driving posture: the good, the bad, and the dangerous

If you’re like most people who drive on a daily basis, you have at some point experienced some sort of back pain related to driving.  Keep reading for tips and exercises on how to alleviate and prevent back pain and injury from driving.

So cars are like 100% natural, no?

driving posture
photo by epSos.de (http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/5591761716/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

Hm. No. They are these little man-made contraptions designed aerodynamically for speed and fuel efficiency. Hopefully.  As ergonomics become more into play, the level of comfort increases. There is also some correlation with comfort and how much you pay, but I’ve never been a big slender when it comes to vehicles.  It’s not as much about WHAT you drive as HOW you drive it.

For my job, there is quite a bit of travel involved. If im not working from home, my minimum commute is 30 minutes, 1.5 or 2.5 hours.  Sometimes up to 5 hours to and from.  It is NOT comfortable to be in a car that long, and definitely NOT natural.

Cars cause a myriad of problems that can turn into long term injuries if you aren’t proactive.  Four out of five people will experience back pain in their lifetime.  Be proactive and prevent these issues before Dr. So-and-so recommends drugs OR expensive, painful, and invasive surgery.

Lumbar pain, neck and side aches, tailbone stress, and head/eye strain are common among those that drive long distances.

driving posture
photo by big g fish (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cglock/- 1854283814/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

Some of the key points below can help prevent and treat those common injuries.

A few things to think about regarding position:

1. Your shoulders should be sloped down and back, not hunched forward.  Adjust the back of the chair upright, just a few degrees away from 90.  It will be uncomfortable at first but you get used to it, and it’s not as bad as a lifetime of lower back pain.

2.  The base of your hips should be at the back of the seat.  If you have a newer car with lumbar support, it should be positioned at the base of the spine.

3.  Keeping a rolled up small tshirt or towel at the lower back, above the hips.  This allows your upper back to rest comfortably at the top of the seat and your head to rest comfortably against the head rest which should be positioned at eye level.

driving posture
photo by big g fish (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cglock/- 1853457711/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

4.  Slightly bend your elbows and keep your hands at 7 and 5 instead of 10 and 2 to prevent stress on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  Also, it’s safer because turning the wheel doesn’t cause you to cross your arms.  Funny how teaching methods change over the years (I hear Pluto is no longer a planet…)

5.  Scooting the seat forward slightly prevents straining of the hamstrings and compression of the lower back when accelerating and decelerating, but being too close to the wheel can cause back pain as well.  Approximately a third of women sit too close to the wheel, and more than one in three men sit with their legs fully extended.  Your legs should sit comfortably without over extension or holding you upright.

A few exercises INSIDE the car you can do to prevent stiffness and lack of blood flow:

1.  Sitting cat/cow pose – hands at 12 o’clock, exhale and tuck chin and round upper back fully, bringing shoulders round and forward.  On an inhale, raise your head and arch your back, squeezing shoulder blades together and back while bringing hands to 9 and 3 o’clock on the steering wheel.

2.  Spinal twists – Keep your core engaged and inhale.  On an exhale, twist shoulders to the right.  Keep your core engaged and your head as you twist.  On the next inhale, return shoulders to face forward.  Exhale and twist to the left.  Repeat 8-10 times.

3.  Commuter crunch – tuck your pelvis forward and engage your lower abdominals while simultaneously tucking your ribs towards your hips and engaging your upper abdominals.  Hold for 10 seconds.  Repeat exercise 8-10 times.  Do this once every 30 minutes.

4.  Steering wheel push ups – Straighten arms, then put hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on steering wheel.  Bend elbows and bring chest to wheel, then fully extend arms again.

5.  Shoulder push/pull – Keep hands at 9 and 3 o’clock.  While gripping wheel, exhale and bring right shoulder forward toward the center of the steering wheel.  Inhale, push shoulder back to the seat.  Repeat slowly on each side 3-4 times to release tension in neck, shoulder, and chest.

6.  Tailbone tuck – Like the commuter crunch, but more for release than exercise.  Arch your lower back slightly, then tuck your pelvis forward while slightly tightening your lower abs and repeat.  This will alleviate tension in the lower back and work your core.

