The use of the neutral spine in exercise is nothing new, but it seems to be a hot topic lately (see the meme used in the cover photo for this post) not only in Pilates, but in all areas of fitness - particularly in relation to squatting. I’ll start by introducing my biases: I was taught by classically trained Pilates instructors who did not cue neutral spine and I haven’t ever studied with physiotherapists or the contemporary Pilates method, so I was never taught to cue for the neutral spine. Additionally - my fitness training outside of Pilates, which includes a squatting course, cues for a posterior pelvic tilt. So again - the neutral spine has not been a part of my studies. However, recently I have had classically trained Pilates instructors cue me to find a neutral spine on the reformer for footwork indicating that the concept is trickling into the classical method. This also comes up from time to time in my group fitness classes in relation to squatting, so I decided that this is something I should explore further.
After some research online, the main question I was left with is this : why would the position of the spine at rest be considered an optimal position for exercise and dynamic movement such as Pilates? The spine is composed of a series of articulations between each vertebrae. And from the research I have reviewed (I won’t be citing it here because I’m not trying to write a scientific paper or convince you of anything so it will from now be referred to as “research”) it seems like joints are happiest in movement - even joints affected by osteoarthritis! In the classical Pilates system, the client is taught to safely move the spine through all the possibilities (except for translation) - meaning that flexion, extension, side bending and rotation are all explored ranging from moderate to more extreme movements. The method was designed to help people move through life with greater ease, therefore the natural movements of the spine are not to be avoided. My follow up question then : does the attempt to maintain a neutral spine while moving the limbs, scapular girdle and pelvic girdle negatively restrict the movement of the joints of the spine? And if so, are there times when that would be helpful? I would think that in the early stages of rehabbing from a spinal injury that avoiding the ROM of the vertebral articulations would be a good thing. After trying to research this online, the information I found was inconclusive and all over the place, so I decided to chat with a colleague I trust that is better informed on this topic.
Emily Ranford is a Pilates instructor and contemporary dance artist in Berlin. She has a degree in Dance and studied Pilates extracurricularly. Her studies in both the dance and Pilates program involved the study of anatomy and biomechanics and she learned about the neutral spine in her training. She explained that a neutral spine is defined by the position of the spine in constructive rest in a supine position with the knees bent and the feet on the floor. In this position, the physiological curves of each part of the spine are maintained. To put is simply - the neck is in lordosis, the upper to mid back in kyphosis and the low back in lordosis. This position is considered ideal because the vertebrae are in optimal alignment. But is it appropriate for everyone, always? Emily says that it depends on the person in front of you and on the current state of the curvature of the spine, acute injuries and injury history. Additionally, there is the idea of the neutral pelvis. Emily explained that you find the neutral pelvis from a supine position in which the ASIS and the pubis create a triangle in the same plane. Once the focus switched to the pelvis, this began to feel more familiar for me in terms of what I had learned in my classical Pilates training.
Whether or not to use the neutral spine while performing footwork on the reformer seems to be the hottest topic for the neutral spine in the pilates world. Emily cues for a neutral spine when she teaches leg and footwork because it deepens the hip sockets and lengthens the front of the pelvis so the streaming of the psoas can work effectively, and aid hip disassociation. That then gives access to true hamstring stretch exercises like scissors or feet in straps and benefits the whole myofascial chain through the superficial back line. I totally agree, but to maintain the neutral spine, the headpiece would need to be down. This practice may be common in contemporary Pilates, but my understanding is that footwork is traditionally taught with the headpiece up, meaning that cervical flexion is initiated and therefore the neutral spine would be immediately lost here. Emily and I agreed that the intention here was likely to encourage the slight lumbar flexion - or what can be referred to as the “scoop” in classical Pilates. And to this point, it is being shown in the “research” that it is actually impossible to avoid lumbar flexion when going into hip flexion as we do in a squat. There is even some “research” indicating that the lumbar flexion protects the spine in these movements. Additionally, in the literature written by Joseph Pilates - he is very clear that each part of the spine should be in contact with the ground for the supine position, further demonstrating that he likely didn’t primarily cue for what has now come to be known as the neutral spine. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t ever taught by him. In fact, a lot of what Emily described and what I have experienced when taking mat classes taught by contemporary Pilates teachers, reminds me of pre-Pilates exercises. Whether the pre Pilates exercises were originally created by Joseph Pilates or not is another question, but they are taught in classical training. Not only do I not employ these enough in my studio, but I get the idea that not many classical instructors do. In my training, I was taught to get people on the reformer straight away and we only use pre Pilates exercises with people that were injured and weak. I think that these exercises often get ignored for the otherwise healthy client and I think this is a possible mistake. Starting with pre Pilates exercises and teaching the student how to stabilize their spine before they move it is highly important and valuable. I would argue that most clients in the classical studio end up having to go back and get reeducated on this because it isn’t established well in the beginning. Conversely, I would argue that most clients in the contemporary studio get stuck in the stabilization of the spine and never learn how to safely move into dynamic flexion, extension, sidebending and rotation. And back to some of the “research”, I have heard that there is no evidence that long term spinal stability exercises are helpful for chronic back pain.
