As an Alexander Technique teacher with a passion for personal fitness, I have spent several years exploring the relationship of posture to fitness in my teaching practice and in my own work-outs and yoga classes.
On reading a recent New York Times article filled with popular misconceptions about posture, I recognized that these misconceptions had become ingrained in the thinking of many people, including many fitness professionals. It has become common in current exercise culture to talk about "core strengthening" without any real understanding of what core muscles are and how they can be activated to support us. In this essay, I aim to expose the inaccuracies and clarify how our postural system really works.
The core muscles are those closest to the spine. These muscles, also referred to as the postural muscles, lie along and attach to the vertebrae. (Their names are not exactly household words: intertransversarii, interspinalis, and suboccipital.) These muscles are qualitatively different from the muscles responsible for movement, which are the external muscles familiar to most people who work out — often known by abbreviated popular terms like biceps, pecs, lats, traps, delts, and abs. It is important to understand that the abs and surface muscles of the back are not postural muscles.
Postural ("core") muscles have the ability to do their work — supporting the body against gravity — by contracting for long periods without tiring. They perform this support function below the level of your conscious awareness, so you won't feel them working. Movement muscles, on the other hand, are made of a different type of muscle fiber. They can contract strongly to move the body or parts of the body, but tire quickly. For this reason, they are ill-suited for postural support, which must go on constantly. If you ask your movement muscles to support you, they are likely to ache or spasm in response to this unnatural duty.
Natural, correct posture is an effortless and painless equilibrium. We compromise this equilibrium when we recruit quickly tiring movement muscles to accomplish posture — an activity better suited to our postural muscles, which have far greater endurance. Whenever we do something to hold ourselves up — pulling the shoulders back, sticking out the chest, or tightening the abs, for example — we are using our movement muscles. We may manage to hold ourselves up like this, but it is ultimately tiring. (Constant tension in our movement muscles also inhibits free movement and restricts breathing.) Our postural muscles eventually atrophy because their work is being done (however inefficiently) by our movement muscles.
To see efficient posture in action, witness how very young children sit, stand, and move: you won't see two-year-olds pulling in their stomachs or otherwise working to stay upright. Most adults have lost their natural ease and must expend a great deal of energy just to maintain balance. They need to relearn how to be supported without effort and restore ease of movement. The Alexander Technique specifically addresses this issue.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, F.M. Alexander discovered his own tendency to hold himself up with his outer (movement) muscles and figured out a way to use conscious awareness to better coordinate his entire musculature. Those who learn his principles find that they can maintain uprightness easily throughout the day — at rest or during activity — without strain or discomfort. Other benefits include increased energy, healthier breathing, and relief of stress. The Alexander Technique can enhance the health and appearance of anyone, whether or not they are engaged in a fitness regimen. I particularly recommend it to anybody who, like a person mentioned in the New York Times article, drives around keeping "her abs tight and her shoulders back." There is an easier, more natural way.