If you were ever hectored about your posture, you were probably told to “stand up straight” and maybe to turn your chest out or pull your shoulders back. Those are good cues, but nobody mentions the most important thing: “elbow pits forward.”
To stand up straight up with your chest out, you only need to move your spine, but most of us have another problem too, with how our upper arms are rotated. Freeze right now and look down to see where your elbow pits are facing. (If you aren’t sure, just curl your forearm up to your bicep and back without moving anywhere except at your elbow. Whatever plane your arm is moving in, that’s where your elbow pit is facing.) Almost everyone I know has their elbow pits turned inward most of the time, toward the body’s centerline. That’s because we sit a lot and constantly use keyboards, pens, and other tools centered in front of our bodies, and to touch them we have to angle our hands inward in what’s called “internal rotation.”
Strength athletes suffer terrible internal rotation, especially in America where we fetishize the bench press, and that gives us a familiar “Neanderthal” look: thick in the pecs, wide in the lats, and short-necked and slope-shouldered. Once I was asked by a dancer I had only just met whether I’d once wrestled. My answer was, “Yes, very badly” and I was amazed at her clairvoyance. She explained that she could usually spot wrestling types by “the way they move.” I have a hunch (get it?) that she is tipped off largely by that caveman-like internal rotation.
Contrast dancers: they are easy to spot, at least when assuming their stage presence, by that distinctive upright carriage. They are taught to imagine a string gently pulling the crown of the head upward, drawing them erect with necks long. But I think that a lot of what we recognize as “dancer posture” is that they aren’t internally rotated like the rest of us.
For us, probably the only place where we unlearn this deformity is in a yoga class. Often teachers don’t emphasize it or articulate the lesson well, but in effect they are trying to train your elbow pits forward when they cue you to “draw your shoulders down away from your ears” and “broaden the back.” (Unfortunately those aren’t great cues because you can follow them even when your elbow pits are still turned inward just by engaging your lats.) In my experience, this is the magic of a pose like downward dog or upward dog. If you follow all the directions (spread your fingers, pronate the palms fully, “lengthen” the collarbones, fire the lats hard) to “broaden the back and pull the shoulders away from the ears,” you are definitely turning those elbow pits forward.
And that is a wonderful thing. You get stronger (e.g. deadlifts, pull-ups, and all the presses), you avoid a lot of joint problems and injuries, and you look healthier too. In fact, what people see as “big pecs” or “well-defined shoulders” is largely about the shoulder joint being rotated out to a healthy position. Men and women both look fitter instantly, without gaining any muscle or losing any fat, just by turning those elbow pits forward. And for me, it even affects my mood: when I’m rotated out, I also feel more buoyant and cheerful.
Why am I getting all didactic about elbow pits today? Because they were so hard for me to control on my walk! For some active recovery, I carried the jerry can (45#) up the Rock of Faeries and it was much harder than a kettlebell. The wider, clunkier shape tries to make you hold it farther out to your side. That’s a little more tiring and so instinctively you try to inch the can fractionally closer by turning your elbow in. And soon you’re a Neanderthal again. (Look at the picture on the right that Skadisdottir took of me carrying the archery target at my birthday party. You can see how stooped I am.)
So today I did my feeble best to treat carrying the can as a kind of yoga asana, focusing less on moving the implement than on keeping good position. On game day I won’t fuss overly much about form–the point will just be to move the f****** can, not to look like a ballerina–but on training days it’s much more important to reinforce good habits than squeeze out a little extra performance by cheating on fundamentals.