Don’t Risk Hurting Your Back: Neutral Spine vs. Lordosis vs. Flat Back.

neutral spine

We’ll talk about finding neutral spine today and how to distinguish whether your back position is right depending on the exercise you’re doing. The goal? To avoid low back pain by exercising the wrong way and unnecessarily stressing your back.

But before we get into this, let me tell you more about why it’s important to understand the difference, and how this knowledge will help you exercise at home safely.

Too many times I’ve heard from people that they would be exercising more often (here’s how often you should exercise to get the health benefits) if they could exercise at home. Yet, they’re afraid to exercise at home because they fear injury as they’re not sure if their form is correct.

This is unfortunate especially when considering all the reasons why exercise is important. I wish better exercise instruction was available so people felt empowered to what is right for them.

So today we’ll work on this. I’ll show you one of the most common exercise form mistakes that causes injuries, in particular low back injuries. I’m referring to having your spine in the wrong position and not keeping neutral spine or a flat back when you should.

Let’s review what neutral spine is, what the different spine positions are, and how to detect whether you need to adjust your form to make sure you exercise safely.

What does it mean to have a neutral spine?

This is neutral spine. It’s when your low back is neither arched (lordosis) nor flat. Notice that you can see the natural curve of the spine.

neutral spine

To make neutral spine clearer, check out an exaggerated version of an arched back (when this is your posture in general, then this position is referred to as lordosis)

arched back - lordosis

When there is no curve in your low back then you’re keeping a flat back. You may hear this as “imprinting your spine” when you’re doing floor exercises, or as “tucking your tailbone in.”

flat back posture

Rule of thumb is that an arched back is ALWAYS undesirable no matter the exercise you’re doing, while flat back and neutral spine can both be desirable depending on the move you’re attempting.

So let’s say you’re on the floor doing abs…Here’s how to check whether your have neutral spine or you’re putting unnecessary stress on your back.

When you keep a neutral spine, then you should be able to fit your fingers underneath your back.

neutral spine check

With lordosis, or arched back, you may be able to fit your forearm underneath your low back. That’s a definite sign you need to adjust your posture.

Lordosis - arched back check - exercise safely

With a flat back, your spine will be “imprinted on the mat” and “your tailbone will be tucked.” You won’t be able to fit anything underneath your low back as there will be no gap at all.

Depending on your ab strength and your position, a flat back may be a desirable position when you’re doing some ab exercises.

We tend to arch our backs when doing floor exercises either because we don’t know any better, or because we want to take it easier on our abs.

The result is extra pressure on the spine that may cause back pain. You’re also missing out on a good core workout as you’re not exercising your muscles the way you should be working them.

arched back when exercising

Other examples of spine positions:

A proper squat form does not include arching your back. Keep a neutral spine.

arched back in squats

A neutral spine is not always the gold standard. In yoga in the high lunge and the low lunge pose you may be instructured to “tuck your tailbone in.” This increases the stretch in your hip crease.flat back yoga neutral spine

So I hope this gave you an overview of what a neutral spine is and how to avoid putting unnecessary stress on your low back.

So have you ever done any abs on the floor (e.g., here’s the best crunch in my opinion) only to finish the exercise but feel low back pain (a definite sign of an arched back)? Leave a comment below!

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  1. Maria,
    Have you written about the benefits (or not) of walking, and what considerations you would suggest as appropriate for deciding if walking “X” miles per day was “sufficient” exercise?