Saddle Chairs: What Are The Benefits and How Do They Work?
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In the constant, never-ending quest for a perfect ergonomic chair, a lot of different styles and designs have been tried. Some develop into what we know as the modern office chair, with lumbar support, dynamic back tension, positional armrests, and other features. Others become what we know as stools, from basic barstools to ergonomic active sitting stools. Others become more outrageous designs.
If you’ve ever ridden a horse for any length of time, you might be skeptical about anything called a “saddle seat”. Sitting in a saddle for more than a few minutes can leave you sore and aching. So why are saddle seats an ergonomic trend, and what possible benefits do they have to offer?
Saddle chairs aren’t exactly like saddles for horses. They share more in common with the saddle, or seat, on a bicycle, but larger and more comfortable. They’re shaped more like a triangle, and they usually have a downturned front section to rest the legs without cutting off circulation. Moreover, they may have a minimal or non-existent back, to minimize the temptation to lean and rest. There are hundreds of possible designs, but they all share that core, general shape. Here are the benefits.
More Open Hip Angles
First and foremost, you know about the traditional 90-90-90 posture, correct? If not, it goes like this. Your ankles should be 90 degrees from the floor, so your lower legs are vertical while your feet are flat on the floor. Your knees should be 90 degrees, so your upper legs are parallel to the floor, supported by your chair’s seat pan. Your waist should be 90 degrees, so your back is vertical, able to rest against the back of your chair.
This is traditional knowledge, and it’s what most office chairs are designed around. However, the evidence is slowly coming to light that it’s not the best posture. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that a reclined angle of 135 degrees is actually better. That’s you, leaning back, roughly halfway between vertical and horizontal.
Typically, this can be accomplished in a traditional office chair by leaning back. Your chair should have an adjustable back angle, so unlocking it and letting you lean back in it – while keeping ergonomic posture in other areas, like your wrists – will give you a healthier overall spinal position.
The trick is, you don’t need to be leaning back to achieve this posture. What matters is that the angle between your thighs and your back is 135 degrees, not that you’re leaning back to do it. Leaning back is one way, yes, but another is with a saddle seat.
A saddle seat leans the entire seat pan downward slightly while raising the height of the seat pan itself. This opens up the angle of your hips to 135 degrees (when properly adjusted) but keeps other ergonomic adjustments in place, like wrist angles and foot positioning.
Ease of Access for Leaning
A related benefit to the first benefit is the ease of access to whatever you’re working on. Saddle chairs are actually extremely common in one place you’ve been before: the dentist’s office. Dentists and dental hygienists have to hunch over their patients to work in their mouths all the time, and that puts a lot of stress and strain on the back. It’s a surprisingly physically demanding career and is actually one of the careers at greatest risk for back injuries because of it.
Keeping in mind that the 135-degree angle is best for your back, a dentist would be out of luck with a traditional chair. They can’t work on a patient from the same reclined position the patient is in, after all. Thus, they use a saddle chair. It gives them a higher base position, a more ergonomic angle for their back, and more access to their patients.
This is not to say that dentists are the only people who can use a saddle seat. Anyone who works in an environment where they need to hunch or huddle over a surface beneath them can benefit from using a saddle seat.
Better Leg Circulation
One of the most common problems with a traditional office chair, after the back injury, is blood flow issues in the legs. Many traditional office chairs don’t put a lot of attention into their seat pan, and the front edge ends up flat or up-turned, which presses into the back of the thighs right where the veins and arteries are.
This restricts circulation through the legs and can lead to a variety of issues, including:
- Blood pooling in the legs, leading to swelling and discomfort.
- Cut off circulation, causing legs to “fall asleep” and requiring movement and shifting.
- Blood clots, leading to deep vein thrombosis.
This kind of issue can also lead to a range of other health problems, as blood pooling in one part of the body means that blood isn’t adequately circulating throughout the rest of your body either.
There are, of course, a variety of different ways to minimize circulation problems that come from an office job. You can focus on taking regular breaks, wear compression socks, and even use a standing desk. A saddle seat helps a lot, though, and is a great option particularly for people who move a lot in their job.
Better Core Strength
One benefit to using any stool-style chair – including stools and saddle seats – is that they don’t have backs. A chair with a back encourages you to lean against that back, which lets your back muscles relax. This is fine, except when you need to get up and move, you engage muscles that have been relaxed, and might have trouble engaging again so abruptly.
Worse, if you’ve been sitting in an improper posture, it’s possible that you’re going to have some muscles that have been tense and engaged for an extended period, while others have been relaxed. This imbalance leads to back pain.
