Spinal Alignment and Positioning
Spinal alignment is key for proper development and activation when exercising. Most exercise is done with a neutral (can also be referred to as straight) spine, which is the maintenance of the natural s-shaped curvature when the spine is erect. Everyone has an anatomical variation; a slightly different degree of curvature. But, often the spine can get out of alignment from bad posture, trauma, or work- related stress. So when do we need to move the spine through articulation, and when do we need to stabilize it?
Several exercises will help develop the slow-twitch muscles directly along the spine; the multifidus and erector spinae. Increase in load of the exercise will also strengthen larger muscles responsible for spinal strength; core muscles, quadratus lumborum and psoas muscles.
Stabilizing exercises with a neutral spine:
Plank – The plank is arguably one of the best exercises you can do. It incorporates core muscles and spinal stabilizers in an isometric contraction (without movement). There is a lot of shoulder and scapular involvement, and will improve overall posture.
Side plank – The side plank is more intensively focused on lateral hip stabilizers, intercostals, and quadratus lumborum of the side closest to the ground. This can be helpful to correct or help dominance issues and scoliosis.
Bird dog – This is also called the quadruped opposite arm and leg raise. This exercise focuses on stabilizing the hips and shoulders from the core muscle structure while aligning the body parallel with the ground.
Bridge – The bridge is a great hip strengthener. It is directly targeting spinal stabilizers and there is the central focus of core contraction.
Strengthening exercises with a neutral spine:
Seated row – The seated row works on stabilization of the lumbar spine and scapulae through a retraction and depression motion that activates large muscles in the thoracic spine (rhomboids, rotator cuff muscles, latissimus dorsi).
Front weighted cable squats/ barbell squats – Require a more intense stabilization of the spine and core muscles through a movement. With the weight in front of the body or on the shoulders there is more load applied to the spine in particular.
Weighted hinge/ deadlift – This exercise is one of the most important to develop strong spinal stabilization. Most of the movement that is done throughout the day requires little to no stabilization so our movements tend to articulate and relax the muscles around the spine. This movement works on integrating large hip muscles and core stabilizers to move from, versus the back muscles. The motion itself is often inhibited in a lot of people and can be a challenge to teach the body, but worth it in the long run.
Prone cobra – The prone cobra directly targets muscles along the spine from the rhomboids of the thoracic spine to lumbar fascia and quadratus lumborum of the lumbar spine. This exercise puts the lower back into extension and opens the chest cavity; as well as, loosens hip flexors and activates hip stabilizers when done correctly.
Articulation is important to prevent nerve impingement between the vertebral discs. Pilates and yoga have the best full-body movement that articulates. In sport-related movements the initiation of a movement is stabilized and then progressions with follow through.
Cat/Cow – This is a yoga movement to fully articulate the spine through a gentle motion.
Spinal twists and lateral bends – There are several different exercise techniques that accomplish this. The exercise should start with little to no weight (added or body weight) and then progress to adding more load.
Light cable rows/ band rows – Doing a row with little to no weight will accomplish the same as the gentle movements if articulation is integrated, but will also strengthen the spine during this kind of motion in daily life.
Hinge/ deadlift with articulation – This will accomplish the same as the above exercise by allowing the spine a full motion and then engaging to increase strength.
These last two exercises are relevant to an athlete for increased performance and protection during the sport and less relevant to someone who is moderately sedentary for most of the day.
One of the best ways to improve posture and spinal stabilization and strength is learning to sit and walk with a straight spine. The muscles will have to fire more continuously and develop as a result. A general rule of thumb – nothing will improve posture better than working on just that, posture. If you have any questions concerning desk/computer alignment or an assessment of your posture and needs, please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Amber Walz for further details.