Neutral Spine: What Is It and Why Should It Matter to Me?

The term “neutral spine” is commonly used by Pilates instructors, physical therapists, and other movement specialists during exercise and therapy sessions. Often the instruction to “find your neutral spine” is given before the start of an exercise and may even be used during the movement as a means of getting you to do a self-check: Where is my spine? But what does this really mean, and why is it important to you as a mover?

First, stay with me for a brief anatomy review: The spine consists of 24 vertebrae (bones) that move and 9 that are fused or stuck together in the sacrum and coccyx. The part of the spine that moves is divided into 3 sections: cervical (think: neck), thoracic (think: shoulder blade and rib cage area), and lumbar (think: low back). However, depending on where the vertebra sits in the spine the actual amount of movement in any given direction is different. For example, a significant amount of each type of motion (forward bend, back bend, side bend, and rotation) occurs in the neck area. This allows the head to move, and for us to obtain sensory information (seeing, smelling, hearing). At the rib cage and shoulder blade level, spine rotation is very important for the arms and shoulder blades to move efficiently. Finally, in the low back, most movement is in forward bend direction and the least amount of movement is in rotation. So why should this matter to you? Well, quite simply, how you hold your spine affects the amount and type of movement you get.

Try this: Sit tall in your chair. Cross your arms over your chest and turn slowly to the left. Now turn back to the center and all the way to the right. Return to the center, and round forward to sit in a slumped position.  Now with your arms crossed over your chest, turn to the left-center-right. Which sitting posture allowed more turn/rotation to the left and right? Most likely it was when you were sitting up tall since your rib cages blocked you and slumped spine position limits spine rotation. Moving from more of a neutral spine position, where the joints of the spine are in their optimal positions, allows you to rotate and turn your body more efficiently.  And over time, a neutral spine position means less wear and tear on your back.

Maintaining a neutral spine position is also important when it comes to arm and leg movements. People are often surprised when I tell them that just because the arm or leg is moving doesn’t mean the spine needs to move, too. Try this: Stand and reach up as if you’re trying to get a cup off a shelf that is higher than your head. Did your spine move or arch into a little bit of extension (like a backbend) when you reached? Now try it and see if you can prevent the spine from arching, keeping it in a more neutral position. If you aren’t able to move the arm/shoulder without arching the back, you’re at risk for injuring your back due to poor alignment and an inability to maintain neutral spine position while moving the arm.

Performing task related movements with a neutral spine in your day-to-day routines and even with sports is extremely important. One client of mine was a tennis player and developed a slumped posture over time.  Even though she was physically fit, she ended up with an injury to her low back as a result of poor postural habits on and off the court. To swing a tennis racket, the part of the spine near the shoulder blades, along with the rib cage, needs to rotate. But for my client, since the spine was already slumped, the amount of rotation was limited. She loved to play tennis and wouldn’t be stopped by this, so the spine movement for the swing instead came from the low back and the hips. Because the body is not built for heavy rotation in the lumbar spine, an injury to the low back occurred.  Simply put, she was not using her body as it was meant to be used.

Parallels can be drawn from just about anywhere: from golfers who lose mid-back rotation and instead overuse low back movement; to runners who use trunk and spine rotation instead of spine/core stabilization to propel the legs forward; to moms and dads who injure their backs while lifting and loading groceries, boxes, or a kicking and screaming 4 year old.

In Pilates sessions, I help you to find your neutral spine position. This is different for each of us. As with the tennis client mentioned above, you may have let yourself resort to a slumped position for years and now it’s hard if not impossible to sit up fully straight. There are still gains that can be made to bring you back upright, improve your spine alignment, and allow your body to move in healthier patterns. Once you recognize your neutral spine position, you can then learn to keep this position and stabilize spine movement by working on breathing strategies, separating arm/leg movement from spine movement, and by learning to turn “on” the deep spinal stabilizers that work to let the brain know where each vertebra is in space. This helps the body to program and carry out exercises, as well as daily activities and sports, safely.  

I teach you how to work from a neutral spine position in all developmental and functional positions (lying on your back, side-lying, lying on your stomach, all 4’s, sitting, kneeling, and standing).  When you learn to move into and out of these positions safely, you’re setting your body up for success. You’re putting the joints of the spine in the position best suited to support the movements you’re wanting to do, and you’re allowing your muscles to work from a safe, optimally aligned position.

Working from a neutral spine position does two important things: (1) it builds healthy movement patterns, and (2) it prevents injury.  I invite you to come to my studio or one of my mat classes and let me guide you in learning to use your neutral spine most effectively.  I would love to help you learn healthy movement patterns to keep your body safe for a lifetime!