Sitting at a desk all day is by far one of the most popular spectator sports we've got in this country. The best part is, anyone can do it, and they usually do. For hours on end.
From kids parked in front of a TV (or phone, or computer or video game system, or in a desk all day at school) to adults at work all day, sitting is an all inclusive activity that is destroying our ability to perform basic fundamental human movements. More importantly it is crushing the the way our muscles move our bones.
It is the absolute perfect way to completely undo 10's of 1000's of years of our upright ambulation. Want to crush your posture and reduce your movement quality? Sit all day.
Want to develop low back pain/tension, tenderness at the base of your neck, headaches behind the eyes and shoulder discomfort? Sit all day.
Don't like performing with as much strength, mobility and power as possible? Yep, you guess it. Sit all day. If you're a cyclist, you hit the double down jackpot from sitting all day, since you sit to ride your bike as well.
Trust, me the massive irony of me sitting as I write this is not lost upon me. Even your friendly neighbor personal trainer is not immune to this activity.
What happens when we sit all day?
NOTHING good. At all really.
"We often take a natural lower back curve and switch it the wrong direction: Lordosis to kyphosis. This has the double whammy effect of turning the glutes and lower abs off, as well as shortening the hamstrings and hip flexors," says Daniella Dayoub from DFitLife.
"So now you have a shortened chest/pec area, internal rotation at your arms, and a excessive strain on the cervical spine from the weight of the forward head."
Remember when we were kids and our parents told us "don't make that face, or you'll stay like that!" It is the same thing with sitting all day and postural degradation.
"(The) spine can become fixed in an abnormal posture," says Alison Corcoran from Goldilocks Training. "Fatigue sets in because muscles are being used inefficiently."
But what about standing desks? Aren't those better than sitting all day? How does being on your feet instead of your glutes compare?
"Standing for four hours can still cause rounding out and poor posture, just like sitting can," says Karen Koutsavlis from New England 360 Fitness. "Especially if you start to lean to one side and put all your weight onto one leg."
How does that affect our posture?
It crushes it. Big time. Once you start changing joint angles, the entire body starts to get pulled out of alignment to some extent. You can't change one angle without affecting another one (1).
This means tight hips will affect knee angles, the connection of the feet from the ground into the hips which can then alter the angles of the pelvis and start to affect your shoulder positions.
How does that affect our movement quality?
"As for the lower body, shutting off the glutes means that you'll overuse your quads and are more prone to knee injury," says Dayoub. "Then with the upper body, you are setting yourself up for serious shoulder impingement as soon as you lift a weight above your head when you can't pull into proper thoracic extension and shoulder retraction."
We start developing dysfunctional join movements from the ensuing muscle imbalances from our posture being pulled out of alignment. It really is a progression of regression.
How can you manage all of this?
"(The) solution is to sit/stand intermittently and to build movement into your day every 1/2 hour like walking upstairs for the restroom rather than using the one next to your desk," says Dr Lucy Osgood from the Chiropractic Performance Center.
After you've gotten up and moved away from your desk at work, and you're ready to workout (HINT, HINT), you'll need to be doing exercises that take you in the opposite direction of the seated position you were in all day. This means fighting tight hip flexors with hip dominant exercises to reactivate the glutes. Hip hing based movements work best here (bridges, kettlebell swings, RDLs, etc).
Daniella likes bridging to keep the hips online and I agree. It is about the simplest way to do it, and while possible, you really have to try to do it wrong. Focus on owning your rib cage as you move your hips, and you're generally in the clear.
"Focus on the whole back end. Plant your heels into the ground, extend your hips as high as you can engaging both glutes, and also drive the back of the shoulders into the floor. Hold to fatigue," says Dayoub.
Want something just as simple to do? Get on your feet and start hoofing it.
"I think walking is the BEST way to keep joints moving and core working. Because all that fails when we sit," says Koutsavlis. "Our core weakens and we round out. And for every part that weakens, it affects another part of the body negatively...becoming either weak, or out of symmetry to compensate for the other weakness."
She also recommends walking to talk with coworkers (imagine that, human interaction having a benefit to your day), scheduling walking meetings and drinking a ton of water so you have to get up and use the bathroom.
To combat forward rounded shoulders and upper back, you want to do exercises upright on your feet so you can get your shoulder blades back into a more neutral position. The higher the position for pulling motions the bigger back restoration bang for your buck.
"I love the TRX Y-Fly and DB reverse fly with light weights," says Corcoran. "These movements help to open the chest, engage the upper back and shoulders, and combat the 'rounding' in your posture that sitting leads to throughout the day."
Those are great options, and here are a few more examples of additional things you can do.
1) Single Leg RDLs
This is a single leg RDL that is big on both diagonal loading as well as hitting the entire posterior chain (back half of the body). It has a nice glute emphasis and when done right, well, you'll definitely know you did them correctly.
2) High Position Suspension Trainer Rows
Here is your forward rounded shoulder move to help open the chest and shoulders. Think of it as the building block to the Y-Fly Alison mentioned.
3) Cable Pulley Squat + Pull + Pivot
This will open up the shoulders in a diagonal fashion and give you one more angle of mobility to play with. I like this exercise because I can feel the entire posterior chain from my heels to the top of head. Plus you're adding a rotational component which will involve the obliques. This exercise not only opens the front half of the body, it works the core through the hips which is never a bad thing. Best of all, it looks like NOTHING like sitting at a desk all day.
The next time you sit all day, which is probably today, (you might even be seated as you read this), when it comes time to do your workout, give these exercises a shot and see how they recalibrate your body to help you move better. I want to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who took the time out of their jam packed schedules to chime in, it is much appreciated.
1) “NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training,” Michael A. Clark, Scott C. Lucett