What Forward-Head Posture Really Means (& How To Fix It)

It’ll probably come as no surprise to you that there’s an epidemic of terrible posture in today’s world.

A quick search of “how to improve posture” comes up with nearly 95 million hits.

Of course it begs the question:

If we have more information on the subject than ever before, why do so many people have poor posture?

A recent study sheds some light on the issue, but before I get to that I have to make it clear…

Lack of information isn’t the issue.

The real problem is that people typically approach posture with a totally broken model based on cadaver models of anatomy to inform their decisions. This model assumes that your body works the same way as a dead body does - not unlike a hunk of meat, something you can “stretch and strengthen” into a better shape.

It’s just not the case.

We’ll explore that in more depth later on. First lets make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

What is posture anyway?

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When talking about posture, a lot of folks have trouble even coming up with a coherent definition - let alone knowing how to fix it!

Posture is nothing more than the moment-to-moment shape your body makes when dealing with the physical & social forces in your life (things like gravity, stress or trauma for example). It’s just a shape. Granted some of these shapes are more aesthetically pleasing or more functional, but at the end of the day all we’re talking about is the general shape that your body make throughout the day.

It’s not a fixed ideal because nothing in your life stays the same. Changing demands in the here & now mean you need a posture that is responsive, able to “roll with the punches.” Ideally your body is able to do that without you needing to consciously think through every step. Can you imagine what a mess that would be if you had to think about every single muscle you use for every single movement you make?

It’s absurd. Yet we think that way when it comes to posture.

This should give you a clue why old school alignment cues about a flat back or chin tucked in aren’t very useful. Of course there’s another important question to address:

What makes “good” posture?

Up above I said that posture is simply the moment-to-moment shape your body makes in response to the demands of the world around it.

Ideally you want to be able to respond to those demands without too much extra work, right? I don’t know about you, but if I can do more with less effort, then I’m all in. This gives us an idea of what “good” posture involves: a minimum amount of work.

Try this exercise to see what I mean:

  1. Take a moment to bring some awareness to your sense of uprightness. How tall do you feel? What’s your quality of breathing like? What sense of “readiness” do you have when you think of the rest of the day? How much effort does it take to be upright? If one part of yourself were going to get tired first, which would it be?

  2. . Shift your head an inch or two forward. Pay attention to what changes you sense within yourself as you do. Does this change the engagement of any muscles? Do you sense your weight shift underneath you? Does it feel easier or more difficult to stay upright in this position?

  3. Repeat this a number of times, shifting your head slowly forward and back to get a sense of what kind of work is involved in each position.

  4. Let that go and settle back into your resting position. Has anything changed about you? How ready do you feel for the rest of the day? In what ways is this body of yours different from the body you began with?

You likely get a sense that it’s easier to be upright when your head is closer to your base of support. It simply takes less muscular effort to stay up in that case. And when those muscles are free from the need to support your head, they’re able to respond more effectively to the rest of the world.

Good posture is simply the shape that involves the least extraneous effort, what somatic educator Moshe Feldenkrais called “parasitic tension.” Extra effort keeps you from feeling as comfortable as you could, and it limits your ability to participate in the world with as much readiness as you could.

Keep that in mind when you think of posture: you’re looking for as little effort as necessary and as many “options for movement” as you can find.

Where does forward-head posture fit in?

Forward-head posture — often referred to as “upper cross syndrome” — simply means that you habitually hold your head forward of your base of support. People have all sorts of explanations for it:

  • Weakness in the musculature of the posterior chain

  • Tension in the musculature of the front of the body

  • Excessive time spent on phones or computers

It’s frankly an uncomfortable way to be. It makes the simple act of staying alive take extra work.

But it has important consequences beyond mere comfort.

Forward-head posture has been shown to be associated with long-term musculoskeletal damages, chronic pain, loss of balance and more. Additionally it relates to a lack of inhibitory control. It’s actually harder to control yourself if this is your day-to-day shape!

We’ll explore that more below too.

I’m going to show you why it’s a much more insidious problem than most folks realize. In order to make sense of it we have to explore that study that I mentioned at the very beginning.

An interesting bit of research

This article came across my radar the other day, called “Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping.”

The researches examined the connection of posture with a number of factors: inhibitory control, the reaction time and readiness to act, as well as awareness and attention. Participants demonstrated an exaggeration of their postural changes when they were expecting to move forward, particularly in more difficult movements. And with greater postural changes (increasing the forward-head posture) the participants demonstrated slower reaction time and less awareness.

Here’s the most interesting part though…

The mere thought of going somewhere triggered clear physical changes - the exaggeration of forward-head posture.

The embodiment lesson is clear: don’t get ahead of yourself.

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Maybe it isn’t the epidemic of phone usage or the time spent in chairs that’s leading to such widespread postural collapse. Perhaps it has something to do with the persistent rush forward, the disconnect from the here & now, the pursuit of something different. Think about it: especially in the worlds of self-development and entrepreneurship we tend to be future-focused. We think about who we’re becoming. We obsess over what we’re going to make or create next.

But is it worth sacrificing your posture, or your physical and psychological health?

Surely there’s a better option.

Some might see this as evidence to sit back and twiddle their thumbs. I can’t say it enough: that’s not the case. Without some of us working towards a better future there would be no progress.

Rather than quit reaching forward to the future I’d argue we can do it more effectively if we understand a couple of the foundational body/mind relationships in our lives…

Understanding the body/mind connection for postural health

 We’ll specifically touch on the archetypal role of the front and back of the body.

The front body — in a simplified sense — is all about “doing.” It’s where the action occurs. It’s where we’re going. Think back to the study. When participants anticipated going somewhere, their forward-head posture increased. Anticipation of what’s to come can make a people move their heads forward in space…they quite literally get ahead of themselves!

If the front body is all about where you’re going, the back body is all about where you’re coming from. In the embodiment world we often refer to this as “resourcing.” It’s about finding support and generating leverage. The biggest muscles in the body are all along the back side. There’s some serious power there - if you know how to make use of it.

Ideally we have balance between the two. Too much reaching forward without the support of the back body will leave you falling flat on your face. And too much time spent mulling over your past, always “holding back” will keep you from moving forward into the world as fully as you’re capable of.

Rather than impulsive rushing forward or passively sitting back (never reaching or pursuing), we can get back in touch with the idea of reaching from our supports

The more effectively you’re able to resource yourself, the more effectively you’re able to act. 

The metaphors are almost painfully obvious here:

  1. Make sure you’ve got your own back.

  2. Find your footing.

  3. Stop holding yourself back.

  4. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

 Only then are you able to show up the way you want.

Want a quick way to improve your own alignment? This simple audio practice can be performed anywhere, anytime. You’ll find a clear connection between mind & body and see just how quickly and easily you can make a shift for yourself. Check it out:

Pretty cool, huh?

Drop a comment below with your big takeaways (or questions).

-Chandler

Chandler StevensComment