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Posture at the Olympics

August, 2016

Have you been watching the Olympic athletes this week? The Gokhale Method teacher team certainly has been enjoying the games and our discussion board includes some interesting observations.

venus williams
You have to believe in yourself when no one else does -- that makes you a winner right there - Venus Williams, four time Olympic gold medalist, tennis

Cynthia Rose, a Gokhale Method teacher in New York City, writes:

I have always loved watching the Olympics. This week I have had the added pleasure of looking at the way the athletes use their bodies and how the different sports affect primal posture. Lots of sways in gymnastics, and in many of the swimmers I see a rounding in the upper thoracic spine while at the same time the chest remains open.


Sheelagh Tobin, our Gokhale Method teacher in Vancouver Island, writes:


Check out the weightlifters.  Maybe not the most exciting sport but you get to see a lot of bodies and a lot of muscular power. They are pretty amazing- rib anchors, no sways, very muscular backs with even grooves and very powerful hip hinges, strong glutes and corresponding anteversion and J-spines. Enjoy ;)

Lasha Talakhadze from Georgia, winner of the 2016 Gold Medal in the Men's +105kg Weightlifting

Considering that Olympians are some of the fittest humans in the world, you might expect to see only healthy positioning. Surprisingly, some sports encourage unnatural movements or promote unhealthy postures.

The American gymnastics team, known as the Final Five, wave to the audience. You can especially see the standard sway back with popped-up ribs taught in gymnastics in Simone Biles, far left, as she raises her arms above her head. Gabby Douglas, on the other hand (facing camera on the right), takes a less traditional gymnastics salute as she keeps her ribs anchored and her torso smooth. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Mostly, though, there is good news coming out of Rio:

Cynthia writes:

When the winning swimmers raise their arms over their heads, there is lots of rib anchor happening. The ribs don't pop up at all. There is lots of isolation of the use of the arms from the movement of the rib cage.

US Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps (left) and Caeleb Dressel (right) celebrate victoriously. Both maintain smooth torsos with their rib cages firmly anchored, even as they raise their arms above their heads enthusiastically, isolating their shoulder movements. (@TODAYshow)

This rib anchoring posture is common among the Olympic swimmers from all countries. Swimming is often touted as an excellent way to exercise as well as recuperate from injury, since it is a low-impact aerobic workout and the water supports the body weight, relieving stress from the bones and joints. However, swimming also has the capacity to cause injury. Although shoulder injuries are the most commonly cited among competitive swimmers[1], low back pain is not uncommon and affects as many as 50% of butterfly swimmers and 47% of breaststroke swimmers[2]. Butterfly and breaststroke swimmers are particularly predisposed to low back pain because of the prone position of the stroke. If done with improper posture, the back repeatedly arches, or sways, as the swimmer comes up for air, compromising circulation, stressing the low back muscles, and putting the spine at risk for serious injury as the discs are repeatedly compressed.

It makes sense that the athletes who make it as far as the Olympics use an efficient posture that not only protects them from injury, but helps them swim faster. By arching the back and popping out the rib cage, a swimmer’s stroke is dampened and force is lost. Swimmers who keep their ribs anchored and their backs strong maintain a robust platform from which they derive their power; it follows that through the development of training techniques, swimmers and coaches have taken advantage of the natural efficiencies of this primal posture. For athletes that learn this posture, the duality of protecting the back and keeping a powerful stroke naturally propels them ahead of their peers. Thus we see that the competitive nature of the Olympics selects for this efficient, primal positioning.

Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjostrom again demonstrates beautiful rib anchoring and an upright spine as she sits on the edge of the pool celebrating. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

This position can be applied to many day-to-day activities such as reaching up to a high shelf, or while washing your hair in the shower. As discussed in a previous post, the minutes spent washing your hair can be a vulnerable time for the lower back, as many people will sway their back and pop their ribs as they raise their arms above their head, compressing their spinal discs. However, we can protect ourselves in everyday tasks if we practice rib anchoring and isolation as demonstrated at the Olympic games.

Although some sports do teach unnatural postures, many of the Olympic athletes demonstrate aspects of good primal posture. The Gokhale team hypothesizes that in sports where success is based on objective criteria like speed and strength, athletes converge on primal posture for efficiency. It’s in sports such as gymnastics and synchronized swimming, in which success is in part based on subjective criteria, that you find deviations from what’s natural or healthy.

Even though most of us don’t aim for the same level of achievement as Olympians, they can be a good set to watch and learn from because the primal positions they demonstrate translate into everyday work and survival.

