Do you know where your elbows are in space while working? While this may seem like a funny question, using strategies to keep your elbows in a neutral position while working will help reduce pain and fatigue.
As artists, we love creating, but we often suffer from aches and pains resulting from the toll our processes take on our bodies. Using awkward positions or positions considered non-neutral can fatigue our arms, hands, legs, and joints. However, we can learn to use our body in more neutral positions to reduce or eliminate discomfort. Maintaining a neutral posture is important because it conforms to the way your body is designed to move, even while performing studio tasks.
Neutral posture is a body position that causes the least amount of stress and strain to your muscles, joints, and ligaments. Neutral positions are natural, normal positions that are easy on the body and your musculoskeletal system. These are positions that are comfortable for the body to maintain and easy to transition into and out of. Ergonomists, like myself, want you to be set up to work starting in a neutral position and then adapt new positions from there. We say: your next position is your best position—as long as it is within the neutral range.
You can perform the same task in a neutral position and a non-neutral position, only in the non-neutral position your muscles must work harder and expend more energy. Working in a static posture for too long is not great either; it can load the muscles and reduce blood flow to strained areas.
Neutral Spine, Shoulders, and Arms
In “Working with a Neutral Spine,” from the February 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly, I discussed that a neutral spine has three curves, forming an S shape. From this neutral spine position, look at yourself in front of a full-length mirror. Face forward with your arms relaxed at your sides. Be sure your spine is neutral, with your head over your neck. Try doing this simple exercise: Do a complete shoulder roll, starting by rolling your shoulders forward, then up, then back and down. Keep them back and down. As you complete the shoulder roll, end with your palms facing forward, toward the mirror. Then bend your arms 90° so that you make an L shape with your arms. You can stay in this position or rotate your forearms so your palms are facing down, all while maintaining the shoulder position created when doing the shoulder roll.
Notice how your shoulder and upper body feel while doing this exercise. This is the feeling you want to have while performing your ceramic work. I know—it sounds impossible! You are probably used to having your entire wing bones (shoulder blades) forward! Think about all the forward hunching you do day after day, year after year.
How can you perform tasks with your shoulder blades back where they should be? What may need to be raised or lowered to help you achieve a neutral, comfortable position? Your wheel? Your work table?
You are in a neutral position when your arms are relaxed at the side of your body with your shoulder blades back and down. While in this position, close your eyes for a moment and feel your arms. They should feel relaxed, light, and free from any muscle strain. Now open your eyes. While still looking in the mirror, put your arms straight out in front of you. You’re now holding a 20–26-pound weight out in space. That is right; each arm weighs about 10–13 pounds (or about 6% of total body weight for each arm). Any time your arms are away from your body (see 1–4), you have an 10–13-pound weight, per arm, out in space. Can you feel inside your body the difference between having your arms at the side of your body versus out in front of you? What are you experiencing? Does it feel like a pull or an effort to keep them there? It requires effort and work on your part to keep your arms out in space.
Go back to the neutral position with your arms by the side of your body. To reduce the strain of having your entire arm out and away from your body, while keeping your elbows close to the sides of the body, bend your arms 90° (5, 6). You just reduced the weight out in space by half, by keeping your elbow lined up with your shoulders and hip. When your elbows are at the sides of your body and your lower arms are extended out, you only have half the weight of your arms out in space. This also benefits your head, neck, and shoulders, allowing them to remain neutral and reduce stress to those body parts (7).
When your arms are stretched out in front of you or anywhere along the arc of their rotation and you reach with your arm fully extended, you are in what is called the yellow zone (see 8, zone 2). When your elbows are close to the side of your body with just your forearms extended along that arc, then you are in the green zone (see 8, zone 1). Which zone do you think is easier on your body over the long term? If you thought the green zone, you are correct. How many of your daily tasks can you switch from being in the yellow zone to being in the green zone? How can you bring yourself closer to your work or your work closer to you? Small changes can have a big impact in your health and wellbeing.
Now let’s talk about the red zone (see 8, zone 3). This is the zone you most want to avoid. Working in the red zone forces you to overreach and overextend since you are using not only your entire arm, but also your back or shoulder or even twisting your body to do tasks in that zone. Do you do any tasks in the red zone during the work day? Can you brainstorm with other artists on how to get the job done more safely by bringing the work closer to your body? How might you modify these tasks to keep your elbows close to the body?
In all of this, your elbows are the drivers. Think about where your elbows are during the course of your day. Try to keep your elbows as close to your body as possible during your tasks. As you move throughout your day, focus your awareness to their placement. Try to be your own ergonomic detective, paying attention to what you do and how you do it.
the author Serafine Lilien, Master of Science, is both a ceramic artist and an ergonomist living in Portland, Oregon. To see more about her ergonomic work, visit www.ergoarts.net. To see her ceramic sculpture, find her on Instagram @lserafiner.