Updated on April 14, 2016
How to Correct a Muscle Imbalance Caused By Sitting at Work
This is no shortage of articles around the web stressing the dangers of sitting for long periods of time. Cancer, heart attack, weight gain and high cholesterol have all been linked to sitting at a desk day in and day out. The good news is that there are a number of things you can do in the immediate term to shake things up. For instance, you might consider a more ergonomic workstation, jumping on the standing desk bandwagon, working on a proper sitting posture or developing better movement patterns. But what if the damage is already done? What if you’ve developed a muscular imbalance or tendonitis from years of poor ergonomics?
Well, I was in exactly that position 3 years ago. I chose to take corrective action through an aggressive routine of weight training and stretching that has dramatically improved my posture and well being at work.
The Kinetic Chain
When talking about muscular imbalances in the context of ergonomics and posture, no concept is more fundamental than that of the kinetic chain. In short, the idea is that no joint or muscle functions in isolation.
Muscle groups work together in order to perform a function. When one muscle is weak or injured, other muscles compensate with varying degrees of success. For instance, a hip injury might result in a new muscle pattern that manifests in the back and shoulders.
Unfortunately once a particular movement pattern is acquired, it sometimes difficult to unlearn.
The Problem With Sitting At Work
Sitting for long periods of time means that certain muscle patterns are reinforced while others are weakened. In particular, sitting tends to weaken the posterior kinetic chain, the series of muscles located on the posterior of the body. The posterior kinetic chain is anchored by the glutes, hamstrings and lats, muscles which are critical for maintaining good posture.
Sitting alto tends to tighten the muscles on the anterior of the body. Tight hip flexors are particularly common in folks who spend long hours at a desk.
The result of these muscle imbalances is often a “computer hunch” that becomes more and more pronounced over time. It is typically characterized by an anterior pelvic tilt (1), excessive lower back arch (2) and a forward head position (3). Because the stereotypical “computer hunch” focuses on a hunched back, many folks begin their strength routine with an emphasis on upper back posture. However, in most cases, the dysfunction actually begins at the hips and propagates through the kinetic chain to the shoulders and neck.
How to Correct a Muscle Imbalance
Muscle imbalances can be remedied and the approach is actually fairly simple: strengthen muscles that are weak and stretch muscles that are tight. In practice, that means strengthening the key posterior muscles and stretching the hip flexors and thoracic spine for folks that spend a lot of time sitting at their day jobs.
Initially I focused on targeted exercised for the posterior chain: leg press for the glutes, lat pull downs for the lats, sit ups and a variety of other targeted exercises. I also began to stretch more. My favorite hip flexor stretch is the kneeling lunge. These exercises provided immediate benefits, but as my strength improved, I began to feel as though something was still missing.
The problem with targeted exercises is that they do not tend to reinforce functional movements. Instead, you might end up with well developed lats, but your other back muscles might not know how to properly interact when it comes to actually lifting heavy objects off the ground.
Compound Exercises and Functional Strength
I am now full convert to the Starting Strength view of the world. I will have a post on the benefits of starting strength and my personal experience with the program in the near future, but, in short, the program emphasizes compound movements that translate to movements that are useful in real world situations, rather than targeting specific muscle groups. The heart of the program is just 3 exercises: the press, deadlift and squat. So far, I have been very impressed with the results.
In terms of correcting muscle imbalances, I now believe a starting strength program might actually be more effective than a targeted strength program because it involves exercises that involve the entire kinetic chain working together. Because postural issues are both neurological and muscular, such compound movements can retrain all aspects of the dysfunctional movement, rather than targeted muscles.
Have you tried to correct your posture through strength training or other exercises? What exercise programs have worked well for you?