7.  Neck stretches – keeping your gaze forward and your neck in line with your shoulder, bring your right ear towards your right shoulder.  Place your right hand on your head and slightly add pressure.  Hold for 10-20 seconds and release.  Repeat on each side 3-4 times.  This will release tension in your neck and shoulders.

8.  Oblique rock – Flex your abs and raise your right hip as high as you can.  Hold for a few seconds and lower.  Do the same on left side.  Repeat 8-10 times.

Here are a few exercises you can do OUTSIDE the car when you stop (ideally every hour, but if you are pressed for time, at least once every 2-4 hours).

1.  Forward fold – Stand tall with hands on hips.  Exhale and bend forward from the hips (not the waist).  Bend knees if necessary and place hands on the ground or chins.  Think of extending the head towards the ground and lengthening the crown of the head towards the ground.  Lift with every inhale, lengthen with every exhale.  Relax here for 30 seconds – 1 minute.  On an inhale, tuck your tailbone under (squeeze glutes slightly) and come up with a flat back.

2.  Standing upside down L – Standing a few feet away from vehicle, lean forward at the hips and place hands on the vehicle like an upside down L.  Lean forward slightly adding pressure into the hands to open up chest and release pressure on the lower spine.

3. Standing glute stretches – Stand facing vehicle while holding on to something for balance, raise right leg and place above left knee.  Slowly hinge back with weight on the heels, keeping your knee in line with your ankle.  Keep your chest upright.  This should release your glutes and lower back.  This should feel good.

4.  Squat – Yes you will look weird, but this is how our ancestors did everything from cooking to using the restroom, and it will open up your hips, decompress your spine, strengthen your core, and tone your butt and legs.  Awesome huh?  KEY POINTS:  open feet slightly wider than hip width, keep core engaged (tighten abs), keep weight on your heels, and hinge back with your hips like you are about to sit on a toilet.  Keep going down while keeping your chest upright and lower as far down as you can go.  Hold for 20-30 seconds and put weight in heels to come up to standing, and squeeze your butt at the top.  Arms can be perpendicular for balance or even grabbing onto the vehicle at first so you can sit back on your heels without toppling over.

Front Squat at Atomic Athlete – get low, chest up, knees out.
Weights are optional.

YES it will be uncomfortable at first.  You are aiming for below parallel, and preferably as low as the back of your thighs touching your calves.  At first your knees will complain, but keep working to get lower and you will strengthen the muscles in your core and around your knees.  THIS HELPS HIP, ANKLE, AND SPINE FLEXIBILITY.  If this doesn’t feel natural, remember that anthropologically speaking, this is the most natural position in the world.  Your body wants it.

I used to get berated on long road trips if I had to stop to use the restroom and tried to keep driving from beginning to end of one tank of gas. If you have a driving partner as rigid as my brother, take a slightly longer break and make sure to stretch in and out of the car.

And remember, NO texting, emailing, facebooking, tweeting, Instagram-ing, snap-chatting, pinning, or any variation of said apps WHILE DRIVING.

  • CLICK HERE for sitting posture: we don’t sit on the ground often, but when you do here’s tips on how to do it properly
  • COMING SOON – post about correct posture and exercises to do while sitting at a desk all day in front of a computer
  • COMING SOON – post about correct posture while standing

Photo credits:

Featured image by xmu (http://www.flickr.com/photos/xmu/4616592976/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

photo by epSos.de (http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/5591761716/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

photo by big g fish (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cglock/1854283814/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr

photo by big g fish (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cglock/1853457711/sizes/z/in/photostream/) via Flickr


How to sit in a car without back pain: http://www.wikihow.com/Sit-in-a-Car-Without-Back-Pain

Back pain when driving? http://www.drivers.com/article/295/

Exercises for long distance drivers: http://xrscorp.com/blog/lifestyle/truckers-back-neck-pain/#comment-7297

How to exercise while commuting:  http://www.wikihow.com/Exercise-While-Commuting

Road trip stretches: http://www.drivetimeyoga.com/roadtripstretches


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