There’s a cardinal rule in fitness that ought to be more of a ‘great debate.’ And while it’s a rule that improves safety and limit strength, there may be greater tradeoffs to neutral spine than your average fitness trainer lets on.
So how do we frame this debate when every certified trainer in the world is taught to pass on the pillar of neutral spine in all movements, while those who teach elite human performance insist on weighted movements that articulate the spine one vertebrae as preparation for elite, functional patterns and the full expression of strength?
Trainers say neutral spine is a must to protect the back…
Elite performance coaches say full, loaded articulation is a must to fortify the back…
What the hell do we make of this?
Is neutral spine, with the deadlift as quintessential example of structured movement, an indelible truth or a noble lie?
The Noble Lie
The noble lie is the notion that sometimes, a small fib can be employed for the sake of social cohesion, unity, or even the preservation of the common good. It's like a sprinkle of sweetener on a bitter truth, aiming to foster stability and prevent chaos. It's a bit like a magician's trick—manipulating reality just enough to keep the show running smoothly.
The origin of the noble lie dates back to the philosopher Plato, who weaved the idea into his masterpiece "The Republic." Plato imagined a fictional society where a select few guardians ruled with wisdom and a gentle touch. To maintain order, he proposed the noble lie as a necessary tool.
In Plato's "The Republic," the noble lie was an integral part of the city's governance, which he believed should be ruled by philosopher-kings. To maintain social order and ensure everyone embraced their role in society, Plato proposed the division of citizens into three distinct classes or castes.
Firstly, there were the rulers or guardians, comprised of philosopher-kings and queens. These enlightened beings possessed exceptional wisdom and governed with the utmost benevolence. They were considered the intellectual and moral compass of society.
Secondly, there were the auxiliaries, also known as the warrior class. These individuals were responsible for protecting the city and upholding its laws. They possessed physical strength and courage and were meant to be fierce defenders of the state.
Lastly, there were the producers, the working class of the city. They engaged in various occupations, such as farming, craftsmanship, and trade, contributing to the economic prosperity of the society. They were expected to be obedient and devoted to their roles.
Plato proposed that all citizens would be told a fictional tale about their creation, emphasizing that they each had a predetermined place within society. The rulers would be described as having gold within their souls, symbolizing their innate wisdom and capacity for governance. The warriors would be portrayed as having silver within their souls, representing their courage and protective nature. And the producers would be depicted as having bronze or iron within their souls, highlighting their strength and industriousness.
The purpose of this noble lie was to instill a sense of duty and acceptance within each individual, as they would believe their position in society was preordained and beneficial for the collective well-being. It aimed to discourage ambition and discontent, promoting harmony and stability within the city.
From Deadlift (Neutral Spine) to the Jefferson curl (Living Spine)
In the realm of fitness, the deadlift stands tall as the most powerful biomechanical exercise, celebrated for its ability to build elite strength and develop the posterior chain. It focuses on lifting heavy loads from the ground with a neutral spine, adhering to principles of stability and power.
The deadlift is the embodiment of the noble lie of neutral spine, promoting a strong and safe movement pattern by removing the ‘free play’ of spinal flexion. By engaging the core, activating the glutes and hamstrings, and maintaining proper alignment, the deadlift offers significant benefits. It enhances overall strength, improves grip strength, strengthens connective tissue, and develops hip mobility and stability. It's a testament to the value of lifting with intention, and for that reason, is not only one of three exercises in powerlifting competitions, it’s also one of only a few strength metrics in the Weightlessness mind-body assessment.
On the other side of our metaphorical coin, we have the Jefferson curl—a less celebrated exercise that challenges conventional notions of spinal alignment. Coach Cristopher Sommer, gymnastics coach, has said on many occasion that the Jefferson Curl - which involves rounding the spine deliberately, creating a flexed position from the neck to the lower back - is perhaps the single most valuable exercise in fortifying the spine and producing elite performance capability.
By gradually lengthening the spine from a standing position, this exercise aims to improve flexibility, promote decompression of the spinal discs, and enhance body awareness. It challenges the idea that a rigidly straight spine is always the pinnacle of functionality.
