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We Got Your Back: How and Why You Should Maintain A Neutral Spine During Movement

You’ve likely heard the phrase being shouted out in class at one point: “keep a neutral spine!” But what does that actually mean? “Keep a neutral spine” as in don’t let it turn too political? Is it “keep a neutral spine” as in stick your butt out? Or is it just another way of saying “keep your back straight”?

To fully understand what we mean when we say to keep a neutral spine, we should start by taking a quick look at the spine.

Front, side, and back view of the spine

Your spine is made up of 33 vertebrae: 7 cervical vertebrae that make up the neck, 12 thoracic vertebrae in the trunk, 5 lumbar vertebrae in the low back, and 9 fused vertebrae that make up your sacrum and coccyx at the base of your spine. In between each individual vertebrae are cartilaginous discs. The vertebrae and discs hide the spinal cord, which runs from the base of the brain and down the length of the spine. Various muscles, tendons, and ligaments attach to different parts of the vertebrae, which in turn pull on the vertebrae to cause spinal movement like flexion (bending the neck/trunk forward), extension (extending the neck/trunk backwards), lateral bending (bending neck/trunk to the side), and rotation (turning the neck/trunk).

As seen in the picture above, the spine has natural curvatures that allow for movement. Especially looking at the side view, the spine has what’s called an S-curve, meaning that the spine is essentially shaped like the letter S. This shape allows for an even distribution of weight and the flexibility needed for movement, and, make no mistake, your spine was designed to move! The spine serves three main purposes in your body: to protect your spinal cord, to provide structural support for your body, and to enable flexible movement!

So, back to our original question: what does this all have to do with maintaining a neutral spine? When we say to maintain a neutral spine, what we mean is don’t exaggerate your spine’s natural curvature. In other words, try to avoid excessively changing the shape of your spine by hyperflexing, hyperextending, or over rounding. When your spine is in a neutral position, the body and muscles are in the strongest, most stable, and most injury-resistant position. The intervertebral discs and vertebrae are in the best position to distribute compressive force away from your discs. Too much pressure on the discs can lead to disc herniation or injury.

This doesn’t mean don’t ever move your spine (remember, it was built for movement!); in fact, anytime you flex, extend, rotate or laterally bend your spine, it moves out of a neutral position. This is completely normal and natural when moving light loads. However, the problem comes when heavier loads are applied with the spine in a suboptimal position; the farther away from a neutral spine with heavy loads, the more pressure you are putting on your discs and vertebrae, which as previously stated, can lead to disc herniation or other back injuries.

Now you know the importance of keeping a neutral spine! But how do you know if you’re in a neutral spine? One of the easiest ways is to stand with your back against the wall. Keep your head, upper back, and butt against the wall. You should be able to fit your hand in the space between your low back (just above the glutes) and the wall. Make sure you are not tilting your pelvis forward or backwards; if you are, alternate tucking and tilting your pelvis for a couple of reps and then stop yourself in between these two movements. This should keep your pelvis neutral and thus, is your neutral spine position.

Practice exercises that encourage a neutral spine: hinges, bird dogs, squats, and dead bugs are some examples. Remember, it's okay for your spine to move! Just don't force it into a position that doesn't feel good. If you would like more information, please reach out to one of the coaches. As always, we’re here to keep you strong for life!

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