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The Myth of Neutral Spine

Neutral spine is a myth.

Or at least, the way we currently have this concept burned into our brains is at least a little flawed.

Let me explain…

When you set someone up to squat or deadlift effectively, there is most definitely a “neutral” position you want them in.

I believe this is the optimal position, regardless of whether you’re training for health and longevity or maximal performance.

If you want a quick primer on what a neutral spinal alignment looks like, here goes:

But here’s the thing..

Neutral spine isn’t necessarily a singular, static position that your spine never, ever, ever moves from. Neutral spine is a range.

And this is especially true when examining strength/power athletes that are trying to move really heavy things, be very explosive, etc.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper, because I think this entire concept needs a bit of clarification.

Neutral Spine in a Nut Shell

The concept of neutral spine was first introduced to us by Panjabi.

Panjabi had a theory (and yes, this is paraphrased, watered down and bastardized beyond belief), that the spine has a happy, neutral position that it wants to be in. You can read all about it here.

If it’s there, or in its neutral zone, then all is well and good.

The issue is when you stray further and further away from neutral, or get farther and farther away from that zone.

Perhaps a better way to think about it is like this:

There’s an optimal position, a neutral position, that your spine should be in to begin with.

This could also be simply defined as “good” or “optimal” posture, and it requires good alignment, balanced muscle development from front-to-back, side-to-side, etc.

But beyond that neutral position, there’s also a neutral zone.

In other words, there’s some wiggle room that your spine can move in with regards to its movement or motion, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The bad mojo begins when you either:

  1. Have a bad, or sub-optimal starting posture/alignment, or
  2. Stray away, or out of, that neutral zone.

So there’s my recap of a landmark paper in a couple of hundred words. Let’s talk brass tax…

How do we apply this to ourselves, our clients, or our athletes?

I’m glad you asked!

Neutral Spine and the “Corrective” Client

If you train people that need more “corrective” or rehab work, you have to be dialed in in your approach.

In my experience, people that are in pain (or recently coming out of pain) have to be held to stringent, damn near militant standards.

They have to get into a neutral position.

And once there, they have to actually stay there!

If you struggle getting someone into neutral spine, save yourself some time and invest $1 in a piece of PVC pipe as outlined in the above neutral spine video.

It saves you giving them 1,001 cues, and it gives them kinesthetic feedback as well.

But here’s the rub, and where most of us go wrong…

Once you get them to neutral, you have to actually keep them in neutral!

A great example would be performing a simple, low-level exercise like a birddog.

You can do all the hard work getting them into that neutral position, and then totally lose the effectiveness of the exercise if you let them lose it!

Again, if neutral is a “zone” versus one static position, there may be a little variance in their posture or position.

But again, that’s a very narrow window when working with someone that is in, or has recently been in, pain.

The name of the game with this client is stability and control. Put them into your exercise progression (or regression) of choice, and then make sure they are rock solid and stable there.

Here are two pro-tips I always arm new coaches and interns with when they start training clients at IFAST:

  1. Don’t be afraid to reduce load, and
  2. Don’t be afraid to shorten/tighten the range of motion.

Following these two rules, you can often get people into neutral and keep them there on virtually every exercise.

But failure to adhere to these two simple rules can get even the best coach or trainer trouble.

So that covers one end of the spectrum. Now let’s look at the opposite end, and what I really want to talk about today.

Neutral Spine and the Performance Athlete

A point of contention that comes up every time I write a deadlift article…

Someone wants to chime in with their .02, noting that the spine invariably moves to some extent on a maximal deadlift.

And I’m not going to lie, this can be hard to argue.

After all, there are some super strong deadlifters out there that use what I consider to be far less than optimal technique.

And to make my case even more challenging to argue, there are guys that lift this way and have never had a major injury (at least to our knowledge).

So if you’re like me and you feel a more neutral spine position is optimal for not only health and performance, how do we argue our point?

Here’s what I’d say…

First and foremost, neutral spine is not a position that our spine starts in and stays in throughout the course of the lift.

If you watch any maximal effort deadlift, the spine will move to some degree.

If the athlete in question uses a very back dominant deadlift technique, there’s going to be quite a bit of motion.