However, it's crucial to approach the Jefferson curl with caution. This exercise places stress on the spine in a flexed position, which can be risky for individuals with pre-existing spinal issues or insufficient core strength. It requires careful progression, focusing on controlled movement and appropriate loads.
So, in comparing the deadlift and the Jefferson curl, we encounter a tale of two exercises, each with its advantages and disadvantages. The deadlift embodies the noble lie of neutral spine, emphasizing stability, power, and adherence to a strong movement pattern. It targets the posterior chain and is well-suited for building strength safely.
On the other hand, the Jefferson curl reveals a hidden truth—a departure from the conventional notion of spinal alignment. It explores controlled spinal flexion, promoting flexibility and decompression. However, it requires caution and careful progression to mitigate the potential risks associated with spinal flexion.
But… let’s reiterate the obvious - spines flex. They are built to articulate incrementally, and move with power in the real world. There’s something right yet horribly wrong about the premise of neutral spine (if it dominates method), because there are no such rules for human movement, and there are no straight lines in nature.
There Are No Straight Lines in Nature
Straight lines, as geometric concepts, aren’t found in the natural world. Natural forms and structures exhibit curves, irregular shapes, and organic patterns rather than perfectly straight lines.
In nature, the forces and processes that shape the world often lead to the creation of complex and intricate patterns. These patterns arise from various factors such as growth, movement, environmental conditions, and evolutionary adaptations. Some examples include the branching patterns of trees, the winding course of rivers, the shapes of seashells, the patterns on animal fur or skin, and the intricate veins in leaves.
The absence of straight lines in nature can be attributed to several factors:
- Growth and Adaptation: Living organisms, including plants and animals, grow and adapt in response to their environment. Their growth processes often result in the development of curved or irregular shapes, enabling them to maximize their functionality or efficiency.
- Forces and Constraints: Natural processes like gravity, wind, water flow, and other environmental factors exert forces on objects and surfaces. These forces can cause deformation, erosion, or movement, resulting in the formation of curved or irregular shapes rather than straight lines.
- Fractals and Self-similarity: Fractals are geometric patterns that exhibit self-similarity at different scales. Many natural phenomena, such as coastlines, clouds, and mountain ranges, display fractal-like patterns. These intricate patterns often lack straight lines and instead consist of recurring irregular shapes and curves.
- Chaotic Systems: Nature is full of complex and chaotic systems, such as turbulent flows or the growth of plants. These systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions and can lead to unpredictable and irregular patterns, often devoid of straight lines.
The human body is a byproduct of these same factors and forces spanning millions of years of evolutionary history. We weren’t built in the cages of modern gyms, but out there, sprinting, fighting, climbing, swimming, and building. Our bodies were built through adaptation… to adapt. To mold. To perform.
But it the presence of unpredictable forces, controlled and confined movement generates more predictable, and possibly safer, outcomes. Straight lines offer simplicity, symmetry, and ease of construction, making them useful in architecture, engineering, and supporting novice trainees learning to move heavier loads without breaking their backs.
It’s MUCH harder to coach liberated movement (dance, gymnastics, martial arts) than it is heavily confined patterns found in basic weight training.
But there are some movers who reject the noble lie of neutral spine outright, and embrace the uncertainty of the world outside the gym from the onset.
From Plato to MovNat
If you’ve seen humans swinging through trees like apes, carrying giant logs through the forest, swimming in the ocean, or throwing spears, you may have seen people practicing Movnat - a fitness system and physical education method that stands for "Natural Movement." It emphasizes practical and functional movements inspired by the way humans naturally move in their environment. And while many of the underlying principles make perfect sense when considering real world movement demands, you’ll notice neutral spine isn’t on the list.
The underlying principles of MovNat include:
- Natural Movement: MovNat focuses on developing movement skills that are inherently natural to human beings. It emphasizes movements such as running, crawling, jumping, climbing, balancing, lifting, carrying, throwing, and catching. These movements are based on our evolutionary heritage and are considered essential for human well-being.
- Efficiency and Effectiveness: MovNat aims to develop movement abilities that are efficient and effective in various real-world situations. It emphasizes optimizing movement patterns to improve overall physical performance, energy efficiency, and adaptability.
