Neutral or Natural Spine? Which is Optimal for Health and Performance? by RR

There has been great controversy over the past several years about the position of the spine (specifically the low back) as it relates to optimal performance and long term health. Is the Lordotic spine healthy? It seems to function quite nicely for a great many athletes. What about the Kyphotic spine? This back position seems to produce the greatest amount of symptoms and problems. But what about the concept of “neutral” spine, how do we define it, what is it? Is it braced, drawn in, tail tucked, flat back bowed, arched or what? How do we attain it? Why are we so worried about it? What happens if I don’t have it? How do I get it? Where do I find it? Who invented it? Let’s look at some definitions.

Another way to look at this concept is the tilt of the pelvis. In lordosis, the pelvis is rotated forward or anteriorly. In kyphosis, the pelvis is rotated posteriorly. In neutral, the pelvis is aligned. Examining this concept as a performance practitioner rather than a researcher, athletic trainer or physical therapist has led me to some conclusions. First of all, is the pelvic position and the corresponding lumbar spine position resulting in some type of symptom manifesting itself in terms of pain, discomfort, tightness or inhibition of performance? If so, then I will prescribe some corrective exercises, stretching, foam rolling or therapy in order to address the inhibited performance due to pain, discomfort and tightness. I will also refer this person to an athletic trainer for further evaluation. If there is no pain, discomfort, tightness or inhibited performance, then why fix it if it ain’t broke? Most sprinter, hurdler, jumper, power, speed athletes will have a lordotic lower spine. If they are asymptomatic and pass the intrinsic muscle tests for the pelvic floor and lower core region strength, stability and flexibility — then train. The kyphotic person may need some remedial work, regardless of symptom level if you plan on loading the spine with squats, cleans, deadlifts or other types or resistance exercises that place load through the upper core. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, one of North Americas leading experts on the spine and its ability to withstand load a flat lumbar spine will tend to exhibit symptoms or problems much more often under load stress than a lordotic spine. Extension work for the kyphotic spine will be prescribed in order to enhance the thoracic spine area’s ability to withstand load.

My concern is the ruckus over the “neutral” spine concept and its application to performance training. After listening to many experts argue over the efficacy of this concept (it reminds me of the back side of the “drawing in” controversy), reading about this in the various publications concerned with performance and health exercise information as well as coaching thousands of athletes performing literally millions of repetitions over the past 25+ years I have come to the conclude the following observations. In a nutshell, the “neutral” spine is a manufactured and artificial position for the lumbar region. The term I feel much more comfortable with is the “natural” spine position. Here is a practical application of the difference. Have the client/athlete reach overhead until they feel skinny. At this point, have them take a big, deep breath and lock it in as if you were going to punch them in the stomach. While maintaining this core-lumbar position, drop the arms, exhale while maintaining a braced core and drop into a basic athletic position. This is a natural spine position that is ready to absorb and produce force throughout the core region. In order to convince the skeptic, have the client/athlete produce a lordotic lumbar spine while in basic athletic position and then press down on their shoulders much in the manner of a resistance squat load. Repeat this drill with a kyphotic lumbar spine and ask the client/athlete, “which is better to absorb and produce force?”. Then, if the client/athlete or colleague is still not convinced, ask them to assume the “neutral” spine position and repeat the drill a final time. The asymptomatic, “neutral” spine is a manufactured position that is unable to be replicated during the duress of performance. It also goes against the concept of maintaining pillar core integrity in order to transmit the power generated from the legs into the shoulders, arms, hands or implement with very little flexion, extension or rotation in the lumbar spine, until the mobility of the hips and thoracic region have been exhausted.

Dr. McGill explained this concept to me at a seminar in a one on one conversation in which I had asked him why I was being instructed at a performance center to teach the tail tucked position in training performance individuals. His first response was “I would have no idea”. When he laughed and said he would expound upon his point, I knew he was teasing me and asked him to please continue. He asked me if I would humor him in a little experiment. I said “sure”. He then instructed me to assume an athletic position, “tuck my tail” and then react to his instruction for the next 30 or so seconds. At this time he commanded me to “jump, do a squat thrust, shuffle right, shuffle left, do a quarter turn right, do a quarter turn left, squat, buzz my feet, lunge right, lunge left and get back into position”. At this point, he asked me what had happened to my lumbar postural position. I responded that I had no idea. He stated that was his point — artificial/manufactured core positions are not practical to teach for performance athletes that are asymptomatic. In rehab settings in which specific symptoms or deficiencies are being addressed then artificial spine positions are certainly a part of the rehabilitation protocol. The natural lumbar spine position with core integrity prepared to withstand force in multiple planes as well as transmit force in a variety of angles while still maintaining the ability to respire (without holding your breath) is a huge piece of performance that allow us as coaches and trainers to unlock the power of the legs and hips and express that power in our sports. This “natural” spine position combined with hip mobility, the skill of disassociation of the hip — shoulder complex and internal coordination resulting in huge force summation creates the physical performances we all long to enhance with our expertise.

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