You’ve heard it about a million times in your fitness classes. “Find neutral spine.” It makes the instructor seem so knowledgable, and it likely leaves you feeling so clueless. Chances are you aren’t going to stop class to ask what in the hell neutral spine actually is, much less how you should go about finding it. So let’s talk about what neutral spine is, why it is so important (especially when under the load of a workout), and how to find it!
What is neutral spine?
In the most general of terms, neutral spine is your aligned (or optimal) position for your body that allows you to properly recruit your core muscles (diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis and multifidis). Although it will vary from person-to-person, there is generally a mild s-shape to the spine. Due to poor postural and compensatory systems, many people adopt one of two less than ideal spinal/pelvic positions (anterior pelvic tilt–large low-back curve, butt sticking out like you are going to the club; posterior tilt–butt tucked under and shoulders hunched).
It is important to note that there isn’t necessarily an “ideal” or one-size-fits-all posture. Optimal alignment is pretty individual. And, keep in mind that while we ought to strive for good posture throughout our day, dynamic and adaptive postures are more commonly occurring throughout a person’s day, and that’s okay, too. Today I am addressing spinal neutrality under a load, as in lifting weights (body weight or otherwise). When we are exercising, optimal alignment is integral in helping prevent injury, improve athleticism, and yes, I am going there…recruiting our pelvic floors, too.
Why is it important to find neutral spine?
It is important to find this optimal alignment for many reasons. A “neutral spine” is the body’s optimal position to handle stress and heavy loads. It is the position in which your spine is most protected and your diaphragm/core/pelvic floor is most available. When we have our spine in “neutral,” it facilitates optimal breathing, circulation, and core muscle firing patterns. More clearly, benefits include:
- Enhanced breathing capacity: When your diaphragm is optimally aligned, you can more properly access a full breath–meaning not just chest (shallow) breathing, but down into your belly. Improved breathing has many benefits including increased metabolism, lower stress, lower heart rate, and improved circulation and detoxification.
- Injury prevention: You are best able to access your core muscles when you are optimally aligned. The core is meant to protect and stabilize the spine, a vital role in preventing injury.
- Reduces incidences of dysfunction. Your diaphragm, pelvic floor and core work together in unison to stabilize your body. Dysfunction within the body may commonly appear in the form of stress urinary incontinence, diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, low back injury, hip pain and the likes, and these conditions are often exacerbated by poor posture.
Neutral spine is important for everyone, but particularly important for women with pelvic floor issues and/or diastasis recti. This intriguing review from Herman Wallace, the authority in pelvic floor physical therapy education, examined the recruitment of the pelvic floor system while women stood in a variety of postures. Their conclusion, “…it may be the case that our patients can generate an optimal amount of pelvic muscle contraction (when strengthening) in a more neutral posture.”
Functionality aside, if you are a mama with a lingering pooch, it is easy to see from the above picture why poor posture may contribute to the appearance of a belly. Here is a great article on intra-abdominal pressure and how it may be contributing to your low-belly pooch (spoiler alert: crunches and ab work aren’t the answer).
So let’s practice.
It is particularly important when under a load, say in that fitness class where the instructor is shouting “Neutral spine” in your face, to assume good form. Here are two drills to help you find your most optimal alignment.
Place your feet firmly on the floor, feet shoulder width apart. Make sure your knees aren’t locked out. First identify the extremes. Go into a stark anterior tilt (low back arched), and then conversely into the posterior tilt (butt tucked). Now find the middle. Video yourself or practice in a mirror for feedback.
Practice makes perfect. The more you practice finding this idea position, the more it becomes second nature.
Here is another useful drill, which is particularly helpful in teaching neutral spine throughout a squat or hip hinge, which…hello…we do thousands of times a day (picking up kids, laundry, toys, etc.), and most certainly do in the gym. Grab a water bottle and give this helpful drill from the Move U program a try. (By the way…these guys are phenomenal!).
More reading and resources? Check out these…
Fantastic article on why neutral spine is particularly important for women with pelvic floor issues.
Lastly, check out this drill for perfecting neutral spine in a back squat.
Have questions? Concerns? Let me know!
Interested in hosting a workshop at your gym for your members and trainers? Check out our Pregnancy and Postpartum Core Connections workshop. Facilitated by a team of pelvic floor physical therapists, trainers, and a nutrition coach.