Sick is the New Normal 1 - Biomechanics
Fix Your Deformed Body
You’re bent and you move badly, which causes deformations and pain. So am I. So is almost everyone. We become this way by adapting to our unnatural environment.
Three ways to fix yourself: understand (and apply) correct posture and movement patterns, make your environment more natural and work with an expert to diagnose the root faults.
Your Spine is The Leaning Tower of Pisa
In nature each animal is fit for its environment. If it was not, natural selection would force it to either become fit or die.
Humanity has overcome this natural selection. We are suffering for it.
Our default condition is to be unfit for life.
Humans are no longer fit for life. We are sick and broken. Thus we have to work hard to become fit.
Because we have built a world that breaks us.
Big words. But what do I mean?
Your everyday environment is reducing your fitness.
Bad food damages your metabolism, organs and health. Bad posture creates bad biomechanics which lead to deformations and pain. Bad light and stimulation disrupts your circadian rhythm and sleep. Bad social information damages your confidence and self-image. Bad work syphons off your will to live. Bad information environment overloads your mind.
Now we will focus on the biomechanism aspect. There will be future articles on the other dimensions of normal sick, like our awful nutrition, movement, attention, entertainment, and so on.
Normal is biomechanically broken
I played professional water polo in childhood. I have been hiking since I was four. I have been to hundreds of endurance races in trail running, mountain biking and triathlons, including ultramarathons. I have been doing Crossfit for several years.
By objective measures I am more more fit than average. Yet I don’t really stand or move correctly. I have fundamental faults in my biomechanics.
A collapsed arch in my right foot sets off a chain of imbalances to compensate. Right hip is low, left ribs poke out, right shoulder is low, head is slightly tilted to the right. I have mobility limitations in my shoulders and ankles. I tend to overextend my lower back and push the head forward.
This sounds bad right? It would take significant persistent work to fix these problems.
Yet for all these issues, I am above average in terms of posture and biomechanics. Broken is the new normal. Being less broken than most makes you above average. But still unhealthy.
Ask any good fitness coach or physiotherapist. They will tell you 99% of the people they see have biomechanical faults. Many of these are severe.
If you have a sedentary life, it’s easy to ignore the signs of problems. Not only that, but it is hard to even spot them.
And it can be hard to treat the pain coming from these problems. Often because the treatment rarely addresses the underlying postural causes.
A huge number of people suffer from back pain (83% according to some estimates). In most cases the causes of the low back pain remains unknown, and thus treatment can only address the pain. These people go on with the pain until something in their spine breaks while lifting a pencil off the floor.
Bad hip mechanics go unnoticed in the same way. Until you break a hip, and maybe die from it (14%-68% mortality among the elderly from hip fracture).
There is a myriad of small aches and pain that come from bad biomechanics. Easy to ignore. But they slowly erode your body, until a catastrophic break.
When people do sports and fitness, the faults become apparent.
Runners don’t get knee problems because running is harmful. Humans have been running across the Earth for 300,000 years. Runners get knee problems because they run with bad biomechanics or have underlying postural faults.
Weight training often comes with pain in knees or back. Soccer, basketball, football often cause hip, knee, ankle, calf, foot pain and tears.
There are specific areas vulnerable for each sport. What is common is the people often get hurt from movements that are natural for humans.
The causes of bad biomechanics
Our environment and lifestyle push us into bad postures and faulty biomechanics. Our bodies try to adapt to them by compensating with other muscles, tendons and bones. The result is we deform. We adopt bad movement patterns that eventually break us.
The most common underlying causes for bad movement patterns are shoes, sitting, screens, beds and absence of movement in natural environments.
Almost all shoes are bad for biomechanics. I don’t refer only to high-heels or formal dress shoes. Casual shoes, sneakers, hiking boots and even running shoes are mostly bad.
How are shoes bad?
Look at a child running barefoot on grass. Then look at an average adult runner with shoes on concrete. Their movement patterns are different. This difference comes from the shoes, and the movement patterns they promote.
There are four ways in which shoes are harmful:
1. Rigid and narrow
We have toes and lots of muscles in our feet. They are there to help us adapt to surface while maintaining a stable posture. The foot is flexible. It moulds to the contour of surfaces.
Shoes are rigid. The sole does not flex nearly as much as the human foot. Often it hardly flexes at all.
Shoes are narrow. They constrict. The toes are forced to bend and twist. Look at the picture above. On the left are the feet from a person walking barefoot. On the right are the deformed feet from the person who regularly wears the shoes in the picture. It’s visible how bad the feet are malformed.
The good news is the process is reversible to a degree. Transitioning to barefoot running leads to widening of the foot, especially the toes position. I had to throw out multiple pairs of conventional shoes when this happened to me.
Why does this narrowing not hurt? Because we do it all our lives, starting from childhood. The foot is adaptable. It conforms to the narrow feet. As adults we spend to little time outside of shoes, the foot has taken their narrow shape. It does not know it is hurting.
