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Guide to Proper Sitting Posture: Doctor-Recommended Positions

Guide to Proper Sitting Posture: Doctor-Recommended Positions

Americans sit an average of 9.5 hours per day – more than half our waking lives – underscoring the importance of proper sitting posture since long work hours and mobile devices coax us into poor positions that can lead to crippling health consequences. Alleviate pain and prevent future problems with the doctor-recommended tips in this guide to good sitting posture.

Contents

  • How to sit with good posture
  • Dynamic posture vs. static sitting posture
  • Benefits of good sitting posture
  • Dangers of bad sitting posture
  • Different postures for different situations
  • Alternative sitting positions
  • How to find and maintain proper sitting posture

BackEmbrace: Comfy, Stylish Posture Support You'll Want to Wear

How to sit with good posture

When we’re talking about proper sitting posture, we’re usually referring to how you sit at a computer desk. In that case, good sitting posture generally means: 

  • Feet flat on the floor
  • Knees and hips at 90 degrees
  • Thighs parallel to the floor (knees slightly slower than your hips is OK)
  • Head and neck in a neutral position, so your ears are over your shoulders
  • Chest expanded and shoulder blades retracted
  • Chin parallel to the floor
  • Tummy tucked
  • Screen at eye level

GOOD SITTING POSTURE VS POOR SITTING POSTURE

“Good sitting posture is when the body is aligned properly and the muscles and joints are in balance,” says Vivian Yu, personal trainer, founder and head of technical development of One Body Personal Training. “This means that the ears, shoulders, hips and ankles should be aligned in a straight line, with the feet flat on the ground and the shoulders relaxed. The back should be straight, and the shoulders should be back, with the chin slightly tucked.”

Of course, you might need to adopt different postures for different situations, such as sitting on the floor, driving, or during pregnancy. We’ll discuss those in more detail below.

Dynamic vs. static sitting posture

Those are good tips for your starting base, but they don’t tell the whole story about good sitting posture. As the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy reports, variations in shape, size and spine curvature make it so “good” posture can vary between individuals. 

Moreover, holding “proper” posture all day can create its own problems, which is why many experts recommend dynamic sitting posture over static sitting posture. With dynamic sitting, you frequently change positions, so you’re never in one fixed position for too long. 

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“There is no one good sitting posture. Many people have been taught that you should sit upright with your shoulders pulled back, and if you slouch, you have ‘bad posture.’ Our bodies were meant to move, and one position for too long causes overuse of muscles on one side of the body while underuse on the other side,” says Dr. Logan Thomas, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of The Patient Educator. “Good sitting posture is one that is constantly moving. Sit upright for a while, slouch for a while, and then find somewhere in between for a while.”

Read: "I changed my posture and here's what happened”

When it comes to sitting at a computer desk chair, it might be best to consider traditional posture as your starting base. Change your position from time to time, then return to your base and repeat. 

A graphic or photos depicting people in various sitting positions. Base, change, base, etc.

“Good sitting posture is any posture that is comfortable and sustainable. Changing that posture when it becomes uncomfortable is more important than finding the ‘right’ posture,” says Graeson Harris-Young, a chronic pain and posture specialist who teaches The Alexander Technique at ThisMightHelp.us

Dr. Richard Omel, D.C., is a chiropractor and founder of Humoma, where he teaches patients to move better by improving structural and functional integrity. He says you should first find your ideal resting neutral sitting posture (RSNP) – then move in and out of it throughout the day. 

“Maintaining any one position for any length of time can be detrimental to the body’s structure. Moving in and out of RNSP throughout a given sitting session is key to improving the sitting experience while sustaining the body’s structural and functional integrity. The point of this dynamic process is it keeps the body moving so that it doesn’t adapt to any one position for extended periods of time.”

Benefits of good sitting posture

“The benefits of good sitting posture include improved posture, better alignment of the spine, reduced strain on the muscles and joints, improved circulation and reduced risk of chronic pain and injury,” says Yu.

