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Dear Friend – Get Yourself Some Alignment Here, Part 1.
A few weeks ago a good friend sent me a message saying that she was ready to try some Restorative Exercise™, but wanted some ideas on where to start. Feet? Hanging? Something else?
It’s an awesome question, and a hard one to answer.
Hard mostly because everyone is different – we all have different amounts of time and motivation and we all have different things that we need to work on.
And hard because in some ways it doesn’t really matter. As a society we are basically starved for movement – we are generally working at about 25% of our total muscular capacity, even the very fittest among us. So if you add any new movement at all, you are getting oxygen to cells that really, really need it.
So the answer could be – do anything! and also, do everything!
But in the quest to be somewhat more helpful, I do believe that there are some changes and exercises that can have greater impacts, and be easier to integrate into super busy lives. So here’s what I’d suggest starting with.
First, there are some things you should stop doing. This takes no time, and will make a big difference:
- Ditch the heels. Any heels at all. Even the rise between the heel and the toe of your running shoes. Major caveat here though – making footwear changes is best done slowly so that you don’t hurt your feet by loading them too much, too fast. So if you’re currently used to wearing an inch or two of heel, all the time, start decreasing it slowly. Here is a good guide to changing your footwear, as well as a list of more minimal shoes. I’d say that starting with Kalso Earth Shoes or Lems would be good, as they have a bit more structure than a lot of shoes on this list. Also, start going barefoot around the house, which will help you start to gently build up greater foot strength. We’re going to talk more about foot exercises here since you will need to start rebuilding your feet to go along with the transition to more minimal shoes.
- Stop sitting in chairs. This and this have lots of alternatives and suggestions. The keys here are: a) you need to change your resting joint angles a lot – when sitting in a chair they are only ever at 90 degrees, and b) you need to sit on your ischial tuberosities (aka your sit bones) not your sacrum.
Second, you should begin to work on your standing alignment (which will someday become your walking alignment). There are 25 key alignment points that are the same for everyone.
However – and this is REALLY IMPORTANT – it’s best to think of these points as end goals instead of rules. So if you try to, for instance, point your feet straight and it feels icky, then don’t go as far. Just go to the point that your body is ok with, work to adapt to this new alignment, and then later try adding a little bit more. Slow and steady wins!
Whenever you stand you should check in with yourself for the following:
- Your feet should point straight(er) ahead. 99.9% of us stand with some amount of turn-out. It’s maybe our ballet heritage.
However, it leads to all kinds of nasty rotations in our leg bones, which really messes with our ability to walk properly. So, you should see if you can get the outsides of your feet are parallel to one another. Parallel like train tracks. Or cracks in your hardwood floor.
WARNING: this will probably make you feel pigeon-toed. That is ok – you will eventually adjust. You may also feel like your knees are caving in. Not to worry – what you need to do is learn how to externally rotate your femurs. Here’s a great video from Katy Bowman that explains external rotation. This is important but it can be a bit complicated. So you can start playing around with this but if you feel like you’ve got enough on your plate with everything else here, then save it for next time.
- Your legs should be straight. No mini-bend in your knees. I know, everyone has always told you to have a mini-bend, but it’s super damaging for your knees. Your quads (the big muscles on the front of your thighs) should also be relaxed – you should be able to wiggle your knee caps up and down. Try sitting on the ground, legs straight out in front of you. Use your hands to feel your quads – they should jiggle. Then try tightening them so they get hard. Practice going back and forth from tight to jiggly. Once you get this down, try it leaning against a wall. And then eventually try it standing up. Here’s a great little tutorial.
- Your feet should be pelvis width apart. Not next to each other, not super wide. This is step one of making sure that your legs are straight up and down, and not at an angle. This matters because when your legs are out of 90 degrees relative to the ground, gravity will start creating rotational forces on the joints. Hello, knee and hip problems (this is a big reason that women have more knee and hip issues than men, as we tend to stand with our feet too close together). This is how you figure out the width of your pelvis. First, put your hands on your hips like you’re going to yell at someone (newsflash – these are not your hips, but actually your pelvis). Your middle fingers are going to land right around the highest, most forward part of your pelvic bones – a spot called the ASIS (aka the Anterior Superior Iliac Spine).
Now that you’ve found your ASIS, you’re going to check yourself out in a mirror, and maneuver yourself until the middle of the front of each ankle lines up directly below its ASIS.
Your feet are now at the correct width – hooray! Check to make sure that their outside edges are still straight, and fix ’em if not.
- You need to straighten your legs in the other direction too, so that your pelvis is directly over your ankles instead of hanging out over your feet, as North American pelves are wont to do. This will help you engage the right muscles for walking, decrease pressure on your lower back, and allow your feet to function more effectively.
Fix this by moving your pelvis back in space so that your hips line up directly above your knees and your ankles. If you’re in the right spot, you’ll feel weight in your heels, be able to wiggle your toes, and at first, you’ll feel a bit off balance. The off balance feeling goes away naturally if you keep standing this way (and as you start doing stretches and exercises to lengthen and strengthen your back line), as now your glutes and hamstrings have to come to the party and actually help hold you up. Remember – don’t go all the way back if you feel like this means you need to force it, hold tension, or create pain. A little bit of ‘feeling weird’ should be fine though – that’s usually how changes feel!
Ok, that was a lot of fixing for one day, and we haven’t even talked about exercises or stretches.
My suggestion is this – take a week or two to work on becoming aware of your stance, getting into better standing alignment, and fixing your sitting. Do some walking, especially if you have a zero drop shoe. Practice wiggling your knee caps. Can you externally rotate with relaxed quads? Check on how you stand when you brush your teeth. What about when you do dishes? Standing in line at the grocery store? All opportunities to work on alignment without adding any extra time to your day.
BONUS POINTS – when you walk, try keeping your feet straight ahead and pelvis width apart (using lines on the sidewalk, sand, or god forbid, snow, can be useful so you can watch for this – as a general rule, what you *feel* you are doing is not what you *are* doing so having visuals is super, super useful. Check out the picture at the top here – definitely not aligned footsteps!).
And then I’ll be back with Part 2 to give you my recommendations for stretches and exercises (all of which will incorporate these basic stance points – they’re the first and most important step).
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. When she's not teaching, you'll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.