Sitting Is Still Hurting You More Than You Realize
Just because you’re not overweight doesn’t mean you’re okay
By now most all of us know that sitting is “bad”
Dr. Eric Degis writes,
“Humans sit. They sit a lot… The lack of movement and the overall position… is problematic.”
And while sitting is widely socialized (everything from working, studying, eating, commuting and leisure time) and we all do it, the reality, as Division 1 sprinter Scott Carvin shared, is that:
“Sitting for prolonged periods may be the single most debilitating position that humans can put themselves in”
And this is true even if we don’t feel like it’s “that bad.”
To this point: I recently started seeing a chiropractor after taking up skydiving (and having my first hard landing), and my chiropractor was far more concerned about the fact that I travel a lot for work than he was about my skydiving.
And while many of us have responded to this with little changes — taking the stairs more, using standing desks, whatever — most of us still sit too much.
Most of us think we’re doing enough
We assume little changes are enough to compensate for our largely sedentary lives and hours of sitting. We think that going to the gym, stretching or getting up for 10 minutes, or having a chair with lumbar support compensates for 8–14 hours of sitting. And that if we’re not overweight or in critical pain (or, even if we are), that we’re exempt from all the damage done by sitting — that it’s either not happening to us, or “not that bad.”
But in reality, most of us are wrong.
I didn’t really care too much about the whole “sitting” thing for a long time. So much of our lives are designed around sitting that I didn’t bother myself with disrupting it, and I wasn’t overweight, so I figured it wasn’t a problem. And other risks like blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, heart disease and cancer seemed so far off that they were abstracted from my immediate realm of concern — a problem for “future me,” if anything, and maybe not even that.
But I often felt unnatural with seemingly “normal” and “easy” tasks — for example, standing at concerts hurt my back after about 10 minutes (leaving me shifting and stretching for the other 110 minutes), and I still can’t run for shit — but for a long time I figured that was just a “me” thing, something inherent to “my general being” in the way “blood type” or “ectomorph / endomorph / mesomorph body type” or, I dunno, “zodiac sign” theoretically defines my living experience in a way that is out of my control, and to be accepted.
What finally got to me?
I wasn’t seeing the lower body gains I expected from workouts. Why? Well, as I later learned, like most people I had effectively starved off and suffocated massive muscle groups from sitting. Having a healthy BMI didn’t exempt me from this side effect.
Things we don’t realize are sitting-related:
- Lower back pain. Our lower backs often hurt (while sitting or even standing longer than 5 minutes) not because there’s anything wrong with our backs, but because our abs and glutes (which should normally support our upright, homosapien position), have become so weak from sitting so much that they’re effectively atrophied. (This is widely known as “dead butt syndrome”)
- Knee pain. Often tied to crappy hip flexors and TFL from sitting.
- Tight hamstrings. Our hamstrings feel “tight” not because they are overworked (or actually “tight” in any conventional sense of the word), but because they are so “overstretched” and weak from sitting that they are effectively atrophied
- Walking, standing, or running feeling uncomfortable, “fatiguing,” or even “unnatural” because we’ve starved off (and effectively atrophied) our glutes, hamstrings and abs from sitting
- Various other health problems (see above)
First, let’s talk about the two muscle distortions we create: “over-shortened” vs. “over-lengthened”
And, hint: both are bad.
Most of our muscle groups work together and counterbalance each other in pairs (or, more accurately, groups of four.) They don’t live in a vacuum.
Glutes, for example, have to “answer to” the front of the hip and thigh (in particular, the quads and hip flexors), which all have to work with the low back and abs (who in turn work with one another.) Same goes for the upper body: mid-back pairs up with the mid-chest, upper back and the back of the neck pairs up with the upper chest and front of neck. They all work together.
And this all works great when everything is in balance, but the problem is that these pairs become distorted: one shortens, forcing the other to lengthen in compensation, and the whole thing becomes like a bad group project from college, except that both suffer: one muscle does all the heavy lifting and another is stretched too thin. Neither fares well, and our body effectively becomes a fleshy game of Jenga. As one gets “short,” its partner gets “long,” and vice versa.
How does this happen?
In short: we do it to ourselves.
It’s from the crap positions we put our bodies in — most notably, sitting and bad posture. (Me included — I’m sitting and keep slouching as I type this.)
1.) “Over-Shortened” Muscles: tight and overworked
Also called “overused,” “dominant,” or “facilitated.” Picture mashing something into too small of a size. Think of a cat fitting itself into a tiny box or bowl. Or think of Genie from Aladdin in his “itty bitty living space.” Except imagine all of these for hours on end, every day.
We create “shortened” muscles by pulling them “in” on themselves, allowing them too little space to do their job, then expecting them to hold themselves in that position (and do all the posture work on top of it.)
As Kerrie Reed wrote,
“Sometimes muscles tighten up because they’re actually working too hard and/or for too long… the muscle might be working overtime in order to compensate for the weakness of another muscle that’s unable to do its rightful share.”
