“Find your neutral spine.” Anyone who has taken a pilates class, lifted weights, or taken a yoga class has been given these seemingly simple instructions. But what exactly is a “neutral spine,” how can you achieve it, and what does it really matter? Contrary to what you might think, a neutral spine isn’t necessarily a straight spine and involves a little bit of engaging specific muscles, breathing, tucking, pressing, and pulling on your part. Here is everything you need to know about neutral spine position.
Meet the Expert
- Juan Bartolomei, MD, is a spine surgeon in Yale Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery and assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine.
- Peter G. Whang, MD, FAAOS, FACS, is an orthopaedic spine surgeon at Yale Medicine and associate professor, Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, Yale University School of Medicine.
- Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, is a New York City-area spinal and orthopedic surgeon, suggests maintaining a neutral spine in activities like pilates, yoga, synchronized swimming, or acrobatics.
What Is Neutral Spine?
Juan Bartolomei, MD, spine surgeon in Yale Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery and assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine, explains that a neutral spine position is a natural way our spine curves to maintain body balance with the least musculoskeletal stress. “Each segment of the spine has specific curves cervical, neck, has lordosis (arching back), thoracic has a kyphosis (arching forward) and lumbar, lower back, has a lordosis,” he explains. “When each of these curves is present and aligned well, it allows us to move naturally with less demand on the spine.”
However, when the body isn’t in a neutral spine position, “excessive leaning forward or arching back can create increasing demands on our joints and muscle resulting in musculoskeletal pain,” Bartolomei says, “The areas that have the highest propensity for pain as a result of abnormal posture are the lower back and the junction and lower neck and shoulder blades region.”
When Should Your Spine Be in the Neutral Position?
Peter G. Whang, MD, FAAOS, FACS, orthopaedic spine surgeon at Yale Medicine and associate professor, Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, Yale University School of Medicine, explains that the spine is quite mobile and exhibits a wide range of motion during various activities. However, it is always important to focus on keeping a neutral spine during specific exercises, including running, biking, and lifting weights, to decrease injury risk.
Additionally, Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, a New York City-area spinal and orthopedic surgeon, suggests maintaining a neutral spine in activities like pilates, yoga, synchronized swimming, or acrobatics. “Essentially, the neutral position is important whenever an activity requires good posture and balance to be completed correctly,” he says.
An important thing to keep in mind is that a neutral spine is most beneficial when you aren’t working out at all, reminds Whang. “Perhaps, more importantly, the spine should be stabilized in this fashion when standing, sitting, or performing other routine activities (e.g., working at a computer, driving) because this can help prevent individuals from experiencing neck or back pain,” he explains.
How to Find Your Neutral Spine
Okubadejo points out that everyone’s neutral spine will be different due to disparities in the muscles, ligaments, and bones in the body. “The most basic way to find your Neutral Spine is to lie flat on your back and breathe out slowly,” he says. “Relax the muscles from your shoulders through your spine, pelvis, and lower body. The position that results should have a slight space between the lower part of the back and the floor. This should be your neutral spine position."
Here are detailed steps as to how to find your neutral spine, per Okubadejo.
1. Lie down on the ground with your knees bent upwards and arms to the side of your body.
2. Relax your entire body from your head to your toes. Do not be stiff and allow your abdominals to fall into the floor.
3. Take a large breath through your nose, filling your lungs.
4. Slowly release the air through your mouth while also tucking in your pelvis and pressing your lower back to the floor.
5. Breathe in through your nose again and simultaneously pull your lower back upwards. The gap between your lower spine and floor should appear again.
Why Does Neutral Spine Matter?
So, what happens if you tuck and arch during barre classes, a pilates session, or while doing a plank? Basically, you can hurt yourself. Whang explains that with a neutral spine, the vertebral bodies (i.e., the bones) are in optimal biomechanical alignment so that the head is located directly above the pelvis in line with the center of gravity. “In this position, the nerves have more space in the spinal canal and are less likely to be compressed by arthritis or disc herniation which can otherwise cause radiating pain, numbness, and/or weakness involving the arms or legs,” he points out.
Also, a neutral spine maintains the muscles and soft tissues of the spine in the proper position so that they are less prone to fatigue and spasm, thereby minimizing complaints of neck and back pain. “When the spine is well-balanced, the body is also able to more efficiently dissipate the forces that the spine is subjected to with normal physical activities as well as from traumatic injuries, thereby reducing the risk of developing degenerative changes over time,” he says.
Bartolomei says it best: “Not everyone has the same body shape." Be careful when executing any exercises, especially when you are not working with a fitness professional. “Always consider an evaluation by a trained therapist to understand your own strengths and weaknesses,” he suggests. “Based on the evaluation, a personalized exercise regimen can be developed to perform at home.”
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