“Keep a neutral spine…” We hear that cue in fitness classes all the time. But what exactly does it mean?

Human bodies can move in all sorts of ways, thanks to our great number of joints. Many of those joints are found in the spinal column.

The spine’s numerous vertebrae — the collection of skeletal parts that stack up to create the spinal column — each move a small amount (1).

The mobility of each individual spinal part allows us to create movements like crouching down low, rolling into a ball on the floor, twisting to look behind us, and leaning to the right or left.

Keeping all of our joints mobile, especially in our spine, is key to performing daily activities and essential to our well-being — but so is being able to use our muscles to stabilize our joints when we need to.

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Illustration by Alexis Lira

The spine is organized with lighter, smaller vertebrae up top and larger, heavier vertebrae as you move down toward the tailbone. Even when we “stand up straight,” we’re not straight; the vertebrae are stacked in a way that forms a series of curves.

The natural curves of the spine include a slight kyphotic curve (a gentle forward “hunch”) to the upper back, with curves in the opposite direction — lordotic curves — at the neck and lower back.

A spine aligned in a way that keeps its natural curves intact is referred to as a “neutral spine.”

This curvy spinal shape serves a purpose: Neutral curves help the parts of the spine — the bones, discs, ligaments, tendons, and muscles — carry loads efficiently and with minimal damage (2).

It’s not only moving couches, carrying kids, and using the squat rack that stress the spine — adult humans are heavy, and our spines carry quite a bit of weight when simply moving our own upright bodies around.

Learning how to stabilize your spine “in neutral” while standing is essential for loading your vertebrae and intervertebral discs in a sustainable way.

What’s dragging you down?

Each vertebra can be moved independently, but spinal curves are most influenced by the larger, heavier body parts that connect to your spine: your head, rib cage, and pelvis (3, 4, 5).

Nodding to look down at a device changes the curve in your neck, and tucking your pelvis under to slouch in a chair curves your lower back differently than sitting up straight.

The vertebrae in your upper back connect to many ribs, so changing the position of your rib cage also changes the curves in your spine.

Thus, learning how to find a neutral spine requires you learn to adjust and hold these heavier parts in a particular way, which moves your vertebrae where you need them to be.

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In minimal or fitted clothing, stand sideways in front of a full-length mirror so you can assess the position of your head, rib cage, and pelvis. Shift your hips back, so they sit above your knees and ankles in a vertical line.

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Incorrect: Pelvis shifted forward over knees, ribs shifted behind the pelvis
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Correct: Move the pelvis back to stack the hips, knees, and ankle joints in a vertical line

1. Adjust your pelvis

Your pelvis can tilt both forward and backward, but a neutral spine is created when the pelvis is neutral (neither tipped forward or backward).

To find this position, first locate the top, bony protrusions of the pelvis, called the anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS), and the bottom, front point of the pelvis, called the pubic symphysis (PS).

Looking at your side view, stack the ASIS directly over the PS.

2. Adjust your rib cage

Your rib cage has somewhat of a cylinder shape. Often, when we “stand up straight,” we tip our shoulders back and move the bottom of the rib cage cylinder forward, excessively deepening the curve in the lower back — not great for the vertebral bodies and discs in this area.

If your rib cage is tipping back like the leaning tower of Pisa, tip the top of your rib cage forward to align the front of your rib cage so it is stacked over the front of your pelvis — which adjusts the curve in your lower back at the same time.

3. Finally, adjust your head

High tech living can mess with our spines. When we look at a device much of the day, we are often a) lowering the chin to the chest and b) dropping the head forward to the rest of the body.

These movements flex the vertebrae in both the neck and upper back, which translates to a flatter cervical spine and an excessive rounding of the upper back — one that’s greater than the gentle rounding of a neutral spine (6).

Technology doesn’t require our bodies to be in this position, though; we can adjust our bodies to eliminate this particular effect.

To reset both the upper- and middle-spine curves to neutral, reach the top of your head toward the ceiling while also sliding your head back (don’t lift your chin) as you bring your ears back toward your shoulders — all while keeping your rib cage in neutral.

When you hold your rib cage in place, this simultaneous upward and backward motion of your head tugs your spine away from the ground, restoring the curves in your cervical and thoracic spine at the same time.

The benefits to maintaining a neutral spine are found in many different positions. A neutral spine is portable because it adjusts to different planes of motion.

