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.