Ultimate Guide to Standing Desk Ergonomics

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Studies indicate employees spend around 62% of their time in a sedentary sitting position [1] and university students spend up to 75% or more of their class time sitting down [2].

Given occupational sitting time has been linked with chronic disease [3], these stats are worrying and many have turned to standing desks as an ergonomic alternative.

If you’ve got a standing desk or are thinking about investing in one, you may be wondering what the proper ergonomics for standing at your desk are.

In this article, we’ll cover some simple step-by-step guidelines you can use to ensure you’re working at your standing desk comfortably, regardless of your body type (shorter, taller or average!).

For those that are interested, I’ll also give an overview of the different types of standing desks and how they compare ergonomically.

Note: when I say “standing desk”, I’ll be generally focusing on “height adjustable sit stand desks” in this article (although most of the ‘ergonomics while standing’ guidelines apply equally for fixed height standing desks as well). 

Standing desk ergonomics while standing

Adjust your standing desk to around elbow height

The first thing you’ll want to do is set your standing desk to be around the height of your elbows.

With your elbows at a 90-100 degree angle, the desk surface should be level with or slightly below your elbows.

Ensure your monitor is at roughly eye height

The top of your computer monitor should be in line with your eyes. 

This means you’ll always be looking from a direct horizontal “line of sight”, down to 35 degrees below the horizontal. 

Keep an upright posture 

Make sure you’re standing upright, avoiding slouching or slumping over your desk.

Your spine should be in an erect or upright position, and your head in a neutral position looking forward.

When viewed from the side, your head should line up with the rest of your torso, and your ears should line up with your shoulders. 

Keep your forearms parallel to the floor

Your hands, wrists and forearms should be straight, aligned and parallel to the ground. 

Your wrists should be in a neutral position and not angled upwards or downwards. This is known as wrist extension and flexion respectively, and can place additional stress on your wrist.

In particular, repeated wrist extension and flexion can put additional pressure on the narrow passageway of your wrist known as your carpal tunnel [4].

Keep your elbows close to your body

Ensure your elbows remain close to your body and are bent between 90-120 degrees.

This helps your wrists remain in a neutral position, avoiding awkwardly angling them inwards.

If you flare your elbows too far out, your forearms are forced to angle inwards when typing with your keyboard. This puts your wrists into a position of ulnar deviation, which research suggests may contribute to wrist discomfort and carpal tunnel pressure [4]. 

Ulnar deviation looks a bit like this:

Wear appropriate footwear

Ensure the shoes you’re wearing are supportive and comfortable.

Avoid wearing high heels or shoes that are on fire. That would be an example of suboptimal decision making.

Consider an anti fatigue standing desk mat

An anti fatigue mat for your standing desk provides a more comfortable, cushioned surface for you to stand on. This is especially the case if you would otherwise be standing on a hard  surface like a wooden floor.

For reference, this is an example of an anti fatigue mat:

In addition, some argue anti fatigue mats help by introducing a “useful” instability under your feet.  

This causes the muscles in your feet, ankle and calves to make regular micro adjustments to maintain stability [5], even if you don’t feel unstable on a conscious level. These subtle micro adjustments help promote circulation and reduce muscle rigidity.

Make sure you place the anti fatigue mat under your feet and not on your head. They’re not called anti hat-igue mats! 

*crickets chirping*

Vary your physical position throughout the day

It’s critical not to stand in a rigid, static position for too long.

You’ll want to regularly switch between sitting and standing. Recommendations vary in terms of how long to spend sitting vs standing, but you may want to try a ratio of 1:1 initially. This would mean sitting for a period of time (say, one hour) and then standing for the same period of time. 

You can then adjust based on what feels comfortable for you.

Additionally, you’ll want to take active breaks throughout the day, whether that’s walking to get a cup of water or shadow boxing in front of work colleagues to impress them.

You can also add physical movement while standing by mixing in on-the-spot squats, stretches or dance moves to keep the blood flowing.

Standing desk ergonomics while sitting 

Assuming you’ve got a sit-stand variety of standing desk that allows you to adjust the height for a seated position, there are guidelines you’ll want to follow while sitting as well.

Adjust your standing desk to elbow height

When transitioning to seated mode, first sit down and keep your elbows at roughly 90 degrees.

Then, adjust the height of your desk so that it lines up with your elbow height or just below.

This will prevent you needing to reach too far up or down to use your keyboard, which can put additional strain on your wrists.

If your desk doesn’t quite go low enough to match your elbows, you can try adjusting the height of your seat up.

If that fails for whatever reason, you can also try purchasing an attachable keyboard tray online that will bring your keyboard a few inches down:

That’s actually currently what I’m doing with my sit stand desk and it works quite well.

Sit an arm’s length away from your monitor

Position yourself so that you’re roughly an arm’s length away from your monitor.

When reaching out, your fingers should almost touch your screen.

Position the top of your monitor at eye height

As with the standing position, you want to ensure the top of your monitor lines up roughly with your eyes.

This avoids the need to slouch or bend your head down while working, allowing you to maintain a more neutral and ergonomic posture.

Maintain an upright, neutral position

Make sure to sit straight without slumping over. Your head, shoulder and hips should line up in a straight line (roughly speaking) when viewed from the side.

You want to keep your neck in a neutral position as well. Unconsciously tilting forward and straining your spine and neck muscles is easily done, so be mindful of this one!

Keep your forearms parallel to the floor

Your forearms should be parallel with the floor or slightly slope downwards towards your keyboard. Adjusting the seat height may help make this possible. 

