Keep a neutral spine they said…

Stand up tall, keep your back straight!

Don’t slouch, don’t bend and for goodness sakes, keep your shoulder back!

Boy… they couldn’t have been more wrong.

While well intentioned, like many health messages, in reality, this advice isn’t all that functional.

This black and white approach is actually incredibly misleading and is all too often taken at face value and applied blindly.

As a result, many people around the world perform their exercises with meticulous attention to their posture with the aim of ensuring a perfectly neutral spine position at all times – all the while creating more dysfunction than ever!

The advice that broke our backs

It’s important to start with the caveat that there is absolutely a time and place for keeping your spine neutral. And it’s certainly better than having no regard for technique at all!

However, the idea that all movement must be done with a perfectly upright torso, shoulders pulled back and down and your chest lifted high and proud, is rigid, outdated, and frankly, damaging a lot of people’s ability to move.

It can be a hard pill to swallow, especially if this is advice you’ve been proudly following for many years – which is the case for a lot of the people that enter Aspen for the first time!

Back to back with fear

Despite years of focusing on your posture, sitting up tall at work, perhaps even using a Swiss ball or a stand up desk, your body is still stiff and you don’t know why. You’re often sore but you put it down to training DOMS (delayed onset of muscular soreness) or needing to be more diligent about keeping your back straight.

When people arrive on our doorstep, one of the first things we ask them to do is move their spine.

A lot of the time we are met with fear, uncertainty, dysfunction or simply no coordination to do so.

Guarding movement behaviours have become the norm to protect from pain and to protect from the sincere belief that it would be harmful to move the spine in the ways we’re suggesting.

The spines have it

Sometimes it’s important to go back to basics and to consider the underlying structure of a thing to better understand it – starting with the difference between bones and joints.

Take the bone in your thigh – the thick femur. The bone itself is not designed to move or bend.

But the joints above and below it – the hip and the knee – are designed specifically to enable movement. These two joints create the intersection between the bones in our legs that allow us to move them.

That’s because joints are designed for movement.

Would it surprise you to learn then, that your spine is a column of 24 bones, 23 soft discs and 364 Joints?

The takeaway? Your spine is designed to move!

Tell me more about this joint

Not all joints are created equal. The human body is made up of multiple different types of joints which all allow for varying degrees of movement or stability within our structure.

Lets nerd out for a second and dissect the 3 classifications of joints:

  • Synarthrosis Joints – Immobile or nearly immobile joints such as the joints in the skull. Purpose of these joints is to provide protection to our organs.
  • Amphiarthrosis Joints – Slightly moveable joints such as the vertebrae in our spinal column. They allow for absorption and movement while ensuring integrity and structure is retained.
  • Diathrosis Joints – Freely moveable joints such as our limbs; shoulders, elbows, fingers, hips, knees etc. These joints are able to move freely in various planes.

The only way to nourish a joint and to improve its health is with synovial fluid, oxygenated blood and to pump lymphatic fluid through to remove toxins.

And the only way to achieve that is through moving the joint.

Keeping it stiff and restricted only leads to more stiffness and restriction

The spine craves movement 

Your spine loves moving – but only in a certain way. Excessive bending and twisting is not the answer – remember, it’s not a diarthorsis joint like our hips and shoulders.

But what it does need is manipulation of it as a whole entity.

Imagine a big thick snake that needs to wind and curve and wave.

We don’t want folding and hinging, we want an even distribution of movement, right from where our skull balances at the top, down to our tailbone at the bottom.

All those times you’re heard that  back pain is related to poor enough posture or a weak core is, most of the time, misdirected.

Your back is stiff because you don’t move it.

No amount of ‘core strengthening work’ or improved posture is going to change that.

If you want your body to feel looser, more mobile and less stiff, you need to move.

You need to find ways to loosen the rigid positions that you have become so fond of, ways to visualise and interpret new motions, ways to slowly allow each vertebrae to play its role in transmitting forces.

All that being said, it’s important to remember that moving your spine should be subtle – we’re not talking about doing bend backs like you’re suddenly a circus performer.

We’re talking about softening spinal waves that gently remap our neural structures.

If you’ve always favoured tall, rigid posture and picture perfect technique in the gym, floor rolling, Jefferson curls and spinal waves will certainly become your new best friend!

Here’s 3 exercises you can start doing today to improve the connection and movement of your spine:

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