Indeed, good sitting positions typically offer the following benefits: 

  • Pain relief, including neck, back, shoulder, hip pain and headaches
  • Improved circulation
  • Greater lung capacity/easier breathing
  • Reduced joint and muscle strain
  • Reduced risk of overuse or long-term injuries
  • Increased confidence with better form

“By adopting a dynamic posture that is constantly changing, you evenly distribute the stresses throughout all of your joints and muscles,” says Dr. Thomas. “This helps to prevent joint breakdown, muscle stiffness and muscular imbalances.”

Andy Marlow, a personal trainer who teaches the McGill Method at The Back Coach, explains how good sitting posture prevents long-term damage. 

“The benefits of a good sitting posture – one that continually changes – are that no tissues in the spine are overly stressed. The main benefits of avoiding a prolonged, slouched posture are ultimately that your spine will be more robust, more resilient to injury, and you’ll have less low back pain,” he says. 

A graphic that illustrates the spine when sitting.

Marlow adds that maintaining a good, non-slouched posture with a lumbar support that prevents your spinal extensors from becoming overactive and fatigued lessens stress on intervertebral discs and ligaments. 

“This slows down the natural process of degeneration that all spines go through and makes you less likely to suffer irreversible damage to your back,” he says.

Dangers of bad sitting posture

Poor sitting posture doesn’t just mean occasional soreness. It can lead to potentially serious long-term health consequences. 

“If you are always in the same position or bad posture, you will develop muscular imbalances that cause uneven pull on your joints,” explains Dr. Thomas. “In the short term, this can lead to back and neck stiffness, muscle discomfort and headaches. In the long term, this can lead to loss of mobility, arthritis and chronic pain.”

The list of maladies that can result from poor sitting positions is long: 

  • Development of postural issues such as forward head posture, kyphosis and hunchback
  • Neck, back and shoulder pain
  • Headaches
  • Herniated, bulging discs and other spinal issues
  • Decreased flexibility and mobility
  • Respiratory, circulation and digestion issues
  • Balance issues
  • Degenerative joint disease
  • Overuse injuries
  • Loss of confidence

Dr. Len Lopez, a chiropractic sports physician, nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach, explains how sitting in itself is more of the problem than posture.

“When you sit, you simultaneously shorten or tighten your hip flexors and hamstrings, while at the same time lengthen your quadriceps and hip extensors.  As you stay seated for more than 30-45 minutes, these muscles readjust their tension or length, which creates muscle imbalance around your low back and knees.  Every muscle has an opposing muscle, and when you keep one set of muscles (hamstrings and hip flexors) in a shortened position for an extended period of time, you change the tension around that joint, which leads to aches and pains,” says Dr. Lopez. “If you continue to stay seated for a couple of hours, those muscles will adapt to their new length, which isn’t ideal.  The two thing you can do, no matter what sitting posture you are in, to prevent muscle imbalance from taking hold of your low back, is to stand up and allow those muscles to go back to their normal tension every 45 minutes or so.  Secondly, simply tighten your hip extensors (butt muscles) and thigh muscles.  You don’t have to break a sweat or grimace when doing this simple isometric movement, but this alone will help restore balance back to both your low back and knees.”

A graphic that depicts shortened hip flexors and hamstrings.

In addition to chronic pain and injuries, poor positioning could prove costly by causing you to miss work days and racking up expensive bills for physical therapy, massages, chiropractic care and, potentially, surgery.

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Worse, some studies have found a link between issues such as forward head posture – a common result of improper sitting posture – with increased mortality rates. Bad sitting posture could quite literally be killing you.

“Certain areas of the spine, mainly the base of the neck and lower back regions, can develop a reduction in normal mobility and premature arthritis. Associated connective tissues lose their elasticity and develop adhesions, making them extremely tight and difficult to stretch out. Keep in mind this degenerative process is subtle and quietly evolves over time,” says Dr. Omel. “The major body cavity spaces are compromised and thus can affect the function of their contents, such as the heart, lungs and digestive tract. An example here would be acid reflux due to a compressed thoracic cavity/rib cage.”

