Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't just stand there! How are you *actually* supposed to stand?

There's a lot of talk in the media these days about how standing is way better for you than sitting, but did you know there's actually a "right" way to stand?  Here it is: space your feet pelvis width apart, line up the outside edges of your feet, fully straighten your legs, relax your quads, and carry your weight in your heels (get your hips directly above your heels).  This advice may be different from what you've heard over the years, like "keep your knees soft (slightly bent)", or "tuck your pelvis under to engage your core".  So who's right?  How do you know which advice to follow?  In my opinion, you should follow the advice that doesn't do damage to any of your body parts.  Read on, you'll see what I mean. 
First image: hips forward, loading the feet.  Second image, knees bent, loading the knees and the feet.      Third image, hips over heels, loading the posterior muscles.
Let's start with the feet.  Your feet are like your hands, your toes are like your fingers.  If you did a handstand, you probably wouldn't let your body go forward and put your weight on your fingers, you'd keep it in the heel of your hand, closest to your wrist.  The rules are the same for the foot.  Your feet actually house 25% of your body's bones and muscles, and are packed full of nerves.  The fact that your feet are capable of an infinite number of positions and are so sensitive to pressure, shape and texture suggests that they are made to read information from the environment.

A nice, flexible foot will be able to form to the surface you are walking on, giving you greater stability.  If your foot can't move to accommodate a rock or a hole in the ground, or a rogue Lego, some other joint will have to (sprained ankle, knee), or you fall over and break a hip.

The side of my foot can come up over the block so I don't have to fling my whole body to the floor to avoid getting hurt.  If I carried my weight in my toes, this would be very painful.

When you carry your weight on your toes, your foot has to contract and grip the ground all the time to hold you up.  This puts a significant amount of strain on the small muscles and soft tissues of your feet, makes the muscle stiff and unyielding, and actually cuts off blood flow to your foot.  Your poor foot loses its fantastic range of motion and will be in pain and may even start to deform from the strain (bunions, hammer toes, flat feet, etc.)

The size of muscles and bones can give us a clue to their intended function.  Bigger muscles and bones should be doing heavy load bearing work.  Smaller muscle and bone is more for proprioception and other functions, like the delicate task of capturing nose goblins from a sleeping 2 year old.  When you carry your weight back in your heels and turn OFF your quads, you allow the large muscles on the back of your leg and your butt to hold your weight, rather than the teeny tiny bits and pieces that make up your feet. 

Another thing to look at is the effect of a contracted muscle on other parts of your body.  When you use the back of your legs and your butt to hold you up, your butt muscles gently tug your tailbone outward, which maintains a healthy tone to your pelvic floor ( it is attached to your tailbone).  Cool!  When you use your quads to hold you up, either by having your hips shoved forward or having your knees bent, it pulls your kneecap up and into the knee joint, grinding through the cartilage, creating lots of friction and inflammation, leading to chronic pain/disease, eventually knee replacement.  Uh-oh.  Also, you lose any toning effect on the pelvic floor.  Dang.

The last thing I'll mention is the effect that the placement of your weight has on your bones.  In order for your hip bones (femoral heads) to develop and maintain their proper density, your legs MUST be vertical.  Your leg bone is triggered to grow (ie, NOT degenerate over time) through the compression it gets between the ground and gravity. 

A tilted leg bone, as in hips forward OR knees bent, is not getting the right amount of compression, which means your bones are not as strong as they have to be for your weight.  If I weigh 100 lbs, I want my bones to be able to handle that weight when I'm walking, or if I have to jump to avoid getting hit by a bus, or if I'm going downstairs and I think there's another step but there's not and I land hard on my leg and get that jolt that reverberates through my skull (we've all done it) .  If I don't bear my weight on my bones properly, that means that maybe they'll only be able to handle 85% of my weight, which is bad news for me in the above scenarios.  I don't know about you, but I'd REALLY rather have my bones strong enough to hold me up, since I have an aversion to chronic pain and osteoporosis and hip fracture.

(A side note, this is why time spent sitting is such a big factor in the development of osteoporosis.  Those hours you spend sitting in a chair are hours that you're telling your bones to go on vacation.  A horizontal bone isn't getting ANY compression from gravity, so it isn't getting ANY signal to replenish!)

