Knowing how to move with a neutral spine should be a top priority from the standpoint of both injury prevention and performance enhancement. Current estimates are that 95 percent of the population will have at least one serious episode of spinal pain in their lives. This may seem high. But one look at most physical activity habits and routines (or lack thereof) makes it quite believable.
Neutral spine simply refers to the vertebrae maintaining their designed position. Most people think of this as a “flat back” but in reality the spine is not supposed to be flat. Instead, it has a naturally curved structure, which allows it to effectively distribute the shear and rotational stress and handle compressive load. The spine is most resilient when it is at or near this neutral posture.
People often refer to neutral spine in the context of sitting or standing posture. While this is indeed important, it becomes even more important during movement and astronomically more important during loaded movement (as in lifting or carrying objects or resistance training).
To begin learning neutral spine during movement, a primary consideration is core control. This involves more than the abdominal muscles. In reality, the entire torso (including the muscles of the back and hips) makes up a person’s core. In order to control the spine dynamically, the core muscles must be able to fire at the appropriate time, and with sufficient force (strong enough) to do so.
Knowing this makes one realize that ab exercises which repeatedly flex the spine (crunches, sit-ups, etc.) are not the best choices for core control. Many of us would do well to shelf all the crunches for a while and spend more time working on anti-flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation exercises.
Once we learn to achieve and maintain the spine in neutral position by way of proper core exercises, then we can move on to loaded training. Needless to say, you can’t safely dead lift or squat a significant amount of weight without being able to achieve and maintain the spine in neutral position. Gaining this ability is a great achievement. Gradually increasing the repetitions, loading, and range of motion effectively strengthens the core muscles and protects the spine rather than endanger them.
Don’t spend your time pushing 300 pounds on the leg extension machine then go home and injure your back picking a pencil off the floor. Even if your personal goals have nothing to do with a monster squat or dead lift, it is important for everyone to train basic movement patterns while keeping the spine in neutral. Training should be more than a means to look good, improve cholesterol, or burn calories. Functional core training achieves all of this while preparing the body for everyday life activities without putting the spine at risk.
I hope this overview helps you understand why it is essential to achieve and maintain the neutral spine position. Whether you are an elite athlete or you work at a desk all day, achieving and maintaining a neutral spine is one of the best uses of your exercise time.