Neutral Spine

Neutral pelvis and neutral spine  – what are they and why should we care? As riders, I suppose the main reason we should care is because we need to find our neutral pelvis and spine to become effective riders. However there is a far more fundamental reason to worry about finding our neutral spine and our neutral pelvis and that is our long term health! Stated another way, if you are not in neutral spine and pelvic alignment , your body has to compensate somehow for the less than ideal posture, this causes unnecessary and potential harmful tension in your shoulders, back and/or legs!

A neutral pelvis is exactly the same thing in every human body. It is the alignment of the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) or the bony protuberances at the front of your pelvic girdle (that are often called your hips bones) and the pubic bone on the Sagittal Plane ( or in other words the front/back  or anterior and posterior plane.)

You can create this alignment when lying down, sitting on a chair, kneeling, standing or riding a horse.

Conversely a neutral spine is different in everybody although it has the same elements, which are the natural and balanced curves of the spine which occur when the pelvis is neutral. This is important because it is only when we have the natural curvature of the spine that we get the maximum amount of space between each of our vertebra. Each vertebra is shaped with slightly angled tops and bottoms so that they fit against each other (with the discs in between) to create these curves. When they have the natural curves and the maximum spaces in between, the nerves can flow out of your spinal cord without impingement or resistance. If the spaces are compromised you can get trapped nerves leading to severe back pain and sciatica.

We need as much space between adjacent vertebrae as possible.  Obviously our spinal discs are there to do just this but over time those discs degenerate and we need to use our muscles to support and separate our vertebra.

So, when you either remain in or pass through neutral pelvis, there is the opportunity to be in neutral spine and have lots of space between your vertebra aided by the sheer alignment of your bones in their natural curves with their angled tops and bottoms working for you!

Now, as I mentioned, whilst a neutral pelvis is exactly the same in every person, the neutral spine is different for each individual.  The curves of the spine curve with a greater or lesser degree from one person to another.  We should not try to set a neutral spine because it is the height of each individual’s vertebrae and discs as well as his/her particular angles of the tops and bottoms of those vertebrae that determine the curves.  However when we achieve a neutral pelvis we should get a neutral spine – we don’t set the curves, they exist and we work, by exercising and balancing the muscles to open those curves on all sides.

Of course, life and age seems to do the utmost to ruin the correct curvature of our spine.  With all the imbalances of life that we develop over time we end up tipping our pelvis one way or the other or tipping our shoulder girdle forward or back, and eliminating the natural and correct curvature in our spine.

As a Rider Biomechanics coach one of the common problems I see is the hollow backed rider  – or more correctly someone suffering from anterior tilt. This is when your hip bones (or your ASIS) are tipped forward of the pubic bone in the Sagittal Plane (front/back) which creates a hyper-lordosis  (of small or large degree) that ultimately eliminates the curves of the spine into one straight line with the sacrum and coccyx tipped strongly. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • Insecurity in the saddle,
  • Limited suppleness of the shoulder girdle and hips,
  • A difficulty in obtaining an elastic contact,
  • Encourages the rider to ride from their shoulders and hands and not from their core,
  • Perches the rider on top of the horse,
  • Causes low or mid-back pain,
  • Places strain on facet joints of the spine

The opposite of the hollow backed rider is the C-shaped rider or those with a posterior tilt. In the more extreme cases this would be a chair seated rider. This is when the hip bones (or more correctly the ASIS) is tipped backward of the pubic bone in the Sagittal Plane (tucked pelvis). This is frequently accompanied by a rounding of the spine and a tendency to look down. This postural problem is not uncommon with those who spend a long time sitting in front of a computer or at a desk. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • Stains riders interbertebral discs
  • Causes the rider to be left behind the movement
  • Often comes with rounded shoulders
  • Causes the rider to look down, or if not down to jut their chin
  • Invites (or is caused by) overuse of the gluteal (bottom) muscles
  • Risks riders using the reins for balance

In life, we move through both Anterior and Posterior Tilt, our pelvis and spine are supposed to be able to pass through all sorts of different tilts and curves.  However we need to be able to find and stabilize our position in neutral pelvis on command. Now, it’s Dynamic Stability we’re looking for not a rigid, forced stability.  That is a position that is created not by one set of muscles, but a multitude of muscles that are in balance with each other to keep up this dynamic stability.

So which muscles do you need to work with to obtain a healthy spine and improve your riding?  Well I suppose the answer is any that connect to your pelvis as well as the spinal extensors!  That is all of your abdominals, your psaos, illiacus, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, all of your glutes, adductors, etc.etc.

Probably the most important exercise you can do to begin is one that creates an awareness of just where your hips and pelvis are, one that allows you to feel the full range of movement of your pelvis and spine, that passes from anterior tilt, through neutral pelvis to posterior tilt (and back again).

On the Mat

  • First find neutral spine. Lie on a mat, knees bent, feet flat on floor, hip width apart. Rest your arms by your side.
  • Release the muscles of your back and let the weight of your body sink onto the floor. Note where you feel the weight of your body touching the floor. When the spine is in neutral alignment your weight should connect with the floor in 3 places at the back of your pelvis (sacrum), around your shoulder s and shoulder blades (shoulder girdle) and at the back of your head.
  • Now take an inhale breath and on the exhale scoop in your abdominal muscles and lift your lower back to move the top of your pelvis towards the floor(posterior tilt) flattening your lower back.
  • On the next inhale move the top of your pelvis away from the floor (anterior pelvic tile), arching your lower back away from the floor.
  • Slowly alternate between flattening and arching your back, inhaling as you arch your spine and exhaling as you flatten your spine to the floor.
  • Gradually decrease your range of movement, until like a pendulum moving more and more slowly your lower back comes to rest. This position is very likely close to your neutral spine.
  • When your spine is in neutral alignment, the Sagittal Plane (front/back) defined by 3 points – your pubic bone and the ASIS (left and right hip bones) will be parallel to the floor.

On a Swiss Ball

  • Sit upright (in neutral spine) on an exercise ball with your feet flat on the floor hip width apart.
  • Take an inhale breath and as you exhale scoop your abdominal muscles inwards and lift your lower back to rock your pelvis into a tuck, Allow your shoulders to follow the movement but try not to lean back.
  • Inhale and use your deep back muscles to rock your pelvis back so there is a slight arch in your spine and your seat bones are pointing towards the back of the ball.
  • Exhale and tuck your pelvis under again and inhale to point your seat bones behind you.
  • Rock backwards and forwards between the two extremes, gradually settling in the middle of the movement in neutral pelvis/spine alignment.
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