Any chair that doesn’t have a back, even the yoga ball seating method, forces you to constantly make micro-adjustments to the way you’re sitting, while you’re sitting. You have to adjust back and forth, forward and back, even your angle. It’s similar to standing, in that you’re keeping your balance through the constant play of muscles and tendons throughout your core.
A saddle seat helps with this by giving the rest of your body more support in a way that minimizes or prevents you from doing things that throw your body out of balance, like crossing your legs. The constant adjustments mean you’re always working and loosening muscles, which avoids letting any of them tense and lock up.
This doesn’t just help prevent back pain. It helps build core muscle strength (though nowhere near as much as working out would), and it helps you burn a few extra calories throughout the day. What’s not to love?
Cascading Pain? Cascading Relief!
One thing we often talk about on this blog is how interconnected the body is. When one portion of the body is thrown out of alignment, that lack of alignment throws out more of the body, and the failure cascades. For example:
Let’s say you’re sitting in an office chair, and you decide to cross your leg and sit on your foot. It’s initially more comfortable, primarily because it’s a change in posture, but that’s a trap. It’s actually dangerous, because of the cascading failure.
First, sitting on your leg twists your pelvis. Your pelvis, sitting at an angle, puts sideways pressure on the base of your spine. This leads to compression in your lumbar spine and torsion on your cervical spine. Both of these can lead to herniated discs in your back. They also stretch and tension certain muscles and tendons up and down your spine, leading to back pain.
Meanwhile, the tension on your neck twists your neck and shoulders. Your shoulders fall out of alignment, and that leads to shoulder pain and neck pain. Your arms aren’t at the right angle to interact with your computer, and that leads to wrist pain, which can cause repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.
All of that, just from crossing your legs. No wonder posture is so important!
The traditional thinking is that the 90-90-90 posture is the solution, but again, we’re increasingly discovering that it’s not. While more study will need to be undertaken to fully determine what posture is best, current thinking indicates that it’s certainly not a rigid, straight posture that is about as unnatural as can be.
Frankly, the best thing you can do while sitting is to stop sitting. This is why standing desks are becoming more and more popular. The second-best thing you can do is use a seat that adopts some of the tenets of standing, like a saddle chair.
Easier to Stand and Sit
Have you ever spent hours sitting in an office chair, only to discover that, when it’s time to get up, you’re having trouble? You need to wheel yourself to your desk or to a corner and use your arms on a stable surface to pry yourself out of the chair. This is common with large, plush office chairs, but can happen with many kinds of chairs, especially those that are too low.
With a small stool-like chair, something like a saddle chair, you can sit and stand much more easily. You can wheel it around with one foot to position it exactly where you want it for sitting, and when it comes time to stand back up, you’re already halfway there. Since the seat is higher than on a typical office chair, and your legs are already at the 135-degree angle we’ve discussed above, you’re literally halfway to standing already.
This is great for more active jobs like a dentist, who has to move from patient to patient. It’s also great for anyone working in an office where they can transition between sitting and standing on a regular basis. Virtually everyone can benefit from the ease of transition.
Better Hand Precision
One of the smaller benefits you might notice from sitting in a saddle seat is that you have greater precision with your hands. In particular, a better position of your shoulder will help you with more control over your arms and, thus, your hands. This gives you better precision, better accuracy, and better control.
You also have a better and more free reach when you’re sitting on a saddle seat. Without arms or a back to get in the way, you’re freely able to reach around you without twisting, pinching nerves, or otherwise hurting yourself. Since you’re able to propel yourself around with your legs easily, you have almost gymnastic control over your movement throughout your environment.
One last benefit before we go; some saddle seats come with a split saddle. A split saddle is something like the opposite of a bicycle seat; rather than one smaller saddle in the middle, you have two off to the sides. If you notice, this is roughly how the human body is designed.
The benefit here is that the split saddle supports your buttocks and thighs, not your pelvic floor and genitals. It’s more comfortable and offers more freedom, without cutting off circulation to sensitive parts of the body. This is a benefit that needs a lot more study before it can be fully pinned down, though, and it’s also not yet common through all saddle seats, so it really depends a lot on the model you get.
If you’re interested in picking up a saddle seat, feel free. We also recommend picking up a standing desk, as well as a few accessories, such as an anti-fatigue mat, when you do so. A saddle seat will take some adjustment, so you might as well build the habit of sitting and standing whenever you need a break from your new chair.
Overall, saddle seats are becoming increasingly common in the most active and physically demanding workplaces, so why not give it a try?
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