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Neutral Spine -What is it and Should We Care? With Raphael Bender and Cloe Bunter

Episode 68:

Neutral Spine – What is it and Should We Care?

What exactly is neutral spine? With so many of us in the Pilates community teaching neutral spine alignment to clients and trying to master it ourselves, it’s surprising to learn that most of us don’t really know what it means. And yet, it seems to be engrained in Pilates culture. Today we’re debunking the myth of neutral spine and giving you evidence-based tools to help empower your clients to move fearlessly through all spinal movements.

What You Will Learn:

  • What neutral spine really means, and why you shouldn’t worry about it
  • Is neutral spine a position that can be measured or palpated via postural analysis or visual assessment?
  • What Joseph Pilates taught (or didn’t) about neutral spine
  • The origins of neutral spine as it applies to Pilates
  • Does evidence indicate that lifting with a neutral spine is really safer than lifting with a flexed spine?

What is Neutral Spine?

Neutral spine is widely understood in the fitness profession as a “safe” spinal position associated with injury prevention. But according to biomechanics, neutral spine is a zone (rather than a specific position) in which all the ligaments around the spine are loose. Simply put, neutral spine is about a 10 degree range in which muscles provide the only restraining force on the spine. It isn’t something that can be evaluated via spinal palpation or visual assessment, since everyone has natural variation in their bone structure. 

Where Did Neutral Spine Come From?

Joseph Pilates himself didn’t teach neutral spine. His successors (including Romana Kryzanowska) and their students were influenced by physiotherapists who promoted neutral spine. Fast forward to the 1990s, and neutral spine was widely taught as a basic element of Pilates. To this day, many people who cue neutral spine believe that it has always been a part of Pilates, although the most Joseph ever taught in this area was to press the spine firmly to the mat.

Does Neutral Spine Prevent Lower Back Injuries?

Raph and Cloe look at a fascinating study on pig spines from 20 years ago which suggests that the greatest risk for spinal injury was the amount of compression on the spine, rather than the degree of spinal flexion. They also discuss more recent biomechanical studies which show that force applied to the spine is the same whether the spine is flexed or in neutral during lifting exercises like deadlifting or squatting. Interestingly, studies show that when lifting maximally, a flexed spine is actually associated with greater strength and more efficient use of energy. Looking at the world’s most elite powerlifters, it’s easy to see that when they lift four to five times their body weight, their spines are definitely flexed. This begs the question of what Pilates instructors should be cueing instead of neutral spine. Raph and Cloe offer teaching tools to help you confidently teach without relying on neutral spine and to prioritize fearless movement. 

References and Resources mentioned in this episode:

  • Neutral is a zone not a position here
  • We can’t palpate bony landmarks reliably (plus guidelines recommend against it here
  • And anyway pelvises are not all the same shape here
  • Experienced physical therapists can’t detect lumbar flexion of less than 34 degrees in a squat here
  • Plus, standing posture is highly individual and poorly reproducible here
  • Pig spines are injured by LOAD not by flexion here and here 
  • Spinal flexion during lifting is not associated with back pain here
  • The vast majority of disc bulges are not related to lifting and those that are, do not have more pain or disability here
  • People with back pain actually lift with their backs more straight than pain-free people here
  • Flexed lumbar spine during a maximal lift is associated with greater strength in pain-free people here
  • Because spinal ligaments are MUCH stronger than spinal muscles here
  • Lifting with your back straight imposes higher forces on the spine than lifting with your back rounded here
  • Retraining people to lift with their back straight does not prevent back pain here

About Raphael and Cloe:

Raphael Bender, CEO, Breathe Education

Raph believes everyone deserves the opportunity to transform into a better version of themselves. His main strength as a teacher and movement professional is the ability to distill complex research findings into a simple, science-based approach to help people move fearlessly, thoughtlessly, and painlessly. He LOVES running, weights, cycling, and Contrology.

Raph holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology (Rehabilitation), a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise and Sports Science, Diploma of Pilates Movement Therapy, and STOTT PILATES full certification.

Cloe Bunter, Trainer, Breathe Education

With 8+ years in the industry, both teaching Pilates and nurturing new instructors, Cloe is passionate about empowering new and seasoned instructors to think critically and move fearlessly. Empowered instructors empower their clients, and in turn, change lives.

She finds great joy in building connections with clients, students, colleagues, and the broader movement and rehab community. Co-hosting the Pilates Elephants Podcast, with Raphael Bender, has provided an incredible platform to bust common Pilates, movement, and rehab myths whilst creating a worldwide community of critical thinkers who are elevating health literacy.

Cloe is fascinated by movement in general, and its ability to enhance our lives, at any age. Her own movement practice includes Contrology/Pilates, running, weights, and kettlebells. She has a Diploma of Clinical Pilates, Cert IV in Pilates, and Cert IV in Training and Assessing.

How to Connect with Raphael and Cloe:

Raphael Bender’s new book:

  • Strengthen The Person Not Just The Body Part here

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