What Is a "Neutral Spine" and How Can It Benefit Your Workouts?

Doctor pointing to vertebrae in spine
Maintaining a neutral spine during exercise is key to avoiding injuries.

by Cheryl S. Grant

If you've been visiting the gym more often, have met with a personal trainer, or have ever watched a fitness video, you're bound to have heard the term "neutral spine" at some point.

Knowing what a neutral spine looks like (and how to achieve one) is important in order to exercise properly and avoid injury — yet many gym-goers don't fully understand the concept. So, we're here to help!

What Is a Neutral Spine, Exactly?

The spinal column is composed of 33 vertebrae divided into three main regions, the cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), and lumbar (lower), according to Krishn M. Sharma, MD, a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery. "A neutral spine is when all three normal curves are present and when there are no abnormal curves," he says.

So, what are the three normal curves? Your cervical spine should curve slightly inward, your thoracic spine should curve slightly outward, and your lumbar spine should curve slightly inward.

How to Make Sure Your Spine Is Neutral

A fundamental component of maintaining a neutral backbone is having a strong set of core muscles. "It can't be stressed enough how important maintaining your core muscles are when it comes to a healthy back," Dr. Sharma notes. Strong core muscles can help keep your spine naturally aligned, without you having to do much.

To achieve a neutral spine, stand with your back against a wall. While keeping your head, upper back, and tailbone against the wall, you should be able to fit your hand between the wall and your lower back. Don't tuck or tilt your spine — find the space between these positions. In order to do so, push your pelvis all the way forward and all the way backward and then settle in the middle.

Here are a few more tips to help you achieve the correct posture while exercising:

  • Before hitting the gym, search for images online so you can become familiar with what a neutral spine looks like.
  • Do not bend the head forward or backward during your exercise sets.
  • If you're working out in front of a mirror, turn to the side so that you can visually create a reversed and slight "C" shape curve in your lower back.
  • Stay focused and keep your core muscles engaged; this can help your spine naturally fall into the correct position.
     

How Can It Benefit Your Workout?

In order to ensure that you are in control of the weights you're using for strength training — and not the other way around — your body must remain grounded and balanced. "A neutral spine is the strongest position of the spine and it allows the spine to act as a 'spring' to some degree, absorbing forces and distributing them evenly," Dr. Sharma explains.

In other words, your muscles and ligaments are designed to work best in conjunction with a healthy and aligned spine; when you deviate from that position, injuries can occur.

If you are using weights that are the right amount for your fitness level and you are able to keep your backbone in proper alignment without clenching or forcing movement, then you have maximum control. If you don't make an effort to protect your spine, over time, poor form and incorrect posture can contribute to pain and loss of motion, Dr. Sharma says. So, be sure to keep that spine neutral, folks!