If your feet are unable to rest flat on the floor, consider supporting them underneath with something (i.e. an unopened stack of paper) to maintain the proper arm position.

Keep your knees at 90 degrees and a few inches in front of your chair

Your knees should be at roughly 90 degrees, which helps to keep your feet flat on the floor and receiving appropriate support.

There should be a gap of 2-3 inches between the back of your knees and the front of your chair seat. In other words, you should be able to fit at least a few finger widths between the front of the chair and the back of your knees. 

Rest your feet flat on the floor 

Avoid crossing your legs or bending them like a pretzel behind your head.

Instead, rest your feet flat on the floor to promote good circulation. This is important when spending long hours sitting in your chair.

Keep frequently used items close

When organizing items on your standing desk surface, try to place the most frequently used items closer to you within easy reach.

This minimizes any unnecessary bending or stretching required to use your stuff. For example, things like items like coffee cups or your mouse that you use regularly you may want to place closer.

Decorative items you aren’t regularly handling (i.e. small pot plants) should be placed on the outer zones of your desk. That way they don’t take up the precious real estate of your “reach zone”.

Types of standing desks: Do I need a height-adjustable desk?

Fixed height standing desks

The most basic type of standing desk available is the fixed height standing desk.

As you might guess, a fixed height standing desk doesn’t let you adjust the height of the desk. This means you’re limited to always standing when working.

From an ergonomics perspective, being stuck standing all day is not ideal. You want to give your body the opportunity to relax into different positions and take the load off your legs.

Sit stand desks (height-adjustable)

The other main type of standing desk is a height adjustable sit stand desk.

This type of desk allows you to adjust the height so that you can vary between a sitting and standing position as needed.

Generally speaking, most people prefer a sit stand desk, since it provides greater flexibility to switch positions throughout the day.

Height adjustable sit stand standing desks come in a few varieties. 

Most popular is the electric sit stand desks, which have an electric motor and simple up down buttons to adjust desk height. That’s the type I personally have and find super easy to use.

This is an example of an electric sit stand desk: 

There are also manually operated sit stand desks, which typically use a manual cranking lever to adjust the desk height up or down. While sometimes cheaper than the electric option, these tend to be harder to use and slower to change height. 

From an ergonomic perspective, this type of desk is far more valuable than the static fixed height standing desks. 

This is because they allow more variety of movement throughout the day, facilitating circulation and distributing muscle load better.

Standing desk converters

Finally, one “lightweight” standing desk type is the standing desk converter.

Standing desk converters are adjustable units you can place on top of a regular fixed desk, which allow that desk to be used as a standing desk.

In other words, you can place your laptop or monitor onto this adjustable unit and change the height so that you’re able to work while standing.

Usually a standing desk converter will have a tray for your monitor and keyboard, and can be adjusted up or down.

They look a bit like this:

Standing desk converters are generally cheaper than full sit stand desks and are easy to assemble. They can therefore be a great option if you’re on a budget or forced to work with a fixed desk (i.e. working with your office desk).

Frequently asked questions for standing desk ergonomics

Are standing desks good for posture?

Yes, standing desks can be good for your posture. Standing engages your core, back and leg muscles more actively than sitting, which helps keep those muscles strong.

Assuming your monitor is set to an appropriate height, standing also helps avoid slouching forward, which is all too easy when sitting down. 

Is a standing desk more ergonomic?

Yes, a standing desk can be more ergonomic than a normal desk when used as a tool to avoid excessive sitting.

Studies suggest a positive correlation between occupational sitting time and negative health outcomes [3]. Unfortunately, many people spend large portions of their day sitting down, with employees spending 62% of their time in a sedentary seated position [1].

Since standing desks allow users to reduce the time spent in a seated position, it makes sense there would be ergonomic benefits associated with their use.

Indeed, research has shown standing desks can produce cardio-metabolic health benefits, including improved glucose [6] and cholesterol levels [7]. 

They are also known to significantly increase energy expenditure [8], helping to combat the effects of more sedentary sitting.

How many hours should I stand with a standing desk?

Research is still ongoing, but a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 sitting to standing appears to be a good balance for optimal comfort [9].

What this means is for every 1-2 hours spent sitting, aim to spend 1 hours standing. So for an 8 hour work day, you might sit for 6 hours and stand for 2. 

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean 6 consecutive hours sitting and 2 consecutive hours standing. This is just an example of what the total time in each posture throughout the day might look like.

It helps to regularly vary between positions, perhaps every hour or two based on preference.

You can start with this approach then adjust. It’s always a good idea to listen to your body and adapt as needed.

What height should a standing desk be set at?

Your standing desk should be adjusted to around elbow height or slightly below, assuming your elbows are in a 90 degree position.

As mentioned, this helps avoid reaching too far up or down to use your keyboard, which can put additional stress on your wrists.

Instructions unclear, private parts caught in fan… what do I do?

*shakes head* There’s always one person…

Final thoughts

In this article, we went over some simple guidelines to ensure you’re using your standing desk ergonomically.

We also discussed different types of standing desks and which ones you may want to focus on if you care about ergonomics (i.e. electric sit stand desks are where it’s at!).

Finally, I tried to answer a few common questions people have regarding standing desk ergonomics, referencing relevant studies where possible.

I hope you got something from this article and have a nice day! 


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5392953/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4997509/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580641/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2649727/

[5] https://ultimatemats.com/blog/do-you-need-a-mat-for-a-standing-desk

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23597658/

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26584856/

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22971879/

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24157240/