- Environmental Awareness: MovNat promotes an awareness of the natural environment and encourages participants to interact with it in a responsible and respectful manner. It encourages individuals to explore and engage with their surroundings, enhancing their connection to nature.
- Progressive Skill Development: MovNat follows a progressive approach to skill development. It starts with mastering basic movements and progressively builds upon them to develop more complex and challenging skills. This approach allows individuals to gradually improve their movement capacity and adaptability.
- Practical Application: MovNat focuses on practical application and transferability of movement skills to real-life situations. The goal is to develop physical competence that can be applied in a wide range of activities and environments, such as sports, outdoor pursuits, and everyday life.
- Mind-Body Connection: MovNat recognizes the importance of the mind-body connection and promotes mindfulness and body awareness during movement practice. It encourages individuals to be fully present and attentive to their movement experiences, fostering a deeper understanding of their body's capabilities and limitations.
Whether MovNat is relevant for all people is a moot point, it paints a portrait of man/woman in relationship to a world with no straight lines, no hard rules, and the need for attention, sensitivity, adaptability, and natural movement. It tells a modern story of bodies molded by chaos, and the approach needed to activate strength, health, and movement in accordance with natural human movement.
So we know that neutral spine is a lie, and that there are approaches that honor natural human movement. Why then should we appease mass delusion and perpetuate a model of development that aims to limit, rather than liberate, free movement?
The Noble Lie of Fitness is Still Noble
A lie told for the greater good, like Plato’s Republic, may be deceptive, but it may also save people from themselves.
As someone with decades in fitness, and 15+ years coaching professionally, neutral spine is a lie that I too have propagated. As we age, the bendable, squishy, adaptable bodies we sport as chubby babies tighten, tone, and rigidify. As this transition takes place, for those who don’t actively train, stretch, and play, movements that ought to be natural, human, and health enhancing become more and more dangerous.
This is a point worth hitting hard. The very same movements - those that might take an athlete for great to elite - might also take someone from average to disabled. It has less to do with the movement itself, and more to do with the condition of the mind-body, and the relative degree of intensity / stress.
Where a five year old could likely adopt skills and mechanics that mobilize the spine - full forward bend, Jefferson curl, back bend, etc. - someone turning their life around in their thirties or forties may be risking long-term damage due to years of isolated movement mechanics and a lack of strength and mobility.
If said individual was willing to put two hours a day, every day, for two to three years into their mind-body growth, than a slow, progressive approach that designs functional mobility and integrated strength may very well be the best approach. But it would take that much time, just as gymnastics athletes train daily for years to activate deeper performance potentials.
When someone can allocate only an hour a day, a few days a week, for a few months under supervision, and then transitions into solo maintenance, then priorities of safety, practical, daily function, and speed of adaptation take precedent over mobility and control optimization.
And to expedite these adaptations, resistance, or load, is required. And…
…Load is Unforgiving
Neutral spine is often emphasized as a general rule when load is applied during exercises or activities for several reasons:
- Spinal Stability: Maintaining a neutral spine position helps provide optimal stability to the spine when load is applied. It allows for even distribution of forces throughout the vertebrae, discs, and surrounding musculature. This stability helps minimize excessive stress and strain on the spine, reducing the risk of injury during activities that involve heavy loads or external forces.
- Load Distribution: Neutral spine alignment helps facilitate proper load distribution along the spine and its supporting structures. When the spine is aligned in a neutral position, the load is evenly distributed among the vertebrae, discs, and surrounding muscles. This balanced distribution helps prevent localized excessive loading on specific spinal segments, reducing the risk of compression, shearing, or other injuries.
- Force Transmission: Maintaining a neutral spine alignment allows for efficient transmission of forces through the kinetic chain. When load is applied, forces generated by the muscles can flow smoothly through the spine, enabling effective transfer of power and force production. This optimal force transmission helps enhance performance and reduces the likelihood of compensatory movements or energy leaks.
- Spinal Integrity: The neutral spine position helps maintain the natural curves of the spine, including the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar curves. These curves act as shock absorbers and provide structural integrity to the spine. By preserving these natural curves through neutral spine alignment, the spine can better withstand external loads and forces, promoting long-term spinal health.
