You may wonder – what does “neutral spine” actually mean? Why not just call it a straight back? Well, because we do have some normal curvature in our spine. Of course there’s a range of normal, but to experiment a bit, try standing with your back to the wall. You should feel contact in three places: lower back, back of the shoulders, and back of the head. If you carry your head very forward, however, the back of the head contact may be difficult — don’t force anything!
Why does Neutral Spine Matter?
In contrast to a rounded-forward spine, or spinal flexion, neutral spine is the safest back position to avoid injury. This applies whether you’re sitting at a desk, bending over to pick up a dropped pencil, or lifting heavy weights.
An Easy Feedback Cue to Maintain Neutral Spine
Similar to the previous wall experiment, hold a piece of wooden dowelling behind your back. Your lower hand will tuck into the space in your lower back, palm facing outwards, and your upper hand will be behind your neck. People who carry their heads forward will need to use their upper hand as a “spacer” to establish and maintain their standing version of a neutral spine.
Got that part? Great — now try bringing in some movement with it. Try bending from your hips, not through your waist or spine, and maintaining all three points of contact.
This may feel quite odd. Some will wonder, how am I supposed to maintain contact? The general answer: your core works to maintain your neutral spine, and your glutes are the motor to hinge your hips. The specifics can take a lot of practice and input. In daily life, this is often key to preventing or reducing pain, for example in the knees or lower back. For athletes, it’s essential to a powerful squat or deadlift.
If you want to investigate further, Dr. Stu McGill is one of the most well-known and respected names in explaining the theory behind neutral spine and applying it in practical terms from daily life activities to elite-level athletic competition. A selection of his articles can be found at http://backfitpro.com/articles.php.
NOTE: This is not a substitute for medical advice.