“Lumbar spine neutral” you would have heard me say many, many times. In fact if you exercise in any gym or class you will have heard the term “neutral spine”. But do you actually understand what neutral spine is referring to? And do you know why a neutral spine is important when exercising?
Your spinal column is divided into sections-
- the cervical spine or neck- 7 vertebrae
- thoracic spine or mid back- 12 vertebrae
- lumbar spine or lower back- 5 vertebrae
- sacrum- one bone (made up of 5 fused bones)
- coccyx or tailbone (4 fused bones).
The spinal column sits on and is supported by your sacrum, which is a triangular bone wedged between your hip joints. The sacrum bone naturally angles forward a little, setting the stage for the spinal curves.
Now your spine when viewed from the side has a slight “S” shaped curve. The cervical and lumbar spine curve slightly inward (often described as a lordosis). The thoracic spine curves slightly outward, which is also described as a kyphosis.
It is interesting to note that when we are born we only have the kyphotic curves (thoracic and sacral). Together they form a big “C” shape. As you learn to lift your head, you develop your cervical curve and then your lumbar curve forms when you start to walk.
These soft curves in your spine act like a coiled spring, helping to absorb shock, evenly distribute weight and facilitate your range of movement. Imagine your spine as a pillar that supports your body. This pillar moves and functions as one unit. Keeping your body balanced whether you are moving or still.
So a neutral spine is when all three ‘normal’ curves are present and when there are no abnormal curves. It is important to remember that we are all different and come in a vast array of sizes and shapes and that there is no “perfect” posture. My neutral spine may be very different to your neutral spine.
A neutral spine whilst exercising-
Allows the right muscles to do their job. When you exercise with a neutral spine, the deep stabilising muscles have a chance to fire, engage and improve. Core muscles that work well then make it easier to maintain a neutral spinal position.
Think of your lower back when we lay on the floor and perform a simple abdominal exercise, such as a dead bug. If we brace our back on the floor (ie not a neutral position) we tend to be actively engaging our back muscles. Before long, these same muscles start to ache and pull. This is because they are not the most suitable muscles to stabilise your spine but they are very willing to compensate and dominate if you let them. Maintain your neutral position however and your tummy muscles will have a chance to activate and improve.
Places less stress on the body- Your muscles and ligaments are designed to work best in conjunction with a healthy and aligned spine. Whether you are standing or lying, a neutral spine allows your body to work efficiently, with less stress on joints.
and improved biomechanics. If you exercise (ie push, pull or twist) with poor alignment you can increase your chances of causing an ache or twinge.
Allows you to function efficiently throughout your day – If you are able to exercise effectively with a neutral spine then you are more likely to carry over this posture to the activities you do in day to day life. For example, forward lean or hip hinging exercises replicates the best way of initiating bending forward to lift items.
Being aware of neutrality in sitting will help you stack your head over your shoulders and hips so that you are not excessively using the big neck muscles or surface back muscles to maintain your position.
Finding your neutral lumbar spine
In supine lying
On the floor (or on a roller) on your back with knees flexed and feet and knees hip width apart. Make sure your breathing is relaxed and that you are allowing your belly to rise with your inhalation and fall with your exhalation. If you need more information around relaxed breathing, head to the Better breathing post.
Tilt your pelvis (whilst keeping your tailbone in contact with the roller or floor) to increase the arch in the lower back. Then tilt your pelvis the other way to squash your lower back into the floor or roller. Keep moving between these 2 extremes until you find the midpoint. This is your neutral spine position.
We can do this same exercise in standing with your back against a wall. Knees are soft, feet should be hip width apart, and they can be a little out from the wall. You should have your sacrum in contact with the wall as well as your thoracic spine (about midway between your shoulder blades). You may also be able to have your head on the wall. Again tilt the pelvis until you find your midway point. Most people will find that they have a space between the wall and their lower back when they are in their “neutral”.
Many people have problems maintaining a neutral spine during exercises like squats and deadlifts.
Starting in simple postures and practice, practice, practice helps. This may mean starting on the floor in supine positions or in 4 point kneeling to improve core control and awareness. Once these positions become easy we then progress to upright positions.
In sitting or standing we can then teach hip hingeing with the aid of a long stick. Held at the sacrum, thoracic spine and rear of the head, bend or hinge through the hips whilst maintaining contact of these 3 spinal areas with the stick.
Other Tips for Neutral spine during Exercise
- Try to stand side on to a mirror to check your posture.
- Breathe normally. Try to breathe out with exertion or any movement of your limbs away from your body. This will help you to engage your core muscles. You are then less likely to compensate with your surface muscles.
- If you are in a neutral position your back or neck should not be uncomfortable. If you are experiencing pain you should adjust to find a pain free position.
- Speak to your Physio if you feel that you need more assistance.