What really is the correct spinal posture? I've gotten this question many times from my students and clients alike. The answer hinges on what you're going to use it for. In day to day movements, martial art practice, and I would argue for the same in massage practice, it is to lift from the crown sink from the sacrum. Straightening out the spine and expanding it in order to grant space in the vertebrae and take pressure off of any one point on the spine, as illustrated below.
This posture is what is used primarily in the internal martial arts of Tai Chi Chuan, Xing Yi, Ba Qua, and various styles of Shaolin. The extension is meant to take the pressure off of the external 'Yang' gross moving muscles of the body, and to put the emphasis on the 'Yin' postural muscles. The strength of postural muscles lasts well into older age, and, as their name indicates, are key players in adjustment of posture and postural ailments.
The spinal posture noted above is used to retrain the holding of the spine taking the pressure off of the main areas that are usually in need of adjustment (as chiropractors will tell you are...) Occ+C1, T12+L1, L5+S1. This posture does so by retraining the surrounding muscles of Illiopsoas (main contributor to L5+S1 problems), quadratus lumborum (secondary contributor to L5+S1 problems), Lumbar paraspinals (L5+S1), thoracolumbar paraspinals (T12+L1) Suboccipitals + scalenes (Occ+C1 and 'forward head carriage') This is done by holding the extension. When holding this extended posture of the spine the above mentioned muscles work in unison with their antagonistic pair. Eventually after consistent practice relaxation is possible into this neutral position, bringing about balance.
I advocate this training method for health practice and to hold as a 'default posture' during day to day activities. The reasoning behind this is because whatever you train your body to do becomes exaggerated with time. This also explains why the areas noted above are the norm for chiropractic adjustments. From the time of childhood the S curve is emphasized "shoulders back, chest out, butt back head up straight" this exaggerates that S curve overworking the muscles noted above, in time pulling the spine out of alignment. That being said the extension of the spine is not the be all end all posture, all of the time. There are times when the 'lifting posture' is needed, and that is when lifting heavy objects. Before we get into that lets explain what 'lifting posture' is.
Mainstream weightlifting postural requirement is usually the spinal S curve. While performing a squat, for example, the force you are working against is gravity, gravity always pulls down so we have to safeguard against its pull with the muscles surrounding the spine to avoid injury. There are various different theories on proper technique in lifting weights but they all hinge on maintaining the spine static. This usually entails the S curve in the spine and extensive use of spinal erectors and various other muscles in the abdominal wall for stabilization.
The two methods noted below are the theory of intra-compartmental pressure, and intra-abdominal pressure mechanism. It should be noted here that without use of the above mentioned methods there runs a high risk of serious injury when lifting heavy loads of weight. As I said in the beginning it is important to keep in mind what we're using the posture for. If you want to look into those methods of tension and muscular use reference the link posted below the pictures. Those topics are well outside the scope of this article but great complements...
When lifting weights the goal is to build muscular strength, size, or endurance while working against resistance. In martial art, more importance is put on having the alignment to divert, project, or accept incoming force. It is held in all martial arts acceptance and diversion are accomplished more easily through alignment and technique as opposed to muscular strength. Although one complements the other, alignment and technique is preferred because that precision is something that lasts much longer than the strength gotten from muscular force in a single contraction or various contractions.
In conclusion Martial posture is meant for day to day life and realistic application toward routine actions, upright pushing, pulling, and of course in combat. Lifting posture is meant for use in building muscular strength specifically and should not be superimposed onto day to day actions unless dealing with lifting heavy weight up from, or lowering down to the ground. Personally in clinical practice I have used this posture for correcting the above mentioned postural alignment problems and various other issues surrounding the spine.
There are various health benefits to this spinal extension. In the next post we'll dive deeper into the health benefits of this postural practice.
Daniel R. Hyde
Licensed Massage Therapist
OIF, OEF Veteran
U.S. Marine Corps
Kwan Ying Do Kung Fu
Tai Chi Chuan
Tui Na, Chinese Massage
Shiatsu, Japanese Massage