The big body parts we adjust to create a neutral spine — the pelvis, rib cage, and head — maintain their relative position as they adjust to the many ways we might load our bodies.

Walking and running

We have a standing body weight (you can find that by standing on a scale), but once we start walking or running, the loads placed on the body increase beyond our standing body weight.

When we’re locomoting, our parts have to deal with 1.5 (walking) to 3 (running) times our body weight (7)!

To align your spine while traveling on foot, simply adjust your pelvis, rib cage, and head as you did while standing in place.

On your hands and knees

Many exercises start with a quadruped, or “tabletop,” position, and bringing a neutral spine to this hands-and-knees position can put you in a strong place to deal with loads that arise from a variety of exercises.

On your hands and knees in front of a mirror, practice tucking and untucking your pelvis. Watch how these tilting motions change your lower back curve — from a flat line to a deep bowl. Then, adjust your pelvis so there’s just a small “bowl” at your low back.

Keeping the bowl shape, lift the bottom front of your rib cage up toward the ceiling until it is in line with the front of your pelvis. Holding your pelvis and rib cage in place, reach the top of your head away from your hips as you bring the back of your head toward the ceiling.

This lengthens your spine from head to pelvis and, again, restores the neutral curves of your spine.

While squatting or lifting

Squatting and lifting weights often require the body to lean forward. To find a neutral spine when you’re doing a move like this, simply align your stacked pelvis, rib cage, and head to the torso angle your move requires.

It’s also important to note that “neutral spine” isn’t a fixed position — there’s a range.

Many exercises, especially lifting exercises, involve changing body positions throughout. In these cases, your spinal curves will also change; you’re just working to minimize these changes by using the core musculature to stabilize your spine the best you can.

On your back

Lying on the floor, place a hand underneath the small of your back. Tuck and untuck your pelvis, noticing how your lower back moves toward the floor when your pelvis is tucked and how it arches away when your pelvis tilts forward.

Again, you’re looking for only a small space under your lower back (a small amount of lumbar lordosis).

Note: If the muscles on the front of your thigh are tight, simply straightening your legs along the floor can tilt your pelvis forward a lot, creating an excessive lower back curve. In this case, you’ll need to bend or bolster your knees for your pelvis (and thus spine) to be neutral.

Bring the bottom front of your rib cage down to line it up with the ASIS and PS on your pelvis. Now your rib cage and pelvis are aligned horizontally. Lastly, reach the top of your head away from your feet, which will lengthen your spine along the floor.

Finally, the ability to adjust your spinal curve depends on the mobility of the individual vertebrae. When parts of your spine are stiff, arranging your body into a “neutral spine” isn’t fully achievable.

In this case, make the adjustments you can, bolster your head or knees as needed, and spend time working on exercises and habit changes that specifically address the issue of stiff spinal parts that are making a neutral spine less accessible to you.

While the neutral spine position is itself an effective tool to use in a variety of situations, there is tremendous value to be found in the process of learning that your many parts are adjustable. There are different ways of carrying your body for better outcomes.

Stable, strong spines that load the vertebrae and discs efficiently allow us to carry all our body parts in a more sustainable way.

This allows us to move through life more easily, no matter what we’re doing: standing at the sink washing dishes, bending over to lift a child from the floor, or walking through the grocery store to gather something for dinner.

We can all learn to carry our bodies better all the time. And in doing so, we’ll be better able to sustain health for years to come.

Bestselling author, speaker, and a leader in the Movement movement, biomechanist Katy Bowman is changing the way we move and think about our need for movement. Her nine books, including the groundbreaking “Move Your DNA” and “Movement Matters,” have been translated into more than a dozen languages worldwide. Bowman teaches movement globally and speaks about sedentarism and movement ecology to academic and scientific audiences. Her work has been featured in diverse media such as the Today Show, CBC Radio One, the Seattle Times, and Good Housekeeping. One of Maria Shriver’s “Architects of Change” and America Walks “Woman of the Walking Movement,” she has worked with companies like Patagonia, Nike, and Google as well as a wide range of non-profits and other communities, sharing her “move more, move more body parts, move more for what you need” message. Her movement education company, Nutritious Movement, is based in Washington state, where she lives with her family. Learn more on her website, on Facebook, or on Instagram.