Optimal Sleep Positioning

Check out this really cool article called “Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain”. Be sure to read the actual article in addition to looking at the awkward pictures. It’s fascinating.


After yesterday’s post highlighting the benefits of a quality diet, and today’s post focused on how resting postures can improve or prevent joint problems, some readers are thinking, “What the hell? Is he gonna live in a cave next?” Well, if I had a choice, I’d live in this quaint cabin. Here’s the deal: I’m obsessed with efficiency. When I was in school, I wanted to learn about the human body so I could improve it. When I started coaching, I wanted to learn how to best move the body with respect to mechanics and anatomy. When I started learning about training, I wanted to know how to optimally train the body. I constantly aim to have optimal technique in any athletic movement whether it’s lifting, shooting a gun, swimming, running, or agilely moving when playing pick-up volleyball. When I am cleaning up around the house, I think of the most efficient method to do each chore so that I don’t waste movement or time walking back and forth. So when there is clearly a dietary method that can improve the efficiency of the human body AND it can be tweaked to use for lifters, then I’m going to use it. It results in recovering more efficiently, but it also results in increasing the potential for long-term health. Like Rob Lowe, I want to live until I’m 150.


So when I see a physiotherapist who has spent many years around tribal and zoological populations, and he observes constants in how they rest, I consider that information relevant. I don’t take it for granted when the physiotherapist says that tribal populations simply don’t have many musculoskeletal problems. I deem that highly relevant. In the same way that a series of adaptations resulted in the evolution of various species, they have adapted to using particular methods of rest that prevent getting gunked up hips, knees, backs, and shoulders. I’m an anatomy and physiology nerd because it helps you and me get better.


Think about it: were our “ancestors” sitting hunched over in chairs on a regular basis? Even if we disregard the “this is how we evolved argument” (which is entirely valid and relevant), we can still observe the lack of joint issues in “tribal populations”. For example, what we call the “paleo squat” is observed by Tetley in this article and “can be very helpful in treating backs”, particularly in opening up the sacro-iliac joint and lumbar region.

'Paleo squat' picture from the article

Observe these positions and share your thoughts in the comments.

40 thoughts on “Optimal Sleep Positioning

  1. “In side lying (top) the neck is completely supported; with a slight change in position (bottom) the penis is protected from insects.”

    God damn insects aren’t getting any of my penis.

  2. Justin,

    I just wanna say you have done a great job of progressing this website. If you were still posting stuff about Doug Young I don’t think people would have continued reading for the past couple years, don’t get me wrong Doug Young was a brute, but despite most peoples feeble attempts to not learn they still want to.

    Your sentiments on efficiency and progress are spot on. If you aren’t trying to get better then whats the point.

    Finally, on the sleeping positions thing, ITS A BITCH. I have slept on my stomach for most of my life and I am trying to switch to sides/back. I can’t fall asleep for shit though. If anyone has any advice let me know.

  3. A couple of things, when I squat thrice weekly I can easily sit around in a full squat position without difficulty.

    Second, I recently switched from sleeping on back, which I prefer, to sleeping on my side. When I slept on my back my snoring/apnea type stuff would always wake me up and I wouldn’t dream too often, not a deep restful sleep. However, when I am on my side the snoring/apnea is no longer an issue, I dream a lot and rarely wake-up in the middle of the night.

  4. Ive been struggling with this very topic for some time. I am primarily a side sleeper, but have noticed that I have terrible shoulder tightness and chest tightness. Sleeping on my back is a challenge, as I end up having a slightly sore lower back by the end of the night (tight hips no doubt). It doesnt help that my neck is tight as hell too. Ive often wondered if going pillowless was a good idea…

  5. I wasn’t ever able to fall asleep on my back without a lot of difficulty. I tend to end up partially on my stomach and partially on my sides, like the dude protecting his dick. Now I don’t feel so odd.
    One issue I noticed is the frequency that my arm falls asleep in this position. Is that a bad thing? I would think reduced blood flow to the arm could cause some problems.

  6. So you’re saying I should get rid of my sleep number bed? Foam leg pillow and Sobakawa cloud pillow?

    Just joking I don’t have any of that. Just like 4000 throw pillows on my bed that I have to kick off every night before Dana and I go to sleep.

  7. RANDO question for Justin or anyone who would like to share thoughts.

    What are some of your favorite ways to increase dips? I can legitamitely do about 8 or so before I get all shakey. Like what would be a long term progression scheme on this? I know Saul at one point shared some ideas but I cant find that post for some reason. HALP.

  8. Stroup – one way I did it was to alternate bodyweight and weighted dips. I would do three sets of max reps for each type until I could do 3 sets of 15 with bodyweight, then I went strictly to weighted dips. I think I was able to do 3 sets of 5 with +45 lbs. at that point as well.

  9. Stroup, just do more dips after every bench session, and get less fat. Get up to around 10-12 per set, add weight via dumbbells or a dip belt. We made a weighted dip “belt” using chain for 5 bucks at Home Depot, it’s not complicated.

    Re: Sleep, I went through all this research a couple years ago, pretty interesting stuff. I could never bring myself to sleep sitting down against a tree, though. I think a second part of the article focusing on light/sound/supplements would go over well.

    Matt Nolan – not bad.

  10. Interesting article; in the past if I had lower back DOMS sleeping on my back as I usually do sort of aggravated it. I’ve been trying sleeping on my side for a little while now, feels ok man. It’s weird the first time you change your sleeping position, though, like your body tells you “this isn’t how you’re supposed to sleep…”

    oh and Justin, have you forgotten me, bro? Please Respond.

  11. I like the article. It’s an interesting idea. However it’s a long way from a solid case. Basically we have:

    1. Tribal people have few joint problems
    2. Tribal people sleep in a number of different positions

    and then a large jump that 2 leads 1. Definitely something to try but it’s not proven by any means.

  12. @tiny

    Try melatonin. It’s sold at the grocery store. I use it if I ever absolutely need to go to sleep really early in order to get adequate sleep, like if I have to train before work for some reason. It’s not like a sleeping pill that puts you to sleep whether you like it or not; it’s more like it suggests sleep. So maybe something like that can help you through the adjustment period.

  13. It’s worth mentioning that my 17month old daughter, who has no pillow, instincually sleeps in many of these positions, especially the shin one.

    Also, i’m glad I don’t live somewhere where I need to be concerned with protecting my penis while I sleep.

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  15. I think you might find Esther Gokhale’s work interesting. She traveled the world, Weston A. Price style, to observe and document the postures and movement of indigenous peoples who don’t have musculoskeletal disorders. I’ve seen her present an overview of her work and my Physical Therapist wife has attended one of her seminars. Interesting stuff.

    http://egwellness.com/

    http://www.amazon.com/Steps-Pain-Free-Back-Solutions-Shoulder/dp/0979303605/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329419846&sr=1-1

  16. just kidding echo, i really do like SS. but on a more srs note, la coka nostra is so ill.

    on an even more side note, FUCK YOU MARK MAROTTA YOU MARK ASS TRICK I JUST PUT SOME WATER IN YOUR MOMMA’S DISH

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