Mid-back ergonomic office chairs deliver excellent spinal support. But many come with ill-fitting headrests that distort good posture! The solution to this problem is to remove the headrest. Doing so will ensure an optimal spinal alignment while you sit. Then, the head balances evenly above the shoulders as it was designed to do. Improve your posture, productivity, and long-term comfort with this one simple trick!
Using a headrest with a mid-back ergonomic chair is like plowing a potato field with a Ferrari. That has been the case since 1994. Then, the Herman Miller Aeron emerged as the world’s first mass-marketed ergonomic chair.
Today, all Herman Miller chairs provide the same strict mid-back support as the Aeron. The company doesn’t provide headrests or recommend using third-party ones. “Leaning your head back on a headrest while in an upright position would be improper posture… Our ergonomic chairs are designed to support your spine as if you were standing.”
Despite this, the market is flooded with third-party Herman Miller headrests. Like all mid-back chair headrests, these cater to a psychological desire for perceived comfort. Because they look comfortable, people assume that they are.
But in fact, mid-back headrests provide short-term gratification with an imperfect fit that won’t ever feel right.
One option is to keep fiddling with your headrest — while feeling perpetually dissatisfied. Another: remove the headrest and follow best practices. The results will blow your mind! Facts:
- A headrest does not significantly reduce neck muscle activity.
- A 0° head tilt is the gold standard neutral neck position.
- An ill-fitting headrest tilts the head off the centerline. That distorts the thoracic spine and flattens the lumbar curve.
Headrests Ruin Mid-Back Ergonomics
Studies on car and aircraft seats with and without headrests support Herman Miller’s claim. In both cases, headrests pull the neck off the centerline. Over time, that will distort the spine and cause long-term pain.
Without a headrest, the neck reflexively balances cleanly atop the shoulders. But despite poor ergonomics, headrests provide important crash protection in cars. On aircraft seats, they exist purely to appease psychological pleasure senses.
However, these ‘pleasures’ also distort the spine, forcing muscles to work overtime. This explains why most people feel exhausted after a long flight or car drive!
Headrests Alter Mid-Back Spinal Postures
Herman Miller insists that its mid-back chairs are designed to support the spine into healthy standing positions. That means a 25-45° lumbar curve plus a 0° neck tilt. The company also asserts that leaning the head back into a headrest would create improper posture.
A recent study on car seat biomechanics with and without headrests(1) supports this idea. A human spine has 33 vertebrae divided into cervical, thoracic, and lumbar sections (plus sacrum and coccyx bones).
Since most headrests don’t support a 0° neck, adding one will pull or push the head off the centerline. A tilt in either direction will compel the thoracic part to curve outward more than normal.
That creates a chain reaction. A hyper-extended thorax flattens the lower back curve by 6.6°. A 30° recline + headrest – lumbar support = a 17° lumbar curve reduction.
In simpler terms, the more you lean back into a headrest, the greater the distortions. Sitting this way as a habit opens the gruesome gates of chronic musculoskeletal disorders.
Headrests Alter A Mid-Back Chair’s Comfort
When a chair looks more comfortable, people feel more psychologically relaxed while using it. This might explain why kneeling chairs failed.
Kneeling chairs are easy to use and excellent for your posture. However, they look absolutely dreary. As a result, more consumers are likely to buy a Spinemelter 2000 as Homer Simpson did.
In a similar fashion, a headrest on a mid-back chair makes it look more appealing to consumers. It also alters the user’s comfort expectations. So instead of sitting upright with a zero-tilt neck, users are more likely to adopt casual, slouching postures.
The problem when doing so in a mid-back chair vs a full-back gaming chair is the neck support. Typically, mid-back chair headrests offer a poor fit plus cheap, plastic tactile effects.
In contrast, a quality full-back gaming chair pillow is soft, adaptable, and pleasant to the touch.
Mid-Back Headrests Trade Good Posture For Short-Term Comfort
Adding a headrest to a mid-back chair incites a rearward tilt of the cervical spine. A study on passenger aircraft seats with and without headrests(2) helps to explain why.
In seats without headrests, users would instinctively hold their heads straight. Then, the head stays balanced over the shoulders. Adding a headrest triggered a psychological expectation of comfort.
