A neutral spine refers to the ideal spinal position you should try to maintain all day, every day. Whether you're an athlete or a desk worker, knowing how to find and maintain a neutral spine is the key to keeping your back healthy.
This applies to something as simple as reaching down and picking something up off the ground, carrying groceries or pulling 400 pounds off the floor in a max Deadlift.
Although a neutral spine is the optimal position for your back, it can sometimes be hard to achieve. Our bodies have an incredible ability to adapt to our environment and the stress we put on them. Unfortunately, our daily habits have a tendency to put us in a crappy position, and we spend so much time in a poor posture that finding a neutral spine is difficult to do.
But it's a skill you need to learn. And you need to start now if you plan to train your body, play sports and live a pain-free life.
What is a Neutral Spine?
First, let's look at the anatomy of the spine.
The lumbar spine refers to the thick vertebrae in the lower back. It should have a slight arch or extension. This section is meant to handle heavy loads and has limited mobility. Core strength helps prevent the lumbar spine from moving significantly.
Move up the spine and you come to the thoracic spine. This region should be slightly rounded. It is able to flex, extend and twist through a large range of motion—the exact amount depends on your individual anatomy.
Finally, we come to the neck or cervical spine. This area has the greatest mobility and should be slightly extended or arched.
The result is a spine that has a mild S shape. The ideal position, or neutral spine, varies from person to person.
"Everyone has different spines. I don't think there's an exact neutral spine position," says Matthew Ibrahim, a Boston-based strength coach and massage therapist. "It's essentially a range between extension and flexion that feels like a neutral spine to that individual."
For example, Ibrahim says that hockey players who play their sport bent over will likely have a different neutral spine position than golfers, who are mostly upright.
However, there's a tendency to shift to an overly extended or flexed spine. You see either an exaggerated lower-back arch that makes someone look like they're about to twerk, or a Quasimodo-like rounded upper back and forward neck posture.
This is often caused by bad habits accumulating over time and lack of strength that pulls people into a poor position. Or they simply might not know the position they need to be in.
Regardless, a spine in a poor position can cause problems.
Why You Need a Neutral Spine
A neutral spine is the optimal position to handle stress and heavy loads. The vertebrae are aligned to handle forces without placing abnormal stress on the cartilaginous discs between them. A disc injury is one of the primary causes of back pain.
"We want to develop long-term strength, athleticism, power and pretty much anything that involves athletic capabilities without blowing your back out," Ibrahim says. He goes on to explain that a spine injury caused by moving in poor alignment is like filling up a bucket of water. Each time you move is like adding a drop of water to the bucket. Eventually, the bucket fills up and overflows. It's usually not a singular instance that caused an injury. Rather, a cumulative effect of moving with your spine in a poor position causes an injury—or when the bucket overflows.
Knowing how to maintain a neutral spine reduces wear and tear on your back, and helps you perform mild to extreme movements with far less risk of pain or injury. Realistically, you shouldn't lift weights—especially heavy weights—if you can't maintain a neutral spine.
"If you want to do those things with long-term health and spine health, it would be wise to understand a neutral spine position," Ibrahim adds. "It acts as a reference point so you know that you can do an activity successfully without hurting yourself."
How to Find Your Neutral Spine
According to Ibrahim, a neutral spine means different things to different people. Not everyone has the exact same neutral spine position. Many things can affect this over the years, including your anatomy, posture and the sports you play.
But in general, you want to have a slightly arched lower back and a slightly rounded upper back.
To find your personal neutral spine, Ibrahim recommends starting in the quadruped, or all-fours position. From there, arch your lower back so your stomach moves toward the ground. Then round your back as far as you can. Move between full extension and flexion range of motion for several reps. As you get comfortable with your range of motion, gradually start to hone in on a spine position that's between the two extremes where you feel strong, stable and pain-free.
Ideally, do this in front of a mirror or have someone record you so you can learn what the neutral back looks like and feels like. This will take some practice—it's not a skill you can master in one setting. Practice it several times a week to learn your neutral spine position, and continue to practice even after you've mastered it to keep your technique in check.
Once you learn your neutral spine in the quadruped position, Ibrahim recommends progressing to RKC Planks and Pallof Presses. Again, film yourself so you can check your form. From here, you can move on to your standard set of exercises.
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