So there's my case for standing with your weight in your heels, and for learning how to relax your quads when you stand around.   Makes sense, doesn't it?


  1. This is a GREAT blog post. Can you PLEASE look at how I am standing next time we see each other? Perhaps this Friday? I do try to stand instead of sit, every day. Thank-you for this great post. xo Wendy

  2. You have a really clear way of explaining things. This is something I've been trying to work on for some time and I thought I knew what I was doing, but whenever I read your blog, you put things in a way that gives me that extra bit of understanding.

  3. Thanks Meredith! I'm so glad you find it helpful!

  4. I find myself violently agreeing with your observations about standing posture. Our standing/walking posture must be able to have give in any direction to deal with irregularities in the surface. Excessive tension in our foot muscles will make it much more likely for those irregularities to throw us out of balance. The best cue I give myself is to keep my foot in the "sweet spot" as I'm moving.

    I'm a little less happy with the claim that rotation forces (AKA torque) are bad for bones. As a practical matter, there's only a tiny instant during the middle of the stride where the femur is directly over the tibia and both are normal to the ground. Small torsional forces will always be present as we walk. I might be willing to say that those torsional forces should be minimized, but I want to think about this some more.

    You have an excellent common-sense writing style. Cool.

    1. I'm glad you like my post! I responded to you below :)

  5. Yes, I would agree that the forces need to be minimized, which is why at least while standing, the bones should always be vertical. I like that, the "sweet spot". :)

    As for the walking bit, the most important time for the leg to be as vertical as possible is on the heel strike so that the torque is not maximized during that moment. When your heels strikes the ground, the load is increased momentarily. So the 100lbs turns into say 115lbs (random number, i don't know the actual math behind it). Putting the extra weight on a tilted bone creates excessive rotation. If your leg is vertical on the strike, you get squish instead of rotation. If you walk with your leg way out in front of you and you fall onto it, you're getting rotation instead of squish :)Of course, at some point in the gait cycle the bone has to tilt (rotate at the hip). Otherwise we'd be doing some kind of robot shuffle in one spot. Would look silly!

    Have you checked out my walking blog? The amount of torque placed on your leg during your stride really depends on how you actually walk. Check out what I mean when I talk about heel strike with a vertical leg:

    1. Hi, Jillian. I found your site through a share on FB today. I haven't looked around any yet, but will do that in the next day or two.

      I'm a huge fan (and friend) of Stephen Levin at Levin notes (and I agree) that a "levers and pivots" model is fundamentally insufficient to describe our posture and movement. We have lever arms, but there are never (rigid) fulcrums anywhere in the body. I need to look very closely, but I see nothing you're saying that's inconsistent with Dr. Levin's ideas.

      You have good ideas, and you explain them very well. That's what we need to advance our understanding as a society.

    2. Have you heard of Katy Bowman? She's the biomechanist who I learned all this from. here's her blog

      She's incredible! Looks at the human body from an engineering, physics, geometry, and biological perspective. It's so refreshing and new.

      here's her institute page where I'm gonna be certifying in a month!!

      I'm so excited. I'll have a look at Dr.Levin as well. It's always good to find more people making sense in this world :)

  6. yay!
    (except for with handstands, you load on the "ball" of your hand, cause your wrist can't actually take all the pressure of getting on the heel of your hand. that gets your wrist wrecked. but the coolest thing is, other than that little point, everything else it the same, you just turn your shoulders into your new pelvis. you can't fix bad balance in a handstand by arching your back, even though everyone wants to, or by ptiching your feet forward or back - you do it by moving your shoulders into alignment - just like rib sheer doesn't fix a forward pelvis! wheee!)

    1. also? my 9-year-old daughter and i just spent 15 minutes playing with your pictures and trying them. she says, i feel totally unstable if i let my bones spin around! hee!

      the pictures are FABULOUS!!

    2. That is so cool!! you gotta give your daughter a big fat high five from me. :) Thanks for the tips about handstands. I can't actually do one *L* my hands are too tight!

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