I have been feeling a bit like a broken record lately in Pilates classes. “Neutral spine,” I hear myself saying again and again. Yet, I often look around the room to see flattened lumbar spines, tight hip flexors and gripped low backs. I cringe and decide I need a new way of explaining this.
Here’s the long version: why neutral spine is important, and how we maintain it.
I realize the first thing we all must understand is that the spine is not a straight line, nor is it a single curve, as Joseph Pilates believed nearly a century ago. The spine is an organically shaped curving structure, designed perfectly for shock absorption and distributing forces through the rest of the body. Beginning with the skull the spine alternates between kyphotic and lordotic curves all the way to the sacrum. (See photo)
The gelatinous disks that live in between each vertebra run the risk of being compressed or pushed out of place if the vertebrae are consistently being held out of alignment. These disks can then press on surrounding nerves and cause pain. This is the common problem of bulging or herniated disks.
Of course the spine is meant to move, and neutral is not a static position. It is a good idea to be conscious of these curves while moving the spine in different directions. During exercise is a great time to teach your muscles how to support your bones in the most optimal way. So it’s a great idea to pay attention to the neutrality of your spine in any fitness routine.
So how do we keep neutral? The first two things that come to mind are learning to use your “core” efficiently, and acknowledging your own hamstring length. We sometimes imagine the “core” to be only the frontal abdominal wall. In reality the muscles all the way around our torso work in a stabilizing way. Changing the way to perceive abdominal engagement to a three dimensional contraction around your entire waist can help keep you in neutral spine.
The other factor is hamstring length. In our society today we spend lots of time sitting; this means short, tight hamstrings. When your leg moves in front of you your tight hamstrings will pull on the bottom of your pelvis and drag your pelvis and lumbar spine along. This causes extra hip flexor gripping and flattening of the low spine. So what do we do? When your leg moves forward you can energetically feel your sits bone moving back. Only move your leg forward to where you can maintain the curve of your low back. In time you may be able to find more range or length in the back of your leg. In the meantime your lumbar spine stays happy.
I will finish with a joke I heard from a Pilates teacher friend.
So this disc and vertebrae walk in the bar. They pull up a couple stools next to a Pilates instructor. The disc leans over to the Pilates instructor and says, “Can you fix our relationship?”