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Understanding the "Neutral Spine" Position to Protect Your Back

The various regions of the vertebral column.
The various regions of the vertebral column.

"Neutral Spine" is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in the exercise world but is seldom accurately described. In resistance training, one of the keys to the protection of your spine is avoiding unnecessary wear and tear on your discs. When you maintain a neutral spine position, you can greatly reduce incidents of back injury and back pain.

The term "Neutral Spine" refers to the position when all three natural curves of the spine are in proper alignment:

At the top is the cervical (your neck). In the middle is the thoracic (your middle back). The bottom section is called your Lumbar (your low back.)

Neutral is the strongest position for your spine and it's the position your back was designed to function in; whether we're sitting, standing, lying down, or performing any type of athletic activity. Here's how to find your neutral position.

Leigh showing proper posture and hunchback.

Stand tall as if "Standing at Attention." Hold a dowel rod or foam roller against your back. There should be three points of contact. Your sacrum (or tailbone), your middle back and the back of your head should touch the dowel or roller. Ideally, you'll have a two-finger gap at the lumbar curve and a four-finger gap at the cervical curve.

There are two common problems people experience when they try this test. The first is that the head does not touch the dowel or roller. The technical term is that you are "kyphotic." Here's how it happens.

Loss of height due to kyphotic curve or lordotic curve.
Loss of height due to kyphotic curve or lordotic curve.

Kyphosis or Hunchback

Generally, it's seen in people who've spent a career hunched over a computer, a patient or a desk. The upper back is overly rounded, the head and neck tend to jut forward and the shoulders round forward. Commonly referred to as "hunchback." You'll typically have an over-curvature of the thoracic vertebrae, tight chest and anterior deltoids, under-active middle and lower trapezius and rhomboids. Many other factors can cause kyphosis including fractures caused by osteoporosis, disc degeneration or injury and arthritis.

The second common problem is if the dowel rod or roller touches everywhere, but it's not vertical (perpendicular to the ground). Often there will be a greater gap at the lumber. The technical term for this problem is that you are likely "lordotic." Here are a couple of common ways that happens.

Lordosis or Sway Back

These people have a pronounced over arch in the low back, often referred to as a "sway back." Frequently found in women who wear high heels and people who sit a lot. It's most often caused by tight low back muscles, an underactive transverse abdominis, tight hip flexors and excessive abdominal fat.

If you have either of these conditions, finding your neutral spine position might be impossible until you address the underlying conditions. Strengthening the under-active muscles and lengthening the overactive muscles should be done first. Don't be surprised if you have a little of both problems. It isn't uncommon for some people to be kyphotic AND lordotic.

So what can you do? Start with some foam rolling.

Think of your muscles as taffy. When taffy is cold and hard, it's inflexible and easy to break. When taffy is warm, it's pliable. Knots in our muscles are like hard taffy. Rolling warms up the muscle much like kneading taffy. It is a form of self-massage, changing the density of the tissues therefore making the muscle more pliable. When you roll and find an area that hurts and/or is sore, that is a knot. Stretching is much more effective after releasing the knots in our muscles.

For foam rolling instructions, CLICK HERE.

For some people, simply adding a little foam rolling into their routine is all they need.

Click Here to learn how to deal with kyphosis.

Click Here to learn how to deal with lordosis.

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Updated 6/26/2015