Fitness instructors often ask participants to keep a “neutral spine” during all the exercises, especially in Pilates and yoga. The position is important for both performing the exercises correctly and for getting the most out of the movements, helping to activate the right muscles. But if you think “neutral” means “stick straight,” think again.
Contrary to popular belief, a neutral spine position isn’t straight at all. “A neutral spine refers to the three natural curves in the spine: the cervical (upper), thoracic (middle), and lumbar (lower). When viewed from the side, these curves form an ‘S’ shaped curve, and when all three are balanced, our spine is said to be in neutral alignment,” says physical therapist Kelly Avant. “When we think about good posture or standing up straight, the misconception of actually having a straight spine is inaccurate. Good posture requires each curve to be equally represented and balanced.”
If you’re not focusing on trying to make your back as straight as possible, how do you even find your neutral spine in the first place? There are two ways to go about it, depending on whether you’re lying down or standing up.
How to find your neutral spine
According to Alex Leviner, a trainer at EverybodyFights, the easiest way to find your neutral spine is to lie down on your back and relax. “That will usually be ‘your’ neutral spine, but everyone is different,” he says. “There will be a gap between your lower back and the floor, and that’s totally normal. When you try to push your lower back down to the ground, you’re actually performing a posterior pelvic tilt and are breaking your neutral spine.”
Finding your neutral spine while standing can be a little more difficult. According to Avant, the first step is looking at your body from the side and drawing an imaginary line from your ear to your ankle. “This line should fall perpendicular to the floor,” she says. Then, focus on each natural curve in your spine following three steps:
- Starting with the upper (cervical) curve, jut your chin forward and notice how the curve flattens. Point your chin up and notice the excessive extension. Think instead of pulling the crown of your head up to the sky.
- Moving down to the middle (thoracic) curve, notice the slight rounded appearance. Accentuate the curve by rounding your shoulders forward, increasing thoracic flexion. Draw your shoulders back and pump out your chest and the curve will decrease. Think instead of drawing your shoulder blades down and in to optimize the thoracic curve.
- Finally, the lower (lumbar) curve appears extended or arched. Increase this curve by tilting the pelvis forward and sticking out your tailbone. Lose the curve by drawing the tailbone under you.
Avant says a neutral spine will fall comfortably between the two extremes in all three curves. “Reassess the straight line from your ear to your ankle and feel the difference when your alignment is off,” she says. “A lifetime of poor posture will not be adjusted immediately and may actually feel uncomfortable in the beginning. Gradually improving your postural awareness, regardless of the activity, will ensure a strong, healthy, and protective spine.”
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