- Control and Technique: Neutral spine alignment enhances body control and technique during exercises involving load. It promotes proper alignment of the joints, including the hips, shoulders, and knees, facilitating optimal biomechanics and movement patterns. This control and technique allow for more efficient force production and reduce the risk of compensatory movements or poor form that may lead to injury.
While maintaining a neutral spine is generally recommended during load-bearing activities, it's important to note that the degree of neutrality may vary depending on the specific exercise, individual factors, and functional requirements.
The emphasis on neutral spine when load is applied helps provide spinal stability, optimal load distribution, efficient force transmission, spinal integrity, and better control and technique. These factors contribute to a reduced risk of injury and improved performance during activities involving external loads… so long as those activities don’t dramatically differ from the movement patterns practiced in training.
And that’s the rub. Capacity to structure one’s frame against external loads may be dramatically improved through strength and resistance training while adhering to rule of neutral spine. But what if the real world requires functional patterns that lie outside of those confined movement patterns we focus on in training?
A Gain in Capacity is a Loss of Function | A Performance Dilemma
Neutral spine is emphasized for its potential to develop capacity, such as strength and stability, but it may not always translate to functional movement patterns outside of specific exercises. Here's a breakdown of why this is the case:
- Capacity Development: Neutral spine exercises focus on creating a stable and aligned position for the spine. By engaging the core muscles and maintaining proper alignment, these exercises can enhance strength, stability, and endurance of the muscles surrounding the spine. This capacity development can be valuable within the context of specific exercises, like heavy lifting or activities that require a stable base of support.
- Context-Specificity: While neutral spine exercises can build capacity, it's important to recognize that movement in real-life situations is rarely limited to a rigidly neutral alignment. Functional movements involve a wide range of dynamic and varied patterns, including bending, twisting, reaching, and reacting to external forces. Restricting oneself to a strictly neutral spine position in all activities may limit the body's ability to adapt and move naturally, potentially hindering functional performance.
- Natural Movement Patterns: Our bodies are designed to move with inherent mobility and flexibility in the spine. Natural movement patterns involve the ability to flex, extend, rotate, and laterally bend the spine to accommodate different activities and environments. Neglecting these natural movement capabilities in favor of strict neutral spine alignment can overlook the functional demands of daily life and athletic endeavors.
- Dynamic Stability and Control: Functional movement requires not only stability but also dynamic stability and control. The ability to stabilize the spine in various positions, adapt to changing environments, and react to external forces is crucial for functional performance. Overemphasizing a static neutral spine position may limit the development of dynamic stability and control, which are essential for real-world movements.
To optimize functional movement, it's important to strike a balance between capacity development through neutral spine exercises and the integration of varied movement patterns that reflect real-life demands. Incorporating exercises that allow for controlled spinal flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral bending can help develop a broader range of functional capacities, including mobility, adaptability, and coordination.
Remember, while neutral spine exercises can contribute to capacity development, the ultimate goal is to enhance overall functionality in the real world or in select performance arts, which involves embracing the body's natural movement potential and training for diverse real-life movement challenges.
If we want to learn to perform well in the real world, the spine must learn to articulate.
The Spine Must Learn to Articulate
In You’re as Young as Your Spine is Flexible I discussed the critical importance of developing and maintaining a flexible spine - that the stiffening of the body is perhaps the most relevant sign of biological aging we have, and the more we prioritize mobility, the younger we remain.
This is an old Yoga principle that ought to be an everywhere principle. It takes no more effort than observing a five year old next to a seventy year old and taking note of differences in vigor, mobility, and fluidity of movement. What we’re not often taught, outside of select mind-body crafts, is that we have a say in the health and mobility of our spines, and can work toward said flexibility well into our later years.
And when we do, we reverse the structural symptoms of aging.
Spine articulation, or the ability to move and articulate the spine in different planes and directions, is highly relevant and important for several reasons:
- Functional Movement: The spine is involved in almost all of our daily movements, from bending and twisting to reaching and rotating. Spine articulation allows us to perform these movements with ease, efficiency, and without restrictions. It enables us to perform functional tasks, such as lifting objects, playing sports, or even simple activities like tying shoelaces, with greater freedom and range of motion.