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Different postures for different situations

We’ve covered good desk chair sitting posture, but what about if you’re sitting on the floor, driving a car or struggling to remain comfortable during pregnancy? 

“When driving, the seat should be adjusted so that the feet can reach the pedals and the back is supported. When pregnant, a chair with a good back support should be used. When sitting on the floor, a cross-legged position or a seated forward fold can be used,” says Yu. “When using mobile phones, the head should be in a neutral position, and the shoulders should be relaxed. To help alleviate back and hip pain, a chair with a good lumbar support should be used.”

Just like when sitting at a desk, it’s important to practice dynamic sitting and routinely switch positions. 

“When driving, alternate which butt bone you’re mostly sitting on or which hand is on the wheel if you drive one-handed. When sitting on the floor, you can alternate between criss-cross applesauce, side sit, long sit and short kneeling,” says Dr. Thomas. “When using mobile phones, alternate which hand holds the phone and try to raise your phone up to eye level every now and then. By alternating postures, you will help alleviate back and hip pain.”

  • Driving: Adjust the seat so your back is still supported with your feet on the pedals. Alternate which butt bone you’re mostly sitting on and which hand is on the wheel
  • Pregnancy: Use a chair that offers good lumbar support
  • Floor sitting: Alternate between cross-legged, seated forward fold, side sit, long sit and short kneeling
  • Smartphones: Keep your head in a neutral position and your shoulders relaxed. Raise your phone to eye level to help avoid tech neck

In addition to these situations, Marlow says people with specific back issues should avoid some positions. 

“Many people with low back pain are flexion-intolerant. They experience pain when bending their spines forward. For these individuals, slouched sitting or unsupported sitting should be avoided because of the increased contraction of their back extensors and hip flexors required in these postures. As a result, the endurance capacity of these muscles is exceeded relatively quickly, exacerbating their back pain,” he says. 

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Conversely, those who are extension-intolerant might find pain relief in a slightly flexed position, with their pelvis rotated posteriorly to take stress off the facet joints. Marlow says these individuals may need to fine-tune their lumbar support to avoid too much flexion or extension and frequently change position.

“These different approaches underline the importance of adapting the sitting posture to the specific pain triggers of anyone suffering from low back pain,” he says. “However, in all cases, it’s wise to apply the general principle of making small postural changes to distribute the load on the tissues of the back.”

Alternative sitting positions

You don’t need to sit in traditional desk chairs all day. Consider alternative sitting positions offered by: 

  • Kneeling chairs
  • Exercise balls
  • Yoga mats (for floor sitting)
  • Saddle chairs
  • Stools
  • Balance ball chairs
  • Wobble stools
  • Desk hammocks
  • Meditation cushions
  • Yoga blocks

“Variety is the spice of life, and there are so many ergonomic options available now to find your Goldilocks support,” says Harris-Young. “Personally, I have two different chairs, an adjustable stool and a set of buckwheat meditation cushions that I can stack at different heights in my office, along with a foam wedge and a yoga block that I can add to any of them to meet my needs at any given moment.”

Woman sitting on workout ball

That said, choosing the right alternative seating position is vital to avoid additional complications. 

“Kneeling chairs, exercise balls and specialized stands can all offer some benefit in that they subject your body to different sitting experiences from the standard office task chair,” says Dr. Omel. “One must be cautious and not develop bad sitting postures while using these alternatives. They do not miraculously change a poor sitting posture into a balanced one. A fundamental understanding of good body use is essential to optimizing any surface or chair one is sitting on.”

Investing in a standing desk can also help, even if you maintain good posture when sitting. For example, Marlow says exercise balls don’t support the spine well enough and can fatigue core muscles, resulting in poor posture and straining spinal ligaments. They’re fine for short, 20-to-30-minute breaks from the office chair but not ideal for extended use.

Sitting with proper posture, standing at a standing desk.

“A better alternative is a standing desk set up where you can alternate between sitting and standing postures through the day. This is ideal for avoiding the inevitable tissue overload that occurs with sitting in the same position all day long,” he says.