  1. Sein ML, Walton J, Linklater J, et al. Shoulder pain in elite swimmers: primarily due to swim-volume-induced supraspinatus tendinopathy. Br J Sports Med. 2010;44(2):105-113.
  2. Drori A, Mann G, Constantini N. Low back pain in swimmers: is the
    prevalence increasing? In: The 12th International Jerusalem Symposium on
    Sports Injuries; 1996; Tel Aviv.
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There is a 41 year old woman participating in her 7th gymnastic olympics. I'm no professional, but I suspect you will be much happier
with her posture than w/ most of the young ones. If someone participates for 25 years it is highly unlikely they have bad posture.
Oksana Chusovitina
Type in her name only in youtube and watch a wide array of incredible stuff.

I remember Oksana when she was younger. How amazing that she is competing in her 7th Olympics! Such a differetn trajectory from Olga Korbut, who had two back surgeries shortly after winning Gold in the Olympics. 

You are right, lasting through seven Olympics in itself says a lot about her form and resilience. It's easiest to see her fomr in the floor exercises like here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfYZ5SNGZL0#t=72.689546 She is really fantastic. 

It's very moving to hear her talk about her son's recovery from leukenia and how (of course) that meant much more to her than winning her Medals. I wonder if that perspective helped bring some balance to her traingin and style. She also says, that, now that she's older, she uses her head more in her gymnastics. 

Thank you for pointing us to this!

Hi everyone
I'm from Australia and you might be interested to read about one of our female Olympic swimmers who has scoliosis, Jess Ashwood. She has an S curve. Try this link to read an article about her: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/jessica-ashwood-defies-her-body-to...

but if the paywall won't let you through, Google "Jessica Ashwood defies her body to join elite swimming company".

Also have a look at a TV ad campaign running here in Australia that features her and shows the extent of her scholi. Pretty inspiring!

Good article :up:
Your mention of the teacher team discussion board prompts me to ask if there's any plans to bring back a public forum?

Actually, yes! We shut it down because we couldn't keep up with answering all the questions coming in. With an expanded teaching team to help answer questions, we've decided to bring it back as a service to the public. We're in the process of cleaning it up before relaunching - stay tuned!

Yes, Oksana is remarkable...as were so  many of the athletes in terms of resilience and desire to succeed against so many odds on their journeys to become the best they can be....

I love watching the athletes getting mentally and physically prepared for their events.  I love the build up to their jumping off points and imagining them putting their bodies into the most efficient position.  The most helpful event for me to try to emulate in my quest for efficient posture was the 10m platform when they balance on the balls of their feet and spring inward...


It helps me do "extreme bean shaping."   I stand on the edge of my mat, balance on the balls of my feet and when I slowly lower myself to the floor while imagining the ideal bone alignment, I can  get my bean shape much more easily since the ball of my foot has been firlmly glued to the floor.  I have been working assiduously on my feet this year and have come to realize how wildly out of line they were and how vital getting the bean shaping is to the rest of the process since "the knee-bone's connected to the...."

It sounds like you're saying lumbar extension compresses the lumbar discs. Everything else I've read about the biomechanics of the lumbar spine (from McGill and McKenzie, for example) suggests that flexion loads the discs, not extension. Could you please explain?

Flexion and extension both load discs, but differently. If there's sufficient length in the spine, a moderate amount of loading is well-tolerated. If there isn't enough length in the spine for the amount of distortion (flexion or extension), there willl be damage. So damage occurs more easily in a generally compressed spine; damage also happens more easily with extreme distortions from the baseline. 

That said, the damage associated with flexion (and especially if combined with rotation) is more risky than the damage associated with extension. That's because with flexion the posterior part of the outer fibrous layers of the disc get worn - and the nerve roots traverse. right behind the discs. Exension puts the anterior part of the outer fibrous layers of the invovled discs under strain. Also not great, but not as risky as what happens with unhealhty flexion. 

Extension in gymnastics is pretty extreme - and the record suggests that olympic athletes are not immune to the damage it causes. 


I'm glad you wrote a blog post about posture at the Olympics but I'm amazed you are talking about swimmers like Michael Phelps as if he has good posture - the opposite it actually true. Michael Phelps has one of the worst postures imaginable of all professional athletes! Yes he has strong abdominal muscles but they keep his pelvis in a posterior tilt (no J-curve), lumbar and thoracic spine in flexion, and contribute to extreme forward head posture. I use him as an example of terrible posture and how talent (which he has a lot) and function (which he has very little) do not go hand in hand. I hope you re-examine his posture and look at the big picture of his overall (terrible) alignment because I'd hate to see your readers and followers looking to him as an example of good posture/function.
- Matt

Really? I'm poring over Google images, and I'm seeing pretty good posture. Here's a head and shoulders shot showing nice shoulder and neck alignment:


And here he's raising his arms using his deltoids nicely while leaving his traps more relaxed - a piece of good form that's quite rare.