The Myth of Neutral Spine


I’ll be the first to throw it out there: Posture is stupidly important to anything, anywhere, and for everything. HOWEVER…….. there’s a time and a place for everything.

The whole basis behind posture comes from the design of the spine and the mechanical properties of the vertebrae as they absorb gravitational axial loading, in other words how they hold your melon on top of the pool stick you call a neck.

The design of the spine is through undulating curves through the entire length, beginning with a cervical curve, thoracic curve, lumbar curve and ending with a sacral curve. These curves serve much like the coiled shock absorbers in your car, allowing a greater force attenuation and flexibility than having a rigid and straight linear alignment, and also allowing for much more muscular attachment points, force potential development, and acceleration potential for performance variables, which will make you throw more like Lincecum than Tin-Man.

A big part of the design of the spine is to allow for movement and acceleration of the legs into the arms and vice versa. Don’t believe me?? Try to run with a rock-solid core, or throw without going through extension-flexion, or try jumping with a stiff abdominal brace. I’ll bet you look like you rode the short bus to practice.

Charlie Weingroff wrote a very informative post on his view of cervical bracing during swings and deadlifting, which I’ve never even considered before. Definitely not prescribing neutral spine here!! I wrote a piece a few months ago on the benefits of spinal flexion, because believe it or not it is necessary for some movements.

 

You tell him to get into neutral!!!

Think of a basketball player looking to grab a rebound after a shot. To box out their opponent, they have to go into a squat pattern, however they also need to extend their neck to look up for the ball. Definitely not neutral spine here!! Should we train the spine to remain rigid, or allow it to move quickly and recover fast through a full range of motion?Only Chuck Norris would know for sure, because where there’s a problem, he’s typically the answer.

So in spite of all this, the big question remains, should we train in neutral spine simply because its’ the default pattern to go to? I’ll bet if you were to ask 50 practitioners what they thought neutral spine was, they could ramble off every textbook definition out there (myself included). On top of this, they will each have ways of finding neutral spine, from laying on your back and thinking of water falls, to standing like you’re in the military and flexing your butt to standing on one leg and rubbing your belly while patting your head. But ask them when the spine is EVER in neutral, and they will quickly come up with a loss. The correct answer is that the spine is continuously moving through neutral spine, but never actually rests there for very long, as the muscle tension generated takes more effort than simply leaning on passive support structures like the ligaments, tendons and bones. Truth be told, we’re all lazy, and we’ll all move to the point of least resistance, all the time. Trying to maintain neutral spine is pretty much a moving target that doesn’t need to be shot. Call me skeptical, but I think this might be overkill.

Now there are instances where teaching neutral spine is important, like in situations where vertebral buckling and spondlyolisthesis and other hypermobility issues of the spine are present, but this stage of training tends to last for maybe a week or two before they get progressed on to more involved training styles, like lifting, bending, carrying, pushing, pulling, and all types of general bad-assery that makes the average person into a god-damned ninja!! **Hey Bruce Lee!!! You’re not maintaining proper spinal alignment while you punch my face through my liver!!!**

I’ve discussed training aberrant movement patterns before, and I show a bunch of assessments and training programs based on the faulty patterns on Muscle Imbalances Revealed 2.0. Do yourself a solid, if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, do it now. You’ll be the coolest kid in camp when this bad boy shows up at your front door.

 

 

 

About deansomerset

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Post-Rehab Specialist, personal trainer and probably the coolest guy my mom knows, I try to impart a little knowledge with a sense of humor to keep people reading. I've always thought if it's something that can grab your attention, you're gonna remember it tomorrow!!
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4 Responses to The Myth of Neutral Spine

  1. Danny says:

    Dean,

    Question about neutral spine. You make great points about the spine never being in neutral when we’re actually moving, and how we are all lazy so will pretty much compensate when need to get the movement done. Is it safe to say that injury doesn’t necessarily come from the inability to maintain neutral spine ALL THE TIME more than it comes from the weaknesses in the supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles WHEN those areas aren’t strong enough to support our inability to maintain neutral spine? Hope I didn’t lose you. If so, you can Chuck Norris whack me!
    Also, how beneficial would it be to do a strength exercise followed by an exercise, like bird dog for example, and really cue the maintanence of a neutral spine while dealing with the fatigue from the previous strength exercise. Would this teach our body to keep the spine “healthy” when we do actually move through the paths of least resistance by compromising “ideal spinal alignment?”

    • deansomerset says:

      Hey Danny. You hit the nail on the head when you said injuries come from inability to move outside of neutral. I would approach a strength exercise by performing something like a bird dog first to up-regulate the nervous system and get the muscles firing properly first rather than finishing with them. It’s sort of like putting the car into drive when you’re trying to park if you do it after a strength exercise. After that, performing movements that take the spine through a sae and effective range of motion without exceeding tolerances would help to teach the body to move outside of neutral withuot gettnig injured.

  2. Steve says:

    Hey Dean,

    Whats your take on chin tucking exercises for those clients who’s necks seem to flop over during planks and pushups? In this case I believe teaching a neutral c-spine is very important so I guess my real question is how frequently should you include these types of exercises in a program? I have seen pts prescribe this daily to their upper crossed clients. Thanks man, great post per usual.

    P.S. How many Chuck Norisses does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    • deansomerset says:

      Chin tucks are usefull, and again another method of moving out of neutral to correct a problem. I don’t use it too much with my clientele, simply because most of my clients don’t seem to have any neck pain or issues with their C-spine. This could simply be dumb luck or just a natural cycle, meaning I’m gonna have a bazillion coming through the pipes in the near future.

      Answer: None. One look from Chuck and the lightbulb knows its’ screwed.

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