- Spinal Health and Mobility: Regular spine articulation exercises help maintain and improve spinal health and mobility. The spine is designed to move in multiple directions, including flexion (forward bending), extension (backward bending), lateral flexion (side bending), and rotation. By actively engaging in exercises that promote spine articulation, we can preserve the natural range of motion of the spine, prevent stiffness, and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal issues or chronic pain associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
- Core Strength and Stability: Spine articulation exercises often engage the core muscles, including the deep stabilizing muscles of the abdomen and back. These exercises promote the activation and coordination of these muscles, leading to improved core strength and stability. A strong and stable core not only supports the spine but also enhances overall movement efficiency, balance, and posture.
- Postural Alignment: Spine articulation exercises can help correct postural imbalances and promote proper alignment of the spine. Many individuals spend prolonged periods in positions that may lead to poor posture, such as sitting at a desk or hunching over electronic devices. By incorporating spine articulation exercises, we can counteract these effects, lengthen tight muscles, strengthen weak muscles, and encourage a more balanced and aligned spine.
- Body Awareness and Mind-Body Connection: Practicing spine articulation exercises enhances body awareness and the mind-body connection. By focusing on the movement of each vertebra and paying attention to the sensations in the spine, we develop a deeper understanding of our bodies. This increased awareness allows us to detect and correct movement compensations, improve proprioception, and move with more precision and control.
Spine articulation is relevant and important for maintaining spinal health, enhancing functional movement, promoting core strength and stability, improving posture, and cultivating a stronger mind-body connection. Incorporating spine articulation exercises into our fitness routines or daily activities is not only a good idea, but a necessity, if we care to retain the functional capacity of our younger selves.
From Jefferson Curl to Uttanasana
The Jefferson curl and rolling spine mechanics in yoga are both examples of controlled spinal flexion that challenge the conventional notion of spinal alignment. They both offer unique benefits that neutral spine exercises cannot provide.
In yoga, rolling spine mechanics are commonly used when transitioning from a forward fold to standing position. This involves rounding the spine as you gradually rise up, allowing the vertebrae to move sequentially and fluidly, rather than simply straightening the spine. This movement provides an excellent opportunity to explore spinal mobility, especially in the upper back and neck.
Rolling spine mechanics promote a deeper connection between the mind and body, improving body awareness and proprioception. It allows the spine to move in ways that are often neglected in day-to-day life, and, sadly, most fitness trainers would cringe if they saw a client lift or place a weight with those very mechanics.
The Jefferson curl involves deliberate spinal flexion while gradually lengthening the spine. It encourages the gradual rounding of the spine from the neck to the lower back. This controlled movement requires focus and engagement of the core and the deep muscles of the back, promoting overall stability and strength.
Both the Jefferson curl and rolling spine mechanics in yoga offer benefits that neutral spine exercises cannot provide.
By exploring controlled spinal flexion, these movements promote greater spinal mobility and flexibility. They improve body awareness and proprioception, helping individuals to move more mindfully and with greater ease.
However, it's essential to approach these exercises with caution, especially if you have pre-existing spinal issues or lack core strength. Careful progression and controlled movement are essential to minimize the risks associated with spinal flexion. But if one determines to undertake that path, their back is damn near indestructible.
Bulletproofing the Back
The techniques of rolling spine mechanics in yoga and the Jefferson curl, while different in execution, can contribute to fortifying the spine and back by developing several key capacities. Let's explore these capacities and how they contribute to the resilience of the spine and back:
- Spinal Mobility: Both rolling spine mechanics and the Jefferson curl encourage controlled spinal flexion, which improves the overall mobility of the spine. By intentionally exploring different ranges of motion, these exercises help to maintain and enhance the flexibility of the vertebrae and surrounding soft tissues. Increased spinal mobility can prevent stiffness, reduce the risk of injury, and enhance overall movement capabilities.
- Flexibility: These techniques focus on elongating and stretching the muscles and connective tissues along the spine and back. The controlled flexion in rolling spine mechanics and the gradual rounding in the Jefferson curl can target the deep muscles of the back, hamstrings, and posterior chain. Improved flexibility reduces muscle imbalances, enhances posture, and allows for greater ease of movement.