2. Arch and lateral support
Years ago running shoe companies pushed a specific type of shoe a lot. These are called stability or motion-control shoes. The thinking is that they provide support to stabilize your food and prevent it from rolling inward and straining parts of the leg.
How did people run before such shoes? If we need this support to run, then everyone should have had problems before them. This is not the case. People ran just fine before these fancy shoes. In fact in the past 30 years injuries among runners have maintained the same prevalence, despite all the fancy technology from running companies.
Most shoes, not just stability shoes, have some sort of structure that keeps your foot from moving sideways and your arch up. This does stabilize you. But in biology what does not get used, goes away.
Your foot stabilizing muscles atrophy. Your arch collapses without the shoe support.
A collapsed arch and weak foot muscles might not seem like a big deal. But they compromise your whole posture. Knees, hips, back, chest and shoulders go out of alignment. You get loads where you should not which causes injuries
3. Elevated heel
In non-minimalist shoes the heel is raised higher than the fore foot. In running shoes producers say they put cushion under the heel to absorb impact forces. In weightlifting, Crossfit and gym shoes the raised heel compensated for limitation in squat range of motion. In everyday shoes it makes you taller and feel more comfortable. It also puts your lower back in an overextended position which pushes our your butt (backwards) and your chest (forwards). These are sexual characteristics which are amplified in this way. Women wear heels because this effect is even higher.
Unfortunately the raised heel also harms you. Correct running is when you land on the forefoot, not the heel. Thus the calf absorbs the impact force as it should. If the shoe raised your heel, it becomes very difficult to land on the forefoot without bending it excessively (which creates other biomechanical faults). So you heel strike. No shoe sole, no matter how fancy, can adequately absorb this impact force. So it travels to your knees and back, which suffer.
Walking does imply landing on the heel. But the impact force should not travel up through it. Barefoot the shoe flexes to absorb this force in it and the calf instead of pushing it to the bones and ligaments. It’s the similar problem as running, only at a smaller intensity. But on the other hand how much do you walk everyday? It adds up.
For weightlifting and Crossfit, it’s is good in the long term to know (and address) the limited range of motion that is hidden by raised heel.
4. Too soft
Modern shoes tend to have soft soles. This feels nice. We like walking on soft surfaces.
Your foot adapts. You run barefoot differently on grass versus asphalt.
But if the sole of the foot is soft, your foot cannot perceive the hardness of the terrain. It thinks it is on soft ground when you are pounding on hard concrete. But the impact force remains the same, regardless of the sole. Your foot is no bracing for it correctly, and more of it goes into bones and ligaments.
Soft soles make impact of running and walking more harmful.
This is simpler than the shoes. Looking at screens puts us in a bad posture. Neck is flexed, shoulders rotated inwards, upper spine flexed. Slumping like this everyday turns you into a hunchback.
Quasimodo might have been an iPhone beta tester.
This is how you get cervical, head and back pain from screens. Bonus: mouse and keyboard might be messing your wrist biomechanics.
This is our most common activity now. Chairs were not available for most people until a few hundred years ago. It’s a deeply unnatural position.
The body evolved to be in constant motion: walking, running, climbing, crawling. Resting was lying, or squatting or leaning on things. There are no chairs in nature. You can sit on rocks and logs, but it is not comfortable for any significant period of time.
Sitting is an unnatural and harmful position. Abdominal stabilizing muscles atrophy. Hip mobility reduces as they stay flexed too much. The spine bens unnaturally from the rotated pelvis and disengaged glutes. Shoulders slouch forwards. The unstable position leads to a bad movement pattern when getting up. One that overloads the knees.
Even if you know the correct posture and make a constant effort to keep it, it is physically impossible to do so more than 10-15 minutes continuouly.
For all of this, we cannot help but sit whenever we can. With chair and sofas everywhere, it means we spend most time sitting. It harms us.
Have you ever gone camping? I bet you felt relieved afterwards when you got to sleep in your soft bed instead of the hard ground. And yet, this softness is a problem.
In most mattresses, you sink in. How much depends on its softness. Almost all are plush enough for this sink to be significant.
What does it do? It puts your body in a bad biomechanical position.
If you sleep on your back, then it’s a lumbar flexion that causes backpain.
If you sleep on the side, there is excessive lateral hip extension and likely pelvic rotation.
if you sleep in your belly, then it’s a back overextension.
There are no common sleeping surfaces in nature as soft as the average bed. The human body needs firmer support while sleeping.
Not enough natural environment stimuli
Good posture is complicated. It’s work just to stand still, and even more to do any movement correctly. I have been reading and learning about it. The more I learn, the farther I feel I am from the ideal.
How did our ancestors do it? They did not have the science of biomechanics. None of them could say how the human body should move.
But they did it correctly. At least before the Agricultural Revolution.
They lived in the environment for which the human body evolved. Walking and running barefoot every day. Sprinting unexpectedly. Climbing. Lifting and carrying irregular objects. Fighting.
