because he thinks that this humble posture will stretch the spine and its muscles. This approach is not new, and I have heard of some Williams’ exercises, designed to curve the spine outward or, in Gorman’s jargon, to make the body ‘slouch’. Manual therapists have always been puzzled by the curves of the spine, and have never quite known how to handle them when they curl up the wrong way. One thing is sure though: slouching cannot fulfil what Gorman is trying to achieve. The reason is to be found in the particular shape of our spines.

The human backbone is similar to a sinusoid. ‘Sinusoid’ is not sinistrous as it sounds; it means ‘a curve having the form of a sine wave’.

Our spine is a sinuous, sinusoidal and S-shaped affair whose curves are subtended by catenating (which connects like the links of a chain) muscles. To elongate such a structure, it is necessary to pull its extremities along its long axis; in other words, to work in a direction parallel to this axis. This is why flexing the spine forward won’t lengthen it. Anyway, it is practically impossible to round the sinusoid-like spine totally and evenly.

Take the position Gorman recommends us to hold for at least half an hour a day: sitting on the floor in a fully slumped position, with the hands clasped around the knees. If you try to hold this position without using your hands to support yourself you will fall backward.

This is because the back muscles are much stronger than the front ones. Having your hands clasped around your knees will prevent you falling on your back but it will certainly not lengthen your spine and its muscles.

Look at yourself in a mirror (side view) while you hold this position. If you observe carefully, you will be able to notice that, if the lower and mid-back areas are indeed rounded, on the other hand, the neck and upper back are seriously concaved, especially so if you watch TV at the same time, as Gorman advises you to do. This is not easy to detect because the shoulder-blades area, being rounded transversely (crosswise), masks this incurvation. The arms, as they support the weight of the body, aggravate this inescapable tendency of forming a scapular kyphosis (round-shoulders).

Clearly, this posture cannot deliver the goods promised by Gorman, but it will do what slouching is supposed to do: shorten your stature and give you round-shoulders. To improve a bad position you must, without holding yourself with your hands, try to grow taller, directing the top of the skull toward the ceiling. But, then, thousands of compensations and deviations will arise, and believe me, you won’t be able to watch much of TV as, after few minutes or seconds, you will collapse and fall victim to a bout of acute slouching. The front muscles are not up (yet) to the task of opposing the back ones!

There is no doubt that squatting is a good position… when you can achieve it. To ask urbanised, chair-bound people to squat is similar to ask them to run before they can walk. People who live in the ‘undeveloped’ world squat when we would sit; to the extent that a ‘squatting joint’ between the tibia (leg) and the astragalus (foot) has been discovered in peoples who have the squatting habit.

These ‘squatting joints’ are absent in those, like us, who habitually use chairs or other seats (F. Wood Jones,1943). Before you can squat comfortably without harming yourself it is necessary to regain a good deal of elasticity in your posterior muscles. If you don’t, you won’t squat square.

So, is slouching good for your back? The answer is in the word itself: in ‘slouching’ there is always an ‘ouch’ tied up in a ‘sling’!

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