While I’m being critical of my Pilates studies, I want to point out that if I hadn’t educated myself on anatomy and biomechanics separate from my classical training, I wouldn’t have been able to have so much fun speaking to Emily about Pilates in universal anatomical and biomechanical terms despite our different backgrounds with the method. While I don’t think that having a deep understanding of anatomy and biomechanics will make you a better quality instructor (in fact, I think it could be a hindrance when you get stuck in one way of thinking and are focused on “perfect form” - as if that is something that can be attained or defined), I do think it is important knowledge to help bridge the gap of understanding between contemporary and classical trainings or between the Pilates method and the rest of the health and wellness/fitness industry in general. Why this gets ignored in most classical Pilates programs is highly mysterious to me because it seems like Joseph Pilates valued anatomical studies. Then again, given what I’ve been reading in the newer “research” that is coming out - it does seem like the general rule is to just move, so maybe having an understanding of anatomy and biomechanics isn’t all that important unless you want to have nerdy conversations with your colleagues. I feel like Emily and I could have discussed this for days. She agrees that you don't have to be an anatomy buff to be a great teacher - It's about developing an eye for movement patterns, flows, blockages or overflows and qualities throughout a whole body, with a good intrinsic intuition of the anatomy.
At one point in our conversation, Emily started describing a concept of three spheres of weight that she learned from her teacher. This is something accessible to all trainers and clients, regardless of anatomical and biomechanical understanding and I personally find it easier to apply to dynamic movement than the neutral spine. In Emily’s words : “The three spheres are the head, the thorax and the pelvis, which are the three dense and heavy centres of the torso. The spine connects the three, and the movement of any one of these centres of weight takes effect on the alignment of the spine. Each sphere should ideally be stacked up right on top of each other to enable the most easeful and balanced posture in a neutral standing or sitting position. The stacking of the spheres enables an even weight distribution that supports the curvature of the spine (which we need of course for shock absorption and dynamic stability). The graphics for the spheres are tactile and/or imaginary circular pathways traced over each sphere to encourage the body to understand the energetic direction of each one to achieve a more optimal state of balance. This touch or image speaks to the activation or release of the supporting muscles and the positioning of the bones. Circles are continuous in nature and so these actions also become continuous in their embodiment, serving as a natural and easeful method of moving the body into alignment, understanding how things relate biomechanically, and projecting into movement. Here is a simple version: The pelvis draws up the front, and falls down the back. The thorax softens down the front and floats up the back of the body. The face softens down the front and draws diagonally back up and around from the base of the skull. Or with a bit more detail: The pelvic graphic draws up the front from the ASIS/pubic symphysis, over the iliac crests and brushes down the back of the pelvis, around the sides with a brush forward around/below the level or the greater trochanters and out into the space in front (propelling into motion). As a grounding force, the circle could also be imagined to continue into a line drawing down from the sitz bones down into the fronts of the heels and into the earth. The thoracic graphic softens down the breastbone, traces the lower ribs down and around to the back, brushing up to float the ribs up the back, over the shoulders, returning to the centre of the breastbone, then draw the line out in front (projecting forward). The sphere of the head is traced down the middle of the face from the crown, over the nose, lips and chin, circling backwards under the chin towards the throat to the base of the skull, brushing up around the back of the skull and into the space above the head, drawing the brain backward and upward into a line extending up from the crown (marionette string). When all three graphics are embodied simultaneously it creates a tensile state of axial elongation.
While I’m not sold on cueing for a neutral spine when practicing the classical Pilates method because I still feel confused about how to describe this well - I do want to keep exploring this concept and I feel like working with the three spheres of weight is a great place to start. Big thanks to Emily for chatting with me and for introducing this lovely concept and for the prompt it gave to start smaller with my clients to create a solid foundation! You can find out more about Emily, her services and her performances here: www.emilyranford.com