“Overworked” muscles include:
- The front of our hips, TFL and adductors (from the tiny, acute angle created by sitting, rather than the open, neutral front-hip position of standing)
- Quads (from having to pick up the slack of weakened hamstrings, which are starved off from sitting on them)
- Our chests (from being “caved in” by slouching and shoulders rounded forward)
- Our upper traps / the back of our necks (from trying to hold our heads up in its bad, “forward,” screen-reading position)
- Our lower backs (from doing all the work for lazy abs and dead glutes)
And the added challenge is that even when we “stand up straight,” “get up and walk around,” or “stretch,” it’s often not enough to overcome this “cramped” position for long, because after hours of enduring it, these muscles start to accept it as “natural” over time. It’s hard to get them to “shake it off” and get loose. (Like Gus and Yao, below.)
As Kerrie Reed, MD wrote,
“Muscles that haven’t been used much or that are kept shortened for long periods of time (e.g. hip flexors while sitting) will tend to loose flexibility.”
2.) “Over-lengthened” Muscles: weak and atrophied
Also called “inhibited.” Picture stretching anything pliable, such as homemade “slime” or The Incredibles Elastigirl, into too long of a shape. As these become more “stretched,” their integrity is compromised and they also become weaker.
We create “over-lengthened” muscles by pulling them out of their natural position into one that’s too “long,” not giving them sufficient breathing space to return to neutral and do their job.
As Kerrie Reed, MD wrote, these muscles:
“Don’t ever get a chance to relax.”
Each one of these muscles is:
“Simply too weak to do its job… it has to work overtime to make up for its lack of strength. It also may be strong only within a very limited range of motion, in which case it will tend to resist being pulled out of its comfort zone rather than risk injury by working at its extremes where it’s weaker.”
“Weak” muscles include:
- Our hamstrings and glutes, which are both “over-elongated” from their natural (and strongest), neutral standing state by sitting and are, as a result, weakened to the point of being “dead”
- Mid traps (which are over-elongated by rounded shoulders and too-tight pecs further pulling them forward)
- Our abs (which become lazy as a result of the low back doing all the heavy lifting)
On top of this, these muscles may be actively “inhibited” (i.e., bullied) by the dominant, overworked muscles. Think of that hyperactive teacher’s pet back in your group project who was always first to raise their hand or shouting out answers, so eager to please that they ended up cock-blocking everyone else.
The added challenge is that even when we “stand up straight,” “get up and walk around,” or “strength train,” it’s often not enough to overcome this “over-lengthened” position for long, because after hours of enduring it, these muscles start to accept it as “natural” over time. It’s hard to get them to engage and leave their floppy state to do work — like the flamingo in Alice in Wonderland.
A few notes:
1. Not all muscles that feel “tight” should be stretched
Because sometimes what feels “tight” is actually weak (i.e., already over-stretched), and should be strengthened, not stretched more. (This is especially the case with “tight” hamstrings and hips.)
As “Posture Guy” wrote, “hip flexor weakness is often confused with tightness,” and:
“Most people’s way of dealing with [tight hip flexors] is to simply stretch the ever loving you know what out of them… all that stretching does is just make things worse.”
And as Kerrie Reed wrote,
“It is a common misconception that a tight muscle is a strong muscle; in reality, it is just the opposite.”
As performance specialist Hassan Zaid wrote, glutes are typically weak, and:
“One key is their lack of use in day to day life and training, they need direct strength training (not stretching)”
2. Not all “weak” muscles are “inhibited” by other muscles
Sometimes muscles are just weak; sometimes they are being blocked or bombarded by the other, dominant (overworked) muscles.
The difference is that “true weakness will respond to direct training.”
If they don’t, it’s likely a combination, and you’ll have to address both.
What To Do:
1.) In General
- Get up more throughout the day, and let your muscles breathe and return to their neutral state. (How much more? After every 40–50 minutes of sitting, stand up for 10–20. This includes work, home, eating, commutes, etc.)
- Understand that going to the gym for an hour, stretching for 10 minutes, or having a chair with lumbar support doesn’t compensate for 8–14 hours of sitting. Cleveland Clinic notes that you still need to get up “even if your desk chair is ergonomically correct.”
- Get a deep tissue massage, especially for overworked muscles
- See a chiropractor, who can not only help with adjustments but also give you personalized tips on posture and at-home maintenance
- Get up.
- Stretch over-worked muscles (see below)
- Strengthen over-lengthened muscles (see below)
- “Variety is the take-home message,” chiropractor Dr. Bang says
- Seriously, though, get up
2.) For the “short,” overworked muscles
These include: pecs, upper traps, lower back, quads
- STOP strength-training them! Some of our favorite workouts are making these issues worse by further loading already-overworked muscles. This includes bench press and push-ups (pecs), squats (quads), etc.
- Stretch, especially using door frames and walls for upper body
- Roll / massage using a fascia (or tennis/lacrosse) ball, foam roller, etc.
3.) For the “long,” weak muscles
These include: mid-traps, front of neck, abs, glutes, hamstrings
- STOP stretching them! You’re just hurting your hammies more!
- Strength train them. Swap push ups and bench presses for YTWL, squats for hip thrusts, trap shrugs for chin tucks, and throw in some leg curls
- Make sure you are actually targeting these muscles, not re-enforcing their laziness by letting the overworked muscles continue to pick up the slack and do all the heavy lifting. (Glutes, for example, are actually a secondary, not primary, muscle group in squats, and they will happily kick back and let quads continue to do the work there, which is why it’s best to smack the glutes around a bit and target them in hip thrusts. Call them out.)