Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The Bodybuilder's Guide To Getting Rid Of "Computer Back"

Do you suffer Computer Back? I do. Mine is caused by the terrible habit of hunching over the laptop while also curling my legs under the chair in a sort of corkscrewed position that is osteomuscularly nightmarish but somehow conducive to concentration. When I stand up I look like a stooped, slightly concerned turtle. Now, lots of people have Computer Back, and nearly everybody with whom I've talked about it has, at some point in the conversation, brought up the fact that Philip Roth works at a standing desk. That tidbit, you'll remember, came out in a 2000 David Remnick profile, and it apparently haunts the imagination of everyone with a computer-related job who read it.

Roth wakes early and, seven days a week, walks fifty yards or so to a two-room studio. The front room is outfitted with a fireplace, a desk, and a computer set up on a kind of lecturn where he can write standing up, the better to preserve a bad back.

That The New Yorker included no diagrams or ordering information seems like an oversight/ lost opportunity on somebody's part. But if you're interested, here's an option that might suit, and here are some others. (A standing desk also has the benefit of keeping you from dying from "sitting disease.")

If that's not for you, what else to do? Obviously, sit and stand up straighter, but when things have gotten really crinkled, who can remember what good posture even feels like? Emailing about this with writer Lili Loofbourow ("let's talk about ailments!"), she directed me to some ace advice she'd found at a bodybuilding forum, and I share it now in the spirit of a Computer Back PSA.

The original poster had asked the forum for advice about rolled-forward shoulders, aka Computer Back symptom #1, although I think he earned his rolled-forward shoulders from working out too much, not from dweebing around the internet.

One respondent answered with this, which, if you know absolutely nothing about weight-lifting, sounds wonderfully deep and life-coach-ish:

1. reduce the number of pushing exercises
2. increase number of pulling exercises

Another respondent added this chunk of advice (I've boiled it down a little, so you should click through if you want the full response):

Roll up a towel and lay down with it traveling lengthwise on your spine. Let gravity pull your shoulders back. You can even sleep like this if you can set it up to where you're comfortable enough. …

Do lower trap work. My favorite is the hitchhiker. Lay on your stomach on the ground and make sure you have plenty of room. Now put your arms out to your side so you look like a T. Then, externally rotate your hands so your thumbs are pointing at the ceiling. Now, squeeze your shoulder blades together, lift your arms up off the ground and move them towards each other. Stop when you resemble a Y. Now hold for a second or two and move back. Very easy and you should feel this pain start pretty quickly in between your shoulder blades.

You should try to squeeze your scapulae together when you walk or sit. It's really hard at first and it caused me to cramp up but I personally believe it accelerated my healing from a month to a week. In any case, even if you can't do it now you'll have to progress to it because having proper posture involves active muscle usage. Think about it: you always suck your abs in to tighten them when you walk… at first it was something you consciously did but now it's subconscious. It will take a while, but you will soon subconsciously pull your shoulders back.

Back to the pull more/ push less advice. A friend who competes in Strong Man competitions shared this list of pull exercises that, if you're a gym-goer, you can add to your routine:


Seated row (any type of rowing action)

Bent-over rows

Pull ups

Hyper extensions

If you're not a gym-goer, I'd try the lying around on a towel trick and the hitchhiker exercise the second respondent describes. The former sounds good to do midday and ending in a relaxing, posture-improving nap. Also, for the female Blume-ites among you: The other day I was out for a walk and, while "squeezing the scapulae" and thinking about "pull, not push," realized that "We must, we must, we must increase our bust" chant from Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret should also help with Computer Back. The bodybuilders didn't mention it, but it's obviously a very worthwhile exercise, because it's easy, doesn't require equipment and lets you think about Judy Blume. So if you used to do the "We must, we must" thing in fifth grade, now is the time to resume, just for entirely different reasons than you used to have.

20 Comments / Post A Comment

davidwatts (#72)

I bought one of those $30 pull-up bars from a big-box retailer famous for their stylish ads, and as cheesy as I felt purchasing (and then WALKING HOME) with something that said "SUPER MUSCLES GET RIPPED!!!" on the box, it really actually works super well, in a variety of ways: I have yet to fall out of my doorframe and break my neck, and also my shoulders and back are in reasonably better shape. Just sayin!

Hamilton (#122)

Deadlifts and more deadlifts.

drufus (#24,190)

@Hamilton I'll second that!

I wholeheartedly endorse Rippetoe's Starting Strength program, btw: — 5 basic lifts, with the addition of pull ups and chin ups to make your arms look nice. My desk job-related back pain has diminished considerably since I started it a year ago. (And nobody's paying me to say that.)

@Hamilton Wide legged squats and kickboxing. Most back problems are actually solved with stronger and more flexible hip/core muscles.

Hamilton (#122)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Squats are great and all but deadlifts are probably better for people with these kinds of back issues. Deadlifts will in fact give you "stronger and more flexible hip/ core muscles."

@Hamilton Deadlifts won't really help any of the small flexor muscles at the sides of the hips though, and the muscles and tendons that run into the lower back to stabilize. If you only to exercises like deadlifts (which are excellent) you will eventually get pains in your hips, like what runners get, from primarily exercising the front and back portions. Also squats help keep your core and posture tight.

I love my standing desk. Make it yourself in two easy steps:

1) Get a desk. Any desk.
2) Put a cheap coffee table on top of it. One of the $24.99 ones, like this one.

Boom. Standing desk.

boysplz (#9,812)

@J.C. Calhoun@twitter Or you can eve go super lo-fi like I did and scrounge up a something from reams of paper and empty boxes. It's not the most visually pleasing setup but it gets the job done.

Also, be sure to get an anti-fatigue mat to stand on because your feet will be sore after 7-8 hours on them.

I can't believe The Awl wrote this…I can't believe how closely I paid attention to it. Together to health and victory!

Also, yes, work standing up! That's what Nabokov did.

@My Number Is My Address Donald Rumsfeld also was known to work from a standing desk. So there's that.

Bobby Womack (#4,074)

The real trick is to spend lots of time walking along streets with a high proportion of attractive members of the opposite sex. I certainly stand straighter when I look dead ahead as the pretty people pass me by.

HelloTitty (#830)

A rolled up towel isn't large enough or dense enough. Foam rollers are the way to go:

I may be the only dude I know who sits on a Swiss ball at work. I convince myself that it helps, but mainly it's fun to play hippity-hop between meetings.

Multiphasic (#411)

@Clarence Rosario Hippity-hop? Is that what they're calling it these days?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Clarence Rosario – My aunt had a horse that liked to play with a hippity hop. He'd grab the handle in his mouth and beat the shit out of anything in his corral. It was hilarious when he did it to trees, the fence, the bull in the next corral. Not so much when he snuck up on you and smashed you flat with it.

Azi @twitter (#11,216)

Eric Cressey has a great program for this problem, I think you can find it on T-Nation. He also has a blog with many updates on new movements that can help with this issue.

mishaps (#5,779)

It's also important to realize that your shoulders need to go DOWN, not just back. I typically come out of a Wikipedia haze to find my shoulders up around my earlobes.

Hitchhike if that's what I got to do, but nobody's pickin up a blogger with an attitude

Susannaf (#231,800)

My accumulated internet wisdom: swimming = pulling. Apparently competitive swimmers have to do all kinds of weightlifting to balance out that pulling with some pushing. So, swimming is best for this?
I hope so because that's what I do, and I can't do anything else thanks to the connective tissue disorder thing.

russell brandom (#7,699)

The fourth chakra, you guys. It's important. Open that stuff up.

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