Then, users would instinctively tilt their heads rearward. That position isn’t as posturally accurate. Even so, users preferred slouched postures while watching in-flight films.
Significantly, a headrest only reduces neck muscle activity a trivial amount. However, it also degrades good posture into a slightly slouched variant. To compensate, back, neck, and shoulder muscles must work harder.
That explains why people feel exhausted after a long flight or drive. The same concept applies to fluffy sofas: because the support is so unstable, muscles must work much harder to hold the body up against gravity. As a result, most people feel even more tired after a long sofa session.
Summary: a headrest on a mid-back seat creates a greater expectation for comfort. In response, users adopt slouched postures that force muscles to work harder. Over time, the musculoskeletal discomfort caused by poor postures will outweigh the comfort benefits of the headrest.
Mid-Back Ergonomic Chair Advantages
Using a mid-back ergonomic chair without a headrest is a gateway to good back and neck posture. In the Text Neck Syndrome Era, the benefits of doing so can be life-changing. This section summarizes the key benefits:
Foolproof Posture Support
Gaming and ergonomic office chairs are both designed to support dynamic neutral sitting positions. These exert the least amount of stress on the spine and surrounding muscles while sitting. Well-executed neutral postures look similar in both types of chairs:
The full vs mid-back support style is the biggest ergonomic difference. Full-back support comes via a headrest, lumbar support, and deep recline functionality.
This combination supports good posture plus the freedom to sit as you like. It’s insanely comfortable. But with so much freedom, users need the discipline to maintain healthy positions. If not, serious back problems can emerge.
Mid-back ergonomic chairs — without headrests — provide no opportunity for shenanigans. The most comfortable position in most is to sit with planted feet, a supported lumbar spine, and a straight upper back.
Many people use abnormal postures so often that these slide into the subconscious. Then, they forget what healthy mechanics are. But with clear instructions on healthy biomechanical targets, that can change.
You’ll need clear targets, a good mid-back chair, and some discipline. With just a few days of practice, muscle memory will kick in to lock these postures down for the long term. Then, all of the benefits of sitting with near-perfect posture will kick in!
Easy Text-Neck Posture Therapy
The optimal neck angle to maintain a perfect neutral posture is zero degrees. But with an imperfect fit, a mid-back chair’s headrest can pull the head off the centerline to the rear.
Meanwhile, Text Neck Syndrome is endemic. The average smartphone user spends around 3 hours per day tilting their necks to text. With a 45° forward tilt, 50 pounds of extra pressure is forced on the neck and shoulders.
Neck muscles pulled back and forth will never get time to set into a healthy posture. Weakened neck muscles in the mobile era increase the risk of kyphosis: an exaggerated rounding of the upper spine.
Kyphosis weakens back muscles until walking becomes painful. It also hinders breathing, causes digestion problems, and makes you look like a freak(3).
Mid-Back Chair Text Neck Fix
A mid-back ergonomic chair is a perfect tool to address myriad issues. Using one as intended can address Text Neck Syndrome, kyphosis, upper back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain.
Follow three steps. First, remove the headrest from your chair. That will remove any temptation to distort your neck. Second, focus on sitting in dynamic neutral sitting positions
Third, try to keep your head at a 0° angle through all ranges of motion. To gauge your head tilt, Herman Miller recommends using your computer screen as the key indicator. Having height-adjustable monitor arms helps. Follow these steps:
- Sit as straight as possible in your chair to determine your maximum sitting height.
- Set the top of the screen to your max height eye line.
- Keep your eyes pointed straight to the top of the screen.
If your eyes dip below the top of the screen, it means your head has tilted. Snap your neck back to a 0° tilt.
At first, sitting this way may feel forced. That’s because the longer you sit in certain positions, muscles adapt until those positions become subconscious actions. This is the principle of muscle memory.
Muscle Memory Recalls Postural Perfection
Healthy toddlers are super flexible with good body mechanics. By age 10, their bones start to harden. As a result, collagen in muscle tissues also hardens(4). With poor posture habits, spines can ‘harden’ in all the wrong places.
That’s how people forget the perfection of their youth and accept poor postures as ‘normal’. But your body’s muscle memory already knows perfect sitting mechanics — it’s the mind that’s forgotten.
