Barressential ELABORATES: What's a Neutral Spine?
How often have you heard a friend say "I’ve got a bad back" or "I've pulled a muscle in my back" or another variation of the same insinuation that the "back" is just a liability that we're forced to live with?
Given we spend most of our days curled over laptops & craning into phone screens, its no surprise that more & more people are suffering from "back" related problems. At the base of our neck, behind our shoulder-blades, nestled into the curves of our spine, tension seems to coalesce. Surprisingly, it’s not even a lack of exercise that can be blamed for this phenomenon, athletes of all statures and disciplines complain of the same aches as a sedentary accountant.
As back pain is super common and widespread, we often brush them aside as “inevitable”. But central to Pilates lies a concept that will not only reform your posture to get rid of those back aches for good but will also transform your energy levels and your resilience to injuries!
We present to you the NEUTRAL SPINE! The Neutral Spine is basically the sustainable and healthy answer that Pilates offers to the back aches that plague your daily living.
First things first, a quick 101 on the spine. Your spine has four parts: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper to mid back), lumbar (mid to lower back) and sacrum/tailbone. Neutral spine is achieved by maintaining the optimal degree of curvature in each of these spinal regions whilst sitting, standing, walking or exercising!
Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Ever seen a newborn? You may notice that their natural position is a curl: curled into a tiny little ball as they sleep dreaming of rainbows & unicorns, curled as they feed on mama's yummy milk, curled as they contemplate the world around them with doe eyes. A curl. The primary curves of the spines are the curves of your mid back (think right around the rib cage) and the lower back (starting from near the top of the bum).
When that baby starts to lift its head against gravity, then crawl and later start walking, the secondary curves of the spine begin to form - that's the arch of the neck and the arch of the lower back (between the rib cage and the bum).
If these natural curves are taken to extremes, we get a postural deviation or what the aunties of your childhood would call a "hunch" or kyphosis at one extreme and "a duck back" or lordosis at the other extreme. Neither of these highly prevalent postures is healthy for the spine and its surrounding muscles. To maximise shock absorption and minimize muscle tension, our spines need to be curved in the right places. If any of these curves are maxed out, muscles that surround the spine may either get locked into unhealthy lengths, hold unhealthy tension and result in aches, pains & stiffness.
A neutral spine, therefore, holds a degree of curvature which optimises the spine’s shock absorption capabilities & flexibility. Once you settle into a neutral spine you not only reduce pressure on your abdominal muscles and the muscles that surround the spine but also reduce compression of your internal organs including the lungs! One of the reasons this position is so crucial to successfully executing moves in your Pilates and Barre classes is that it allows your rib cage to expand fully and help take in all of the oxygen you need to keep yourself going!
But how do we get to this Goldilocks position?
Just like Goldilocks, you can find yourself in neutral spine by going through the extremes, and finally coming to rest in the perfect position.
Best way to find it is to lie on the floor with your knees bent, neck long and the backs of your shoulders resting comfortably on the floor. This way you automatically place your upper spine into a neutral position.
The way you first lie down may also give you a hint as to which is your preferred position: do you have your whole spine touching the floor? If so, you may have a posterior pelvic tilt. If you have a big arch behind the small of your back (so much so, your whole hand could fit underneath you) chances are you have an anterior pelvic tilt.
Whatever your natural preference, you want to start to swing between these two extremes. First, tightening your glutes (bum muscles) and curling the lower back into the floor whilst gently tilting the tailbone (the last vertebrae of your spine) up towards the ceiling. After you’ve gone as far as you can, you want to relax your glutes and start to arch your lower back so the tailbone starts to point to the floor. Begin to slowly swing between these two positions, reducing the range with every repetition – coming to rest at a point where you’re neither at a full arch or at a full imprint of the spine.
Here, you’ve found YOUR neutral pelvis and therefore YOUR neutral spine.
The neutral spine becomes especially crucial to Pilates as it’s a movement method that focuses heavily on engaging the abdominals to strengthen the muscles that surround the spine. Centering – one of the founding Pilates principles – focuses on drawing energy for every movement from the Pilates Powerhouse (a box drawn below your ribcage to your hips aka your core). Centering influences every move you make in Pilates and you’ll get there successfully if your spine is resting in neutral thus ensuring no part of your body is taking any undue pressure! Whether you’re standing, on all fours, or side lying on your mat - maintaining a neutral spine will help engage your muscles more efficiently.
Ultimately, unlocking your neutral spine is revolutionary to every aspect of your day. You’ll breathe better, look better, and feel better- all because of this one position that will soon become second nature to your body. Once you feel the perks of maintaining a neutral spine - we guarantee, that you’ll never go back to anything less.
Want to strengthen your core and improve spinal mobility? Book in for a Core Mat Pilates class with us here