Neutral Spine vs Imprinted Spine

If you’ve ever taken a Pilates class, you will have heard the instructor say “lie on your back and keep your spine in neutral” or you may have heard “lie on your back and press your low back into the ground” depending on the method of Pilates teacher training your instructor took, the instruction may differ. 

Let me explain imprint and neutral. 

The imprinted spine is where you lay flat and press your spine into the ground, losing its natural curve. Your hip bones are down and your pubic bone is tilted upwards.

The neutral spine is where you lie on your back and your spine replicates your standing spine, but with a little more precise alignment. Your hip bones are in the same plane