Sit Up Straight!

Woman sitting hunched over computer
Pulling your shoulders back isn’t the antidote to hunching. © IFF Archive, Robert Golden

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from students is that their neck, shoulders or back hurt from sitting. Many then say, “It’s my bad posture. I need to stop hunching and sit up straight.”

Our cultural idea of sitting “properly” is pulling our shoulders back and tucking our chin. While these may create the illusion of better posture, pulling parts of yourself into the position you “think” they should be simply leaves you holding yourself in an artificial position. Instead of helping, this “manufactured” alignment is likely to create more fatigue and new places of strain because it lacks the cohesive support of organic, whole-body alignment.

When we’re uncomfortable sitting, the standard solution is to rely on external back support—special chairs, cushions or props to help hold us up. However, over-reliance on back support can actually contribute to discomfort.

I believe most people would do better by learning how to find support from their skeletons instead.

How Does Your Sitting Stack Up?

Rocks neatly stacked
If you align your skeleton for support, you don’t need to lean on your chair

Notice how you’re sitting right now. Are you leaning back in your chair?

What about your feet? Are they both making solid contact with the floor? If not, you’ve lost the foundational support of the ground.

Where’s the heaviest point of pressure on your pelvis? If you’re like most people, it’s on or near your tailbone—not a bone designed for weight bearing. In this case, you aren’t getting the support that’s possible from your pelvis and the seat of the chair.

And where are your shoulders? Are they forward of, inline with or behind your pelvis? If you’re leaning back in your chair, it’s likely the latter. Being back-weighted means you’re preventing your spine from supporting your head and neck.

Is the comfort you get from resting a small part of your back against the chair worth the strain of leaving the rest of yourself without proper support?

You Have Built-In Back Support

You have the internal capacity to sit upright. The rockers on the bottom of your pelvis (your ischial tuberosities or “sit bones”), along with the flexible yet strong column of your spine, are designed to support you being upright.

As a movement teacher, I find that most people sit too far back on their pelvis. In this position you’re actually leaning back rather than truly being upright. Being back-weighted like this means you’re off balance. Your muscles then need to work overtime to prevent you from falling backward.

As a young child you knew how to organize your skeleton to keep you upright with a minimum of effort. What if you could re-learn that?

Easy Exercise to Sit More Comfortably

Try this simple exploration to find your internal support for easy sitting.

1. Take a “Before” Snapshot

Come to sit at the front of the chair with your feet flat on the floor. Take a few moments to observe how you’re sitting.

  • What’s the contact of your feet like with the floor?
  • Which part of your pelvis makes contact with the seat: is it closer to your pubic bone or tailbone?
  • Feel the length of your spine from tail to head. What’s the shape of your low back: is there an inward curve, an outward curve or is it flat? (You can use your hands to feel)

2. Find Your Sit Bones

Do you sit more forward or back on your sit bones?

Slide each hand your pelvis to feel your sit bones, the bony protuberances on your bottom. Rock your pelvis a little forward and back, and right and left, to get a sense of the size and shape of your sit bones.

Remove your hands and feel the contact your sit bones make with the chair. Which part of each sit bone presses most into the seat—is it more toward the back or front of your sit bone?

3. Roll Your Pelvis

Gently roll your pelvis a little forward and back. Keep your head more or less vertical with your eyes on the horizon.

Person sitting, rolling their pelvis
Roll your pelvis, feeling how your low back changes shape

As you roll forward, allow your belly to protrude a little and the curve in your low back to increase. As you roll back, let your low back round.

Feel how the weight rolls forward and backward along your sit bones. Going back, at what point do you start to feel back-weighted? If you imagined someone pushing on your chest, at what point could they easily push you off balance?

And going forward, where do you feel most solid and balanced—that you could remain upright without effort if someone pushed on your chest?

Take a short rest.

4. Compare 3 Ways of Sitting

Rolled Back on Your Pelvis

Roll your pelvis back to the place where you could easily be pushed off balance and stay there. How easy or effortful is it to sit like this? How comfortable are your back, neck and shoulders? If you stayed like this for an hour, which parts of you might get tired or sore?

Woman sitting on her tailbone
Leaning back rolls you onto your tailbone
Leaning Back on the Chair

Now lean back against the chair the way you might normally. Where is the weight on your pelvis now? How do your back, neck and shoulders feel? If you wanted to type on a keyboard or reach for your phone on a table in front of you, how easy would it be? And if you had to sit like this for an extended period of time, which parts of you would get tired or sore?

Rolled Forward on Your Pelvis

Roll your pelvis forward to the balanced place you found earlier and stay there. What’s the quality like in your back, neck and shoulders now? Does sitting like this take a little less effort than being rolled back or leaning on the chair? If so, you’re finding the natural support of your skeleton that’s available when you sit toward the front of your sit bones.

5. Before/After Comparison

Recall how you sat at the beginning (where the weight was on your pelvis, the shape of your low back, where your shoulders were relative to your pelvis, etc.) and return to sitting like that. How is this different from the rolled forward position you were just in? Are your back, neck and shoulders more or less at ease?

A few times, switch between your original and the forward-on-your-sit-bones position. Which way feels easier or more comfortable?

Perhaps sitting forward on your sit bones doesn’t feel as good as being rolled back or leaning on the chair. Sitting forward can be so unfamiliar that it feels odd at first before becoming normal. Sometimes you just need more practice fine-tuning your alignment to have enough internal support to be comfortable without external back support. Or you might have pain, injury or another circumstance that requires consistent back support.

Woman giving thumbs up
Use awareness and variety to sit more comfortably!

There Are Many Ways to Sit

The reality is that there’s no correct way to sit. And no one position, no matter how ideal, will remain comfortable for an extended period. So it’s essential to have variety in your sitting, including sitting forward on your sit bones, using back support and even hunching! The point is to have options rather than to over-rely on external back support.

By using your awareness and doing movement explorations like the one in this article, you can find greater and greater comfort sitting.

Want More Help Sitting Comfortably?

Join my Sit in Comfort series in November.

Can’t Make It To Class? Ask me about my at-home audio recording series.