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:
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, low back pain is not uncommon and affects as many as 50% of butterfly swimmers and 47% of breaststroke swimmers. 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.
- 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.
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