One of the most common cues you will hear me say in my classes (Pilates and all the other formats I teach too), is to “find your neutral” and to “maintain your neutral spine,” but what exactly does neutral spine mean and why is it important?
Neutral spine roughly translates to “good posture,” however the goal is not to simply “sit up tall and straight.” Although we don’t want to feel compressed in a slouched position and we certainly do strive for a lengthening sensation in Pilates, the goal is not a perfectly straight spine, nor is it a realistic position to expect the spine to get into.
Your spine has natural curves that can be observed in each section of the spinal column. The vertebrae (back bones) of spinal column can be divided into four sections: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper back), the lumbar spine (lower back), and the sacrum (back side of the pelvis). Each of these sections of the spine has its own natural curvature in a neutral position and it is widely thought that these curves help to evenly distribute the weight of the body to facilitate balance and better absorb forces applied to the body.
The cervical spine and lumbar spine naturally have a slight curve extending away from the back of the body, whereas the thoracic spine develops a curvature that extends towards the back of the body early on in development, when a baby is in a fetal position in the womb. The sacrum also has a curvature that extends towards the back of the body. Working from a neutral position that allows for these natural curves can maintain the integrity of the spine and help prevent injury when doing exercises where you are loading the muscles and joints of the body with an external source of resistance (i.e., hand weights, resistance bands, or the tension from springs of Pilates equipment) or working with longer levers (i.e., legs and arms extended in Double Straight Leg Stretch). Although we are usually born with these natural curves, our daily activities can sometimes bring us out of neutral.
Flexibility, muscle tightness, imbalances in strength, and body composition all can influence how our spines are pulled out of neutral alignment. Cues to find your neutral spine are often said along with cues to “roll the shoulders back and down,” or “stabilize the bowl of water that is your pelvis.” This is because the placement of the shoulders can influence the curvature of the upper back and the position of the pelvis can influence the curvature of the lower back. For example, if the hamstrings are tight it can posteriorly tilt the pelvis (“spill the bowl of water back behind you”) and straighten the curvature of the low back, whereas if the hip flexors are tight it can anteriorly tilt the pelvis (“spill the bowl of water forward”) and exaggerate the curvature of the low back.
Sitting hunched over a textbook or laptop, always sitting on the same side of the couch and leaning towards the same arm rest, standing with one hip tilted to the side…these are all common practice for many people but this repetitive posture can lead to imbalances in strength and muscle tightness throughout the body. Similarly, if a person carries more weight around their belly, either from pregnancy or their own unique body composition, it can lead to an exaggerated curve of the low back and be correlated with low back pain.
It needs to be noted here that correlation is not causation, and the alignment of the body does not necessarily translate to whether or not a person is experiencing pain. Working from a neutral position may help to prevent or ease back pain, however it is important for students and instructors to honor their roles in a fitness class or training session: the student should continually check in with what exercises cause excessive strain or pain and it is equally important for an instructor to remember that they cannot possibly know how an exercise or position feels for a student simply by looking at their student’s outward alignment or posture.
It is also important to note that sometimes deviations from neutral spine are not due to our daily activities but to structural characteristics or medical conditions such as scoliosis or osteoporosis. If this is the case, then a student should check in with their doctor before beginning a fitness practice and share with their instructor what positions should be avoided or might need to be modified based on their doctor’s advice.
There is such a range in the shapes and sizes of human bodies that most of us deviate from “perfect” posture and have to work to maintain a neutral spine. However, if working on posture is your goal, then Pilates and maintaining neutral spine in other forms of exercise can certainly help. It is helpful to remember here the wise words of Joseph Pilates, “concentrate on the correct movement each time you exercise, lest you do them improperly and lose all vital benefits.”
We should concentrate on correct movement and our body’s alignment because the body will get stronger in the positions you train it in. If you work in a neutral spine position your body will grow stronger in neutral, and it will be easier to maintain this neutral position throughout your day. For example, since I work a lot from my laptop and spend a lot of time rounding my upper back to look over books and my phone, I have developed an exaggerated curve in my upper back. When I practice Pilates, if I continue to allow my shoulders to round forward or my lower back to excessively arch like it usually does for the majority of the day when I am at my desk, then I’m not really doing anything to alter my posture but merely growing stronger in this position. Similarly, the work I am doing in my Pilates practice should be complimented by reminding myself to try to find a comfortable neutral spine position throughout my other daily activities.