And sometimes, if it’s a more hip/thigh dominant approach, the movement is going to be more subtle.

But in all these cases, I would say that most good deadlifters, on most of their lifts, stay within their neutral zone.

And if they do leave that neutral zone, it’s for the sake of a maximal effort lift or personal record.

Which brings me to my next point, the difference between “happy spine optimal” and “I’m not blowing a disc” optimal.

Dr. Stuart McGill has talked about this extensively, but perhaps the most injurious position for our spine is end-range spinal flexion.

If we go back to Panjabi, he’s talking about what I’d call “happy spine optimal.” If you want your spine to be happy, and your goal isn’t to break World Records in the deadlift, this is where you need to spend at 99.9% of your training time (and waking life).

On the other hand, if your goal IS to break World Records, or to be the absolute strongest beast in your gym, there’s going to be a little risk involved.

The key here is to at least stay in that “I’m not going to blow a disc” optimal range. Most deadlifters intuitively know where this is, and they’re smart and simply drop the weight when they get out of position.

If you’re not experienced, or not pulling at least 2x bodyweight, don’t even consider doing a full-blown round back deadlift.

Last but not least, you have what I consider to be the N=1 crowd.

And unfortunately, most of us know someone like this.

This is Cro-Magnon man, the guy that lifts like an absolute idiot, never gets injured, and is super strong to boot.

I hate this guy, because he’s also (invariably) the loudest mouth in the gym as well.

Look, this guy isn’t normal. His spine, his psyche, whatever, he is different and not like us.

He can get away with anything and life to tell about it.

While we can look on in awe, that doesn’t mean we need to take his training advice.

Remember my goal:

To keep you lifting as heavy as possible, for as long as possible.

No exceptions.

Summary

To recap, think of neutral spine as a continuum:

The Spine Position Progression

Our ideal starting point is a neutral spinal position. This is determined by our static alignment, and gives us the most wiggle room for both performance and health.

The next stop is our neutral zone. This is a range of postures and positions where our spine can hang out or “stray”, but still be relatively healthy and safe.

Moving forward we have the “I’m not blowing a disc” range. This is definitely gray area, as there’s an increased risk of injury. If your goal is to move maximal weights you’ll have to go here from time to time, but I’d highly suggest minimizing total volume and being smart about this kind of training.

Last but not least, we have that zone where our spine simply says “Eff You Pal!” 

Enter at your own risk.

So there’s my .02 on the topic. Neutral spine is a position, but when training clients and athletes we need to be more focused on keeping them within their neutral zone.

Any questions?

All the best

MR

 

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  • Alexander Paynter

    Very nice post. Never helps to be reminded that our maximum deadlift can be pushed up by high risk form without actually increasing functional strength at all.

    I liked your point about n=1 too. People should also be careful about n=100 or even n=10000. We have to remember that the weight training population is n=100000000 so just because 10,000 people have become strong that way without injuries is still insufficient proof. You’re a lot more likely to hear about every Konstantinov in the world than every guy who ruptured a disc from bad advice.

    Thanks for posting, wish you the best in the new year.

  • RICH

    WHAT IS YOUR THOUGHTS ON FOUNDATION TRAINING. IT TAKES YOU OUT OF NEUTRAL SPINE. I CAN SAY PERSONALY IT WORKS. RICH

    • Mike

      I’m sorry, but I have no idea what foundation training is. Can you provide a link?

  • Charles Bean

    The n=1 individual will still get hurt, given enough time and continued degrading of their soft and hard tissues. They may be more resilient than others, but are still held to the laws of the body.

    As you have a Neutral Spine continuum, I have a Tissue Health continuum that very much resembles the health bar in a fighting video game. Essentially, the first 75-80% is green, and tissues will continue taking punishment with no protest (pain). As time goes on and the degradation continues, the trainee will move into the 81-95% yellow range, where certain movements, ROM, or pressures will cause pain. And then, if proper therapeutic modalities aren’t introduced or adhered to, they may end up in the 95%+ red range, on which they’re in pain all the time. And, just like most things in the body, this is a dynamic, constantly fluctuating situation, where the scales of justice are always taking a reading on what activity is being performed and whether or not it will move us higher into the healthy green area, or deeper into the painful yellow and red areas.