- Core Strength and Stability: Both techniques engage the core muscles, including the deep muscles of the abdomen and the back. Maintaining stability throughout the movements requires activation and control of these core muscles. Strengthening the core provides support to the spine and back, improving overall stability, reducing the risk of injury, and enhancing functional movement patterns.
- Body Awareness and Proprioception: Rolling spine mechanics and the Jefferson curl promote a heightened sense of body awareness and proprioception. These exercises require focused attention and control over spinal movement, facilitating a deeper connection between the mind and body. Improved body awareness can help individuals better understand and respond to the demands placed on their spines, making them more conscious of their posture, alignment, and movement patterns.
- Postural Alignment: Both techniques emphasize the proper alignment of the spine during movement. By actively rounding and flexing the spine, individuals become more attuned to their postural habits and imbalances. Regular practice can help correct poor posture, encourage a more neutral alignment, and promote a healthier spinal position in everyday activities.
While the benefits of rolling spine mechanics extend beyond simply "bulletproofing" the spine, they can contribute to the overall resilience and health of the back. By improving spinal mobility, flexibility, core strength, body awareness, and postural alignment, these techniques help fortify the spine and enhance its ability to withstand the demands of daily activities and physical challenges.
It's important to note that these exercises should be approached with caution and proper technique to minimize the risk of injury, especially for individuals with pre-existing spinal conditions. Professional oversight and methodical instruction can make the difference between bulletproofing the back, and slipping a disk. Of all mechanics to do under supervision, this may be the single most important.
But it we can alleviate the risk of spinal injury by fortifying the back, and activate greater spinal control and articulation, we can begin to introduce performance capabilities that are otherwise dormant in more rigid bodies.
A Living Spine Transfers Power | On Irradiation of Power
Neutral spine prioritizes a stable and aligned spinal position. It has key merits merits in certain contexts, as we’ve discussed, but it can potentially impede dynamic power and coordination in certain movements. Here's why:
- Restriction of Natural Movement: The pursuit of maintaining a rigidly neutral spine may restrict the natural movement patterns of the spine. In dynamic activities that require rotational or bending movements, such as throwing, twisting, or agile movements, the spine needs to be able to move dynamically and adaptively. Restricting these natural movements by strictly adhering to neutral spine can hinder the body's ability to generate power and perform coordinated actions.
- Reduced Elastic Energy Transfer: The spine acts as a conduit for transmitting and transferring elastic energy throughout the body during dynamic movements. This energy transfer is vital for generating power and enhancing performance. In a strictly neutral spine position, the natural elastic properties of the spine may be limited, potentially compromising the efficiency of energy transfer. This can lead to a decrease in dynamic power output and coordination.
- Impaired Muscle Activation Patterns: Dynamic movements often require the coordinated activation of multiple muscles working together to generate power and control movement. Strictly maintaining neutral spine alignment can disrupt the natural muscle activation patterns needed for dynamic coordination. Muscles that should be dynamically engaged and synchronized may become inhibited or underutilized, leading to a suboptimal power output and reduced coordination.
- Lack of Adaptability: A rigid adherence to neutral spine may limit the body's ability to adapt to different movement challenges and environments. In dynamic activities that involve uneven surfaces, changing directions, or unpredictable forces, the spine needs to respond and adapt to maintain stability and coordination. Emphasizing neutral spine alone may overlook the need for flexibility, adaptability, and reactive responses, which are crucial for optimal dynamic power and coordination.
While neutral spine has its place in certain exercises and situations, it should not be considered the only "correct" or functional spinal alignment for all movements. Recognizing the dynamic nature of the body and the context-specific requirements of different activities is key.
It’s important to note there are almost NO movement patterns in real life, outside of lifting very heavy things symmetrically, for which neutral spine is even used. Throwing a baseball, performing a jump kick, rolling and flipping, climbing, etc., and just about any other natural movement you can conceive, is not performed by blocking out sections of the body, but is enhanced through natural, fluid coordination that irradiates power through an articulated spine.
In sum, incorporating exercises and movements that allow for controlled spinal flexion, extension, and rotation, alongside the practice of neutral spine, can help develop the necessary dynamic power and coordination. This balanced approach acknowledges the importance of both stability and adaptability, enabling the body to perform optimally in a wide range of dynamic activities.
Just remember, there are no straight lines in nature.