Now a normal day for a normal person consists of sitting in various places, a little walking in unnatural shoes on unnatural surfaces, a little standing and then lying on an unnaturally soft surface. Maybe a few hours per week you do some sport. Maybe it’s one that tries to train natural functional movements.
but that’s still 3-5 hours out of the 168 hours of a week. And it’s still a palid approximation of native movement in nature. There is little chance this can reverse the bad movement patterns, and disfunction from the other 165 hours per week.
What can you do?
You could go to the nearest wilderness and live like a caveman. Only you would not survive, it would be miserable and it might not change your ingrained adult biomechanics.
We have to work a bit for good biomechanics in this day and age. There are three dimension of this work: understand what is ideal biomechanics for humans, reduce bad stimuli by making your environment more natural and diagnose and address your specific faults.
1. Ideal biomechanics
A deep subject. There are many books about it. I recommend Becoming A Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett. And Born to Run by Christopher McDougall for running specifically. The latter is more motivational. The former is a model of biomechanics which I found mind blowing.
I will try to explain it shortly as I see it. The spine and thorax are there to create a stable column. The glutes support and activate it. It’s part of why these muscles are so big.
The shoulders and hips are the main hinges. Movements should be done from these, not from flexing or extending the spine. Then the rest, elbows, ankles, knees, etc, are accessories to enable these movements. They are not the drivers of movement.
Good weightlifters lift from hip and shoulders, not from back or biceps or knees. Good runners absorb the load in the calves, not the knees. Good climbing is from hip and shoulder movement, not arm muscles. Even getting up from a chair should be a hip movement rather than a push from the knees.
The natural position while standing is braced neutral. Feet parallel, arches slightly engaged, glutes braced, pelvis straight not tilted, abs braced, trapeze muscles down, shoulders back, head slightly back, eyes forward.
Below is the bracing sequence for the neutral position from Becoming a Supple Leopard:
If it appears difficult, it’s because it is. It’s an effort for us, who adapted to unnatural relaxed positions. It’s like trying to run a marathon without any previous running training. Your body cannot take it. Similarly it does not have the capacity to hold a correct posture. It takes training every day.
2. Make your environment better
In tandem with training, it helps to make the environment where you live more suitable for a correct position. The main areas of improvement are shoes, sitting, beds and natural stimuli.
Shoes and foot movement
Nowadays there are loads of minimalist barefoot shoes. These try to come close to barefoot while still protecting your feet. What you want to look for is foot-shaped, flexible, zero heel drop and a low stack height. Some that I use and find great are Earth Runners, Xero and Vibram FiveFingers. But there are other brands as well.
As with anything, gradual adaptation is key. You need to transition into barefoot shoes step by step. When I started running in Five Fingers, I had severe muscle soreness in my calves after every run for six months. Those muscles were too weak for the shock absorption they have to do. But they adapted.
It’s also important to focus on good form while standing, walking and running in barefoot shoes. If you use the movement pattern learned with regular shoes, then you get no benefit. You have to change both the environment and your movement patterns.
How should your foot move? While standing you should have 50% of the weight on the heel and 50% on the forefoot. The latter should be distributed equally left and right. This creates a stable position in three points, centered over the feet.
When walking, step in front and the push with the whole foot. It’s like you are gripping with the front of the foot to pull you forward.
When running, it’s different. It’s like falling, with each step right underneath you preventing the fall. You should land and push on the forefoot, activating the calf muscles to absorb the shock and the glutes to propel you forwards.
As little as possible.
Get a standing desk or other solutions to work while standing, rather than sitting. Alternate positions frequently, rather than sitting or standing in one place for long periods of time. Also get flooring that allows you to stand barefoot or in socks at home. Slippers are also posture deforming shoes.
Hard surfaces are ideal. Not rock hard, but firm. For most this means switching to a firmer mattress. For others, it can mean sleeping on a futon or a blanket on the floor.
Go to the nearest park or wilderness. Walk barefoot on grass. Climb trees. Scramble up mountains. Move logs and rocks.
It’s different than running on pavement and sweating under fitness machines.
3. Diagnose your problems
I have a collapsed ankle. My girlfriend has rotated hips. A friend has stiff shoulders. All posture problems in essence come from similar faults in our movement patterns. All can be fixed with ideal posture and movement. But they are not all the same.
Each of us has specific problem areas. These are the key to unlocking better posture. My collapsed ankle creates faults upwards throughout the body. It causes shoulder imbalance which leads to pain. Treating the shoulder is less effective than addressing the root cause which is the ankle.
Find a good physiotherapist/ physician/ other physical specialist. Someone who understands ideal posture and movement patterns and has the capability to diagnose root problems. Such an expert can identify faults too subtle for you and me to see.
If you find this expert, use him/ her. It’s more efficient to focus on core problems to rebuild overall posture and movement patterns.
Did you like this?
Subscribe, share and let me know if you want to learn about the other ways in which sick is the new normal, from food to information.