What is "neutral spine" and why it is important for you?

“Neutral spine” is one of those terms that we fitness professionals throw around pretty casually.  We refer to the concept in terms of maintaining a neutral spine position while completing a movement related to strength training or building flexibility, etc.  

I have used the term recently in both the troubleshooting the deadlift post and the troubleshooting the squat post.  Thankfully, I’ve recently had a handful of members reach out to me inquiring about what a neutral spine really is, and why haven’t they heard of it before.  Maintenance of a neutral spine will be equally important in the upcoming “plank”, “push” and “pull” posts as well.

This little piece should satisfy that curiosity just a bit.  We’ll start with the “nerdy” part:

What does a neutral spine look like?

The concept of a “neutral spine” was put forth by Yale University researcher and medical professor Manohar Panjabi in 1992 in a paper in the Journal of Spinal Disorders.  In the paper, is outlined a system for spinal stability that is based on the maintenance of the spine within a “neutral zone”.  Provided the spine is maintained within that zone, the structures in and around the spine are generally safe from injury.  

Within the context of exercise, we “steal” the term and oversimplify it to refer to the maintenance of good posture of the trunk and its contents.  

Here’s what a neutral spine looks like “within” the body: 

It doesn’t take a degree in biomechanics to recognize good posture!  It turns out that good posture is not only nice to look at, but is also the safest position for the spine and surrounding tissues to accept load and transfer force through the body.

When we “zoom in” and take a closer look at the spine, it becomes a bit more clear why a neutral spine position is important to safety and performance.

Here’s a look at the lumbar spine close up:

Here, we see that there is an alternating series of bone (vertebrae) and soft tissue (intervertebral disc).  The Intervertebral disc is what people refer to when they have a “slipped disc”, a “bulging disc”, a “disc herniation” or “degenerative disc disease”.  

Why is maintaining a neutral spine important?

These intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers and allow the spine to bend, twist and move.  During exercise (specifically strength training), the spine is subjected to loads that exceed normal conditions, and keeping each intervertebral disc in a neutral position helps to distribute the load in an even manner across each disc.  

Since transferring load is the foremost job of the trunk (or “core”) during exercise, then consistently defending a position close to neutral spine is essential for both optimal function and for the health of the system.

Here’s a closer look at the spine during movement: 

As you can see here, the discs in the spine are subjected to compression on the side of bending when the spine bends. 

To further understand this phenomenon, it may help to think of pushing down on a soda can, or on a stiff water bottle.  If one is to push straight down on the can, the load is evenly distributed around it, and the can will bear more load before buckling.  If one were to push harder on one side of the can, it would cave in more easily.  Even loading can means safer loading for the tissues in our spine.

Whether your goal is to use exercise for health, performance or changing your body composition, this concept is important to you.  Practicing the maintenance of a neutral spine during movement is one of the best ways we can improve the safety and effectiveness of strength exercise.  

The key notion in this movement (and really most movement) is “stable spine” + “mobile hips”.  Moving at the hips, and not rounding at the back will allow the spine to stay in a more neutral position.

So let’s take a look at an even closer level…

Here’s what a disc is subjected to during “uneven” loading:

As can be seen, when one side of the spine “closes” and the other side opens (correspondingly), the disc gets “pushed” out of the pinched side.  

Fortunately, our tissues are resilient and responsive to this, and they adapt by getting “tougher” and/or more “moveable”.  Repeated too many times, or too frequently though, the disc may not be able to adapt fast enough and excessive wearing/injury can result. 

These discs are really tough, but when exposed to positions too far from neutral, under load (i.e. picking something heavy up) they can be harmed.   In the worst circumstances, the disc can rupture (herniation).  Repeated too often for too long, the discs can wear in an uneven manner (degenerative disc disease) and that won’t serve us well late in life.

So, for the health and safety of our spines, we practice developing and maintaining a neutral spine throughout movement during strength training exercises:

Whew.

Just a little clarification on what a neutral spine is, and why its important!

Inevitably, there will be as many questions as answers after after reading this.  We’d love to field those questions.  Please email me if you’d like to learn more!

~Mark Reinke

They’ve given me the title Personal Training Director, but I really just love to help acac members and give my team the tools they need to do the same.  I graduated with a B.S. in Human Physiology and Biology from the University of Oregon and M.A. from Willamette University. I have over 15 years experience personal training and have also taught anatomy, physiology and biology. I love spending time outdoors and growing, cooking and eating great food.  Learn more about me and read more of my blogs on our website

 

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About Mark

I am a busy guy; husband, father, coach, mentor, gardener, outdoors man and cook are the primary hats I wear. To be the best of these I can be, I need to stay in shape for all those pursuits, and feed myself in a way that allows me to keep up the pace. I can help you to take the next manageable step in fitness and wellness to get you closer to your ideal self.