Core Strengthening - Creating a Neutral Spine
Creating a strong core is important for a number of reasons:
It prevents injury
It makes our movements more efficient
It can eliminate back pain
It improves balance and stability
It helps us promote optimal posture
However, if we strengthen our core with our bodies in the wrong position it can also cause us issues. So the most important thing we need to know before starting to strengthen our core is how to create an optimal posture which to strengthen!
In terms of the spine we need to reach a neutral spinal alignment.
The spine has 4 sections:
Cervical - Neck
Thoracic - Mid Back
Lumbar - Lower back
Sacrum and Coccyx
Each division is designed to curve a certain way to promote stability and shock absorbing.
The cervical and lumbar spine both have what is called a 'lordotic' curve. They curve forwards giving us an arch in our lower back and neck.
The thoracic spine and sacrum but have kyphotic Curves - most important here is the thoracic as the sacral vertebrae are fused.
In todays society these curves are compromised daily. We spend far too much time sitting, be it at a desk, in the car or on the sofa. Our spinal curves are often merged into a complete C-curve. Our shoulders retract forwards increasing our thoracic kyphosis, our hip flexors tighten leading to an increased lumbar spine lordosis when we eventually stand back up. Most of the time we don't even think about the position we are sitting in. I'm currently sitting on a wonk, legs crossed and rotated to the right - I have quickly adjusted my position!
It's not just sitting but also standing about that can lead to issues with our spinal curves. We rarely stand in a power pose - chest up, weight in both feet, core gently engaged. Instead we droop on to one leg, shoulders forward, pelvis tilted forwards. All these positions put stress on our spine and we need to be aware of this in order to create a better posture.
So what is a neutral spine?
A neutral spine is a position where all the curves are present and in good alignment. When standing, the ear, shoulder and heel are in-line with the spinal sections all maintaining their natural curves.
In sitting this line from the ear to the pelvis should be maintained.
The diagrams above give an idea of a good spinal alignment compared to a poor spinal alignment due to a 'kyphotic' thoracic spine. This is posture I see all too often in clinic due to our lifestyle issues mentioned above.
How do we find our neutral spine?
We will start with correcting your pelvic tilt:
Stand with you hip feet width apart and place your hands so they form a V-shape from your pubic bone to your hip bones
Your hip bones and pubic bone should be in line on a vertical plane.
For most of us with an anterior pelvic tilt, the pubis will feel behind the hip bones - My natural posture below is with an anterior pelvic tilt
To correct this gentle pull in your abs and squeeze your butt to induce a slight posterior tilt until the hip bones and pubis are in line.
If you have a posterior tilt your pubis will feel in front of your hip bones - not as common as an anterior pelvic tilt.
To correct a posterior pelvic tilt gently engage you lower back muscles to tip the pelvis forward slightly. (I clearly find it really hard to induce a posterior pelvic tilt!)
Practice holding this position of your pelvis in neutral.
Next ensure that you shoulders are drawn slightly back and down and that you chest is in neutral. As you pull your shoulder back don't let the ribs and chest flare up - your boobs/pecs should be facing directly forwards not up at the sky or down at the ground! Imagine they are car headlights!
Now think about your ear. Is it inline with your shoulder? If it's in front gently pull the neck tall. Imagine someone is pulling a string through the top of your head as you length your neck and draw your chin back and down. As in my pictures it may not take much moving to create the neutral spine we require but it may feel like its taking a lot of effort!
This is very similar to standing but possibly easier as you have feedback from the floor.
Lying on your back, place you hands as if for standing with your finger tips on your pubic bone and your hands on your hip bones. Again these bones should be in-line but this time in a horizontal plane.
Your lumbar and cervical spine should curve gently away from the mat. Again squeeze your glutes or abs to correct an anterior pelvic tilt and your lower back muscles to correct a posterior pelvic tilt.
Once you have found your neutral pelvis, lengthen you neck along the floor but make sure that it doesn't flatten completely.
You should be able to hold you pelvis in this position with your knees bent up and with your legs straight.
The key now is to practice this whole posture. You can start by just taking regular breaks from your desk to stand in this alignment. Then you need to start doing things in this position. Cleaning your teeth, waiting for the bus, lying in bed. Try taking one leg away - can you keep you balance and maintain your perfect spinal alignment? You will probably feel the need to engage you glutes and abs to control the position - the first step to strengthening that core!
So give this a go and get practicing. We have to practise a lot in order to undo the hours of sitting and slouching we do each day. Now you have established what a neutral spine entails you can head over to my next blog about strengthening the core!