Neutral spine, what is it and why you should care about it.

 Have you ever heard a coach say to ‘keep your back straight’, or to ‘bend at the hips and not through the back’? Well apart from hearing the beautiful sounds of our own voices, there is a very good reason for these types of comments. That is to keep you uninjured and enhance your ability to tolerate workload.

You see, when your spine is in a neutral position (see Figure 1.), it is incredibly good at withstanding and balancing out external forces. However, when your spine repeatedly enters into a flexed position, which is the loss of normal lordosis (see Figure 2.), then the ability of it to withstand force in a safe fashion decreases and spinal ligaments are put under strain (Claude, Solomonow, Zhou, Baratta & Zhu, 2003).

(Figure 1. Neutral back position during lifting)

(Figure 1. Neutral back position during lifting)

When lifting heavy stuff, the more you lose this neutral position, the less effective you will be at doing the movement and the more stress you will be putting on your back. While we are focusing on a flexion based movement error, it is worth keeping in mind that an opposite error is also possible, that is cranking the back into overextension. While this is also a worthy topic, to keep this article to a sensible length, we are just going to look at back flexion (mostly lumbar). 


 When and why does this happen

(Figure 2. Loss of neutral back position through the lumbar and thoracic regions)

(Figure 2. Loss of neutral back position through the lumbar and thoracic regions)

This flexed position (figure 2) is likely to happen when we perform any movement that involves a significant hip hinge and places a forward moment (pull) on your torso. If the weight being lifted is close to our force production maximum or surpasses our ability to apply correct stabilization, we will be more likely to end up in a bad position. In my experience, most of the time athletes lose neutral position is during heavy, grinding barbell lifts such as the deadlift and squat. Usually, these athletes also have a noticeable lack of hamstring mobility to match the high level of hip flexion that goes with many of the full range barbell lifts. With immobile hamstrings, any hip hinge motion is subject to extreme restriction as the angle of inclination increases and the lower back will flex in a compensatory fashion.

What is bad about this?

We know through some interesting studies that involve copious abuse to pig spines that repeated movement through lumbar flexion and extension is one of the main mechanisms through which disc herniation can occur (see Callaghan & McGill, 2001; Balkovec & McGill, 2012). The takeaway finding from these studies is that repetitive flexion can lead to disc troubles and when load is increased with this movement, it is even worse. If that was not bad enough, repeatedly hanging out in a really flexed position is more than likely to cause the erector spinae group to experience a degree of deactivation and provide less support than what they should normally provide (Dickey, McNorton & Potvin, 2003).

While this might sound scary, don’t let it freak you out, in all probability, if 98% of the time you lift with a neutral spine with an occasional glitch, this will probably not cause too many issues.

The real problems occur when you let sub-optimal back positions become habit, occur regularly through many workouts and subsequently try to load these flawed positions. 

What we can do about it?

The good news, is that there is a lot we can do protect our backs, the first one is no surprise, can you guess what it is? Yep, you guessed it, listen to the coaches! All of the coaches know what a good/bad back position will look like and will let you know if they see a problem, make sure you take this feedback seriously and address the issue. If you experience, or get this type of feedback consistently, the first port of call would be to either a) scale the workout (decreasing the weight, reps or substituting in a more manageable movement), and b) come and see the coach after the class and ask for further recommendations specific to your issue.  Many of these problems can be due to a lack of mobility through hip/leg musculature or even just a lack of bodily awareness.

All the coaches at SXF will be able to help you work out what is going on, create a preventative strategy, and give corrective exercises for minimizing sub-optimal spinal movement during lifting. 

As well as talking to the coaches, here are a few recommendations to get you out of dodgy back positions;

  • Perform hamstring mobility with a neutral spine so you can get the work where it needs to be and not overflowing to the lower back.
  • Practice the activation of lats to help with bracing during any slow grinding strength movements.
  • When maxing out, holding your breath will help you to resist buckling through the midsection and increase stability; if you use a belt, it will allow even more intra-abdominal pressure and enhance this effect.
  • Warm up with perfect form.
  • Never be in a rush to load up the weight at the expense of position and form. Strength, skill and ultimately results, will come from practicing good movement over a long period, never from a single ego-driven workout.

 

References:

Balkovec, C., & McGill, S. (2012). Extent of nucleus pulposus migration in the annulus of porcine intervertebral discs exposed to cyclic flexion only versus cyclic flexion and extension. Clinical Biomechanics, 27(8), 766-770.

Callaghan, J. P., & McGill, S. M. (2001). Intervertebral disc herniation: studies on a porcine model exposed to highly repetitive flexion/extension motion with compressive force. Clinical Biomechanics, 16(1), 28-37.

Claude, L. N., Solomonow, M., Zhou, B. H., Baratta, R. V., & Zhu, M. P. (2003). Neuromuscular dysfunction elicited by cyclic lumbar flexion. Muscle & nerve27(3), 348-358.

Dickey, J. P., McNorton, S., & Potvin, J. R. (2003). Repeated spinal flexion modulates the flexion–relaxation phenomenon. Clinical biomechanics, 18(9), 783-789.