How to find and maintain proper sitting posture

Try these tips to help you find and maintain good sitting posture. 

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the most critical tool for achieving proper sitting posture. Continually monitor your position and make regular adjustments. 

“Your next position is your best position,” says Dr. Omel. “The idea is to begin familiarizing yourself with what structurally balanced sitting looks – and more importantly – feels like. The moment you notice your sitting position moving away from it, move it back toward the balanced sitting position. Get creative and find different ways to move from a ‘bad’ sitting position back toward the balanced sitting position.”

A person sitting with proper posture.

Dr. Omel recommends the following process for renewing your structural balance while sitting: 

  1. Position your body toward the front of your chair
  2. Slowly roll your pelvis forward and backward as far as you comfortably can. Notice how each extreme position feels in your pelvis and other parts of your body
  3. Find the halfway point between the extreme forward and backward pelvic positions. This is your neutral pelvic position
  4. Next, allow your head, neck and spine to “collapse” while allowing your pelvis to roll backward, so your spine is in a “C” shape
  5. Slowly lift your chest, neck and head upward as high as you can, then allow your head to gently balance on top of your spine
  6. Maintain this upright position while simultaneously finding your neutral pelvic position. Relax while maintaining this position, which is your ideal resting neutral sitting position

“Every time you notice yourself slouching, execute this exercise to restore your balanced sitting resting position,” says Dr. Omel. “This will help you to change your bad sitting habits to better ones.”

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Posture correctors

Posture correctors gently retract your shoulders and provide physiological feedback that reminds you to maintain proper posture. They’re designed to train you over time so that, eventually, you won’t need to wear a posture corrector

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“Posture correctors can help people maintain proper posture while sitting by providing support to the muscles and joints. They can help to align the spine, reduce strain on the neck and shoulders, and prevent slouching,” says Yu. “Posture correctors can also help to retrain the body to maintain proper posture, even when not wearing the device.”

BackEmbrace

How to use a posture corrector

Look for a posture corrector that offers quality construction and is comfortable and stylish enough to wear regularly. Some posture correctors can be worn over or under clothes. Choosing a doctor-recommended posture corrector is also a good idea, especially since many cheap knock-offs don’t offer adequate support and are prone to wear and tear. 

Posture corrector before & after stories and photos

Posture exercises, stretches and yoga

Incorporate posture exercises, stretches and yoga into your daily routine – and during quick breaks at your desk. Here are three stretches to get you started: 

1. Cervical lateral flexion stretch

2. Neck side flexion

3. Scapular retraction

Posture apps and slouch detectors

You can download mobile apps that remind you to maintain good posture, walk you through postural exercises and stretches, or use your phone’s camera and other sensors to analyze for postural issues. 

If you work at a desk, you can also download a slouch detector that uses your desktop or laptop camera to monitor your sitting position and notify you when you begin to slouch. 

Learn more about posture apps

Ergonomic workstations

Seek ergonomic office chairs and keyboards, use headsets instead of bending your neck to speak on the phone, and create an ergonomic setup that doesn’t stress your muscles and joints while sitting at work. Adjust your computer monitor so the top of your screen is no more than two inches above eye level, and add lumbar support to your chair to help maintain the natural curvature of your lower back.

 An ergonomic workstation

Take routine breaks to combat fatigue

Dynamic posture is one way to combat fatigue, joint strain and muscle imbalances. Taking regular breaks is another. Be sure to stand, walk, stretch or otherwise move around every half hour to help avoid the pitfalls of improper posture. 

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Good sitting posture doesn’t look the same for everyone, but it doesn’t need to be challenging to find and maintain. Follow the tips outlined in this article and create a plan that incorporates a combination of exercises, ergonomics, posture correctors and mindfulness to find the correct sitting position for you.

“Make sure you’re always judging posture based on its actual effects on you. ‘Good’ posture that feels bad is actually bad posture,” says Harris-Young. “Don’t give up – comfortable and sustainable posture is something we can all find; it just may look a little different person to person.”

Looking for a lightweight, comfortable, stylish posture corrector that works? Try BackEmbrace!
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