To resurface those memories, use technical knowledge of good body mechanics + discipline. A few days of practice is all it takes to resurrect postural perfection awareness on both muscular and fascial levels.
The fascia is an intelligent, fibrous matrix that covers the organs, muscles, and bones. It reinforces frequent muscular patterns by ‘hardening’ around them.
Summary: practice sitting in strict neutral postures with a 0° head tilt for a few days. Once muscle memory kicks in, holding these postures will get easier. Eventually, they’ll slide into your subconscious and run on autopilot as a regular habit.
0° Neck In A Full-Back Gaming Chair
A few months ago, ChairsFX interviewed three esports therapists about healthy gamer desk work habits. To verify 0° gaming chair neck postures, I reached out again.
One of them, Dr. Jordan Tsai, runs Respawn Therapy. He also serves on Secretlab’s Ergonomics Advisory Board.
He confirmed: Secretlab Titan chairs are designed to support a 0° neck tilt — with the headrest.
Dr. Tsai advised me to toggle my backrest angles, sit neutrally, and trust the headrest to work. It works! All three positions feel comfortable and stress-free.
To make sure, two other esports doctors also chimed in. Summary of findings:
- A 0° neck tilt in a full-back chair (with a headrest) works best with a 100° recline angle.
- To hold a zero-degree neck angle while sitting, you need strong back muscles.
- In my case, adopting this posture took around 5 days.
- Early benefits include consistent comfort and a taller, straighter standing posture.
- Most people (with decent back strength) should be able to adopt this posture as a habit within a week.
Conclusion: Best Mid-Back Chairs
One of the most common complaints people have about mid-back chairs is about the ill-fitting headrests. This article spells out the best solution to that problem: remove the headrest. Doing so will give you a greater incentive to strive for a 0° neck tilt.
A few days of struggle to achieve that position is all you need. That gives dormant muscle memories time to bring perfect posture back into your life. Then, a cheap $300 chair can give you the same ergonomic benefits as a $1600 Herman Miller Aeron!
ChairsFX Picks: Best Mid-Back Chairs
Once you get your head around the mid-back headrest concept, the ergonomic office chair landscape becomes a lot simpler. Any mid-back chair with adjustable lumbar support, adjustable arms, and a reclining backrest can do what you need.
Paying a higher price gets you more luxury — but a similar level of back support! Based on these parameters, here are some of the best mid-back chairs on the market (across all price ranges):
|Modway Articulate||Mesh backrest, fabric seat, 1D arms, adjustable lumbar, 10° recline.||1 year||$174.99|
|Staples Hyken||Full-mesh upholstery, 100-140° recline; 1D arms.||30-day return policy||$220.37|
|Space Seating 27 Series||Full-mesh, 1D arms, adjustable lumbar, 100-110° recline, 2-to-1 seat sync-tilt.||3 years on upholstery; lifetime on parts!||Price not available|
|Secretlab NeueChair||Full-mesh, 1D arms, 4-way adjustable lumbar, Infinite tilt from 85-130°.||5 years||$649|
|Herman Miller Aeron||Adaptive mesh, rear and forward sync-tilt, 3D arms; adjustable lumbar.||12 years||$1825|
|Herman Miller Embody||Specialty back support for the upper spine (excellent for kyphosis), 2D arms, 94-120° recline.||12 years||$1795|
- Matthew P Reed, et al. ‘Posture and belt fit in reclined passenger seats’, Traffic Injury Prevention 20(sup1):S38-S42, June 2019. DOI: 10.1080/15389588.2019.1630733, (accessed 10 April 2022).
- M. Smulders, et al. ‘Neck posture and muscle activity in a reclined business class aircraft seat…’, Applied Ergonomics Volume 79, September 2019, Pages 25-37. DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2018.12.014, (accessed 10 April 2022).
- Mayo Clinic. ‘Kyphosis’, Diseases And Conditions. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/kyphosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20374205, (accessed 10 April 2022).
- Sole Motion Podiatry. ‘My Child Is Very Flexible – Is This Normal?’ April 18, 2021. https://solemotionpodiatry.com/child-flexible-normal/, (accessed 10 April 2022).
Click on any of the above to go directly to that chair’s review page. If you want to bypass luxury frills completely, there are four excellent picks under $300 worth considering:
Best Mid-Back Ergonomic Chairs Under $300