    Great article Mike, I’ve been training this way now for about two years and instinctively applied this approach and never really thought about the difference.

    • Mike

      Very cool idea. I didn’t mention him in the above blog, but Patrick Ward talks about the physiological buffer zone which has a similar outlook.

      Good stuff!

  • Alex

    If only textbooks make visuals like the neutral spinal continuum the world would be a better place…just tell it like it is :-) Great post!

  • Brendan

    Excellent article, Mike. It’s very helpful to hear this, as sometimes I tend to think of there being two dichotomous camps on deadlift technique: those who emphasize neutral spine and those who lift heavy. Obviously that’s not the case, and it’s very helpful to be reminded of the grey area, and extremely helpful to think of neutral spine as a range rather than a static position. Thanks a ton!

    • Mike

      My pleasure Brendan – glad you liked it!

  • http://www.optimalpowerlifting.com Optimal Powerlifting

    Great Article! It seems maintaining a neutral spine is important so the weight is distributed as evenly as possible from discs to discs. Getting out of position tends to increase pressure on each disc.

  • http://www.twitter.com/BenSupik Ben Supik

    Great article, thank you Mike! When trying to approach exercise as a science, I know I can always use a reminder that there are times when there are shades of gray.

    Theoretically speaking, do you feel there is room for a neutral spine zone when it comes to vertebrae rotation on the transverse plane? Or does a loaded spine, even sub maximally, have zero margin for error when it come rotation?

    Thanks again for an excellent read!

    • Mike

      Obviously it’s a sliding scale and depends on loading, but I’d really try and avoid any rotation when lifting heavy things.

  • Andrew

    Very cool post, Mike! The concept of a neutral zone makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve noticed in my deadlift training that I can have some rounding of the back with higher loads and always assumed I was headed down a path of back destruction despite having never experienced any back injury from deadlifts at all. It’s a reassuring concept that I can be my meathead self and not destroy my back with a slight deviation from my “standard” neutral spine position!

  • http://na Chris

    Mike, a ton of guys at my gym powerlift as I know you do too. I’ve never been into PLing myself so I’m not as educated in it. But, I see guys doing these wide stance squats with their feet externally rotated and it doesn’t even look like a squat. To boot they are wrapped head to toe, wear belts, and wear crazy suspenders. My question is, is there any increased risk of squatting that way? And, is there any performance benefit for an athlete to squat that way? Would I as a performance sport coach ever have an athlete squat wide stance, feet externally rotated? It seems to me that is just the way most conducive to load the bar, but doesn’t appear very functional. Can you set me straight from someone who knows PLing. Is there any physiological performance benefit from doing it that way?

  • Jim

    *chuckle* I have to watch myself when training others, because I have a rather unique spine. It’s fixed from S1-L2 thanks to a titanium cage, three artificial discs and a couple of nerve transplants. I still do a lot of lumbar/sacrum/glute/hip stability and mobility work for myself, because the musculature on either end of the cage is where all the stress gets transferred.

  • mike

    Question, my physical therapist and conferred with two other physical therapist and sports orthopedic physican is telling to stop doing deadlifts, it put way too much stess on the back,hip, and my sacrum. I have weak hips and left side of sacrum is weak, they are giving me exercises to strengthen those areas. Sacrum was way of of position and they had to rejust me. They told me you need to near perfect on the form for the deadlift to be useful and not in their mind worth the risk of injury. What do you think?

    • Mike

      I don’t know you or your specific condition, so on that front, I’m not going to comment.

      In general, though? I think they’re full of shit :) Plenty of smart physical therapists realize that deadlifting is teaching you to pick things up off the floor, something you do on a daily basis.

  • Johnny

    To make all 3 points of contact with the PVC pipe, I have to tilt my had back. Obviously, this is not neutral spine! Poor posture as a kid I suppose but now I’m wondering if this can be corrected as an adult?

  • zen

    What the? A $1 pipe? Mike, you’re a bloody genius! I love this and will be using it on a challenging client today.