“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle (smart chap).
When we’re looking at changing the human body in any respect, be it making it stronger, leaner or taking the body out of pain and making it move better, everything comes back to what you repeatedly do day to day. Think about the hours you spend sitting, the hours your shoulders are rolled forwards, the amount of external stressors throughout the day that cause your traps to cuddle your ears incessantly. These postures and positions dictate how your body will feel and in the long run will also change how your body can move due to it adapting to the crappy positions we ask it to hold. This is what our bodies know. These are our habits.
Think about the miles of social media we all scroll throughout the week and how that makes your thumb feel…it really hurts its feelings! Let alone how your neck and upper back feel due to you having to let that heavy noggin drop forwards to look at screens.
One area of our day that can literally make or break your body is sleeping. Now I’m going to write another blog or make a video about how to improve your sleeping conditions and therefore improve your entire life (no joke). But to stay on topic for today, I’m going to focus on sleeping positions in particular.
“How do you sleep at night!?” - It’s a question I always ask my clients in the clinic as it has such a significant impact on your body. Some issues in your tissues can be hugely improved by altering how you sleep. So let’s delve into what you should and shouldn’t do in bed (wait...I think that’s a different book).
On your front.
Just don’t do it. If you do then stop. Now. Yesterday in fact! It’s absolutely the worst position to sleep in. You neck has so much stress place on all the deep cervical structures and by sleeping with your head spun to one side it keeps them at full rotation all night. That’s not good for your neck, shoulders, breathing, upper back or your soul. So just stop. I feel like I’ve made my point. Moving on.
On your side.
This is definitely better than sleeping on your front but it can be made so much better with the addition of a few upgrades. I see a trend in people that sleep on a particular side and the disfunction of that same shoulder and the opposite hip. By not having a pillow that is supportive enough your head is tipped towards that shoulder all night which places strain on the neck and nerves. Next we will usually do something with our arms to try to keep the neck neutral which then compresses or internally rotates the shoulders and causes you to round your upper back. Over time this leads to long and weak muscles in between your shoulder blades and short and tight muscles in the front of our chest and shoulders. Added to this we also have to have one hip compressed and the other stuck in one form of rotation. The list goes on but lets look at some simple tips for this position as most of us sleep on our sides.
First up, make sure you have a pillow that offers sufficient support for your neck. Ensure you have a pillow that’s not too flat or too massive. Following that, a handy little hint I picked up from Kelly Starrett is to fold up a small towel lengthways and put it inside your pillow case close to your shoulder. This adds more of a buffer to support your neck whilst your head is supported by the pillow.
Secondly, look at having a thinner pillow in between your knees to add support for your hips. This will stop your upper hip from rolling forward and will take some stress off of your glutes, lower back and other hip abductors. Simple stuff but it makes a difference!
On your back.
Probably the best in terms of keeping everything in line and evenly distributing your weight. However this can still go wrong if you don’t consider the small details. For example, if your pillow is way too big then it will still put your head in a flexed position all night. On the other hand if your pillow is way too small then you'll have an exaggerated curve in your cervical spine and it will probably exacerbate any snoring issues you have. In addition to this you will generally externally rotate one leg and tuck it under the other due to slight hip tightness which will then keep your hip rotators tight overnight.
There's a couple of easy fixes for this too. Start with putting a small pillow underneath your knees. This will help keep your pelvis in a neutral position therefore decompressing your spine and taking away the need to externally rotate your legs. Next up, making sure that you have the correct thickness of pillow so that your head is in a neutral position and not overly flexed or extended overnight. To help with keeping your shoulders back in down overnight you can rest your arms on two small pillows across your torso. This can really help take the pressure off of the front of your neck and will help anyone that finds they wake up with numbness or tingling in their arms.
So there you have it, some pretty easy fixes for your sleeping position that will really benefit your joints and tissue health. Good sleep is absolutely vital for the body and the first round of deep sleep is when your body starts pumping out all the lovely growth hormones and testosterone for repair. So if your body is in a poor recovery position overnight and your tissues and joints are loaded up in weird and wonderful ways then you're going to wake up feeling tight, stiff and unrested. This is not going to lead to a very effective day and if you are thinking about training that day then you're just abusing that tissue more and more.
Remember, you are what you repeatedly do.