I always hear people preaching about having a neutral spine position as often as possible is necessary injury prevention. Yet none of them can explain what exactly a neutral spine position is or if the spine can safely do anything else. The reason is that they have given into the fear that flexion, extension and even rotation to a degree is dangerous for the spine. These movements lead to disc herniation, spinal tears, disc failure in addition to other injuries. There is some degree of truth behind this, but it depends on two variants vertebrae ageing and compression/ load. Since ageing is a vast topic, this post will focus on load and spinal flexion to educate and alleviate unnecessary fear.
The lumbar spine has four major functions; flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion. Each of these functions has a safe range of motion that we measure in degrees. According to a 2018 post by Sam Spinelli, 40 – 50° of flexion, 15-20° extension, 5-7° rotation and 20° of lateral flexion are safe for the lumbar spine. There are some limitations with flexion because of soft tissue tension. The rest is a factor of the same notion or bony approximation. Genetics will play a role here in terms of the exact range of motion measurements.
That said, you can start to see that the region has some safe mobility rather than thinking most movements are harmful. Even if the exact degrees is slightly over your head, knowing about them should remove some fear.
In an everyday setting or low load setting, studies prove that a neutral spine is prone to injuries similar to a flexed one. A 2010 article by Veres et al that compares vertebrae failure vs endplate failure of the lumbar spine in a neutral or seven degree flexed position shows that when put under impulse pressure a neutral spine position is worse. In an everyday setting, this test would mimic tripping backwards onto your butt or placing a heavy barbell on the shoulders.
The focus on flexion here comes from daily tasks like picking an item up off the floor, bending over to clean something, sitting in a chair with some extension or flexion. I use low load as the descriptor for everyday tasks because for most people lifting heavy objects does not happen every day. For this post, heavy means 70% or less of your bodyweight. Thus, showing there is no need to be overly fearful of spinal position daily.
Furthermore, the ability to have a flexible spine equals having a young lumbar spine vs a stiff as an old one. Since the lumbar spine has specific ranges of motion that everyone should be able to achieve without pain.
In terms of weightlifting, physical rehab and other body enhancement methods, the gold standard is a neutral spine position. During these activities, the lumbar spine is under high load. In some cases, this is not true, but for the most part, it is. Yet, the term neutral spine position is too definitive and needs an update. I say this because a neutral spine varies from exercise to exercise. Therefore, saying neutral spine zone or range is more fitting because in a squat there is lumbar flexion, similar to good mornings. In both scenarios, the flexion is not more than 50° which we know is the average safe max.
That said if we stick to neutral spine position, it would have to be specific to standing upright vs various sporting/training techniques. I believe doing this adds to the fear of spinal injury that looms over society right now. Furthermore, opening up the topic to way more debate than necessary.
After reading this brief post, I am sure you can see now that a neutral spine range is not always optimal and is situation-specific. Furthermore, allowing flexion, extension and rotation of the lumbar spine can be healthy.
However, if you are still a little uneasy give these safety tips a try.
- stand close to the object you are about to lift
- bend a the knees first instead of at the waist/hips
- Hold the object close to you rather than away
- Use your legs to drive upward instead of hips or lower back