How I fixed my posture and how you can fix yours

Several years ago I wrote a post about how I was working on fixing my posture. You see, I’m a tall guy, and as is the case with many tall guys, I had started to roll my shoulders forward to get a little closer to the world. Also, years of fencing — and most likely just the absence of instruction on how to walk — had led me to be very turned out with my feet. Years ago a student of mine had asked me, “Do you leave Charlie Chaplin prints in the snow?”

Yet another problem was that I had done so much single sided swordplay with a large focus on rapier that I had introduced a slight lean in my posture to the left. At a physio appointment where I was seeking to determine the cause behind an almost year-long bout of sciatica, the therapist pointed out that when standing my right arm rested on my side and my left arm swung free. In writing this down it sounds freakish, like I was some kind of homunculus with a shambling walk. Yet I easily blended in with most people on the street. Rolled shoulders, turned out feet, swayed backs, and many more postural challenges have become the norm these days, not the exception.

So with this honest look at myself, and how I was holding my tall frame, I set out with the goal of changing all that. To see if I could set myself straight — as it were. Now, years later, I have to report that I am significantly more aligned, healthier, and in less pain. Here’s what I did:

I Became Aware

This has been the biggest game changer for me. Simply looking at myself in the mirror, on camera, and having experts and friends offer their observations. Many postural problems I had, I either didn’t realize that I had them (the lean) or didn’t realize they were problems (the feet). Once I became aware of the challenges, I suddenly had the capacity to simply start to change how I held myself based on that awareness.

A part of my physical training practice still revolves around examining how I move in the mirror and continuing to tone and tweak how I align my spine, place my feet, and hold my head and torso.

I Learned How to Align My Spine — Easily

I started this process with simply working to elevate my chest, keep my chin up, and hold my arms straight along my sides. Some alignments that I copied from my military friends, or from actors, certainly looked prouder — but I later learned not all of them were healthy. One of the big epiphanies for me was encountering the work of Kelly Starrett of MobilityWod.com and the book Becoming a Supple Leopard. Kelly had a simple process for aligning the spine called the “Bracing Sequence” that allowed me to quickly and easily find the right position for my hips, chest, and head. If you’ve been to any of my body mechanics workshops you’ve probably been introduced to this process and how I now approach bringing its lessons into martial postures.

Check out the bracing sequence with Kelly:

I Taught Myself How To Walk Again

There were two elements I had to attack in my walking. The first was the lateral alignment of my spine, and the second was the rotation of my hips, knees, and feet.

To align my feet, I spent time in front of a mirror walking forwards and backwards. I needed to build an awareness of how proper walking felt in contrast to how I had conditioned myself to walk. It’s amazing what might “feel straight” but was in fact turned out. I made this walking practice part of my regular martial practice. That way, I had a rhythm to touch on and focus. From there, I could use that rhythm to help me keep awareness at the forefront of my mind when I was walking. I also learned how to squat properly with my feet parallel and pointing forward. Again, Kelly Starrett offered invaluable resources on this and I highly recommend you check them out.

Then, any time that I was walking, I worked on the following:

  1. Rolling through the full length of my foot from heel to toes. If you feel all your toes evenly, you know that you’re not turned in or out (generally).
  2. Focusing on the “squat alignment” of my hips, knees, and feet while I walked and in particular when I went up and down stairs (which is a bit challenging when your feet are much longer than the average step depth).
  3. Turning my feet “in” independently of having my knees rotated out (therefore, the knees are pointed straight forward as opposed to inward).
  4. Kicking the foot forward with toes forward when swinging the leg through. I found that I often swung through with the toes turned outward and corrected at the end of the swing (I notice this behaviour in many students’ fencing steps and lunges as well).

Fixing the lateral alignment of my chest was largely one of awareness. Of making sure to check in, standing in front of a mirror, and focusing on stance during movement in wrestling and longsword solo drills. I also simply feel periodically where my hands are in relation to my sides to make sure they’re balanced between right and left while I walk.

I Made Posture a Continual Practice

I formed bad posture through years of practice. I know that it will truly take me years of practice to undo it, and as with any exercise regime, if I let it lapse the posture could easily lapse along with it. I still catch myself turning my feet out sometimes (especially after I’ve been doing a lot of martial arts work), and my torso sometimes pulls over to one side if I let it — but properly organizing my pelvis and upper back has now become second nature.

I think of posture as kind of a mental game of attention. It’s interesting and entertaining to work on keeping my body aligned. I have an active mind and it gives me something to do with it when I’m wandering about or standing at the train station.

What Has This Done For Me?

On the physical side, correcting my posture has helped me in my martial arts. I have significantly stronger overall mechanics in all of the disciplines I practice. I have virtually eliminated the remnants of my sciatica. I used to get knee pains as well as sciatic flares. These are nearly completely gone. The only time I notice some pain now is after long periods of sitting.

Perhaps one of the surprising effects of all this is that I am way more confident. Standing up straight and showing my chest required a different way of standing in the world, not just physically but psychologically. Focusing on my posture forced me to be open in a way I had not expected. I could not hide myself with a dropped frame. I had to confront the discomfort of exposure and through that I grew as a person.

What I Hope Others Will Do With This Information

The most important realization from my past few years:

  1. It’s never too late; few things are hard and fixed, and even long-term behaviours that have truly altered your structure can be replaced with alternate behaviours and thus, alternate structures.
  2. If you want to be a mechanically effective martial artist you have to work on your body mechanics all the time; by that I mean in every part of your life and all of the movements of your day.
  3. Make mechanics part of your martial practice so they will be part of your life practice.
  4. The physical can have a profound impact on the psychological. Physical things are much easier to target than mental ones, and so through this channel, it’s beautiful to know that some internal challenges can be faced in a more systematic way.

Whether you’re a martial artist or just someone who wants to be healthy for a long time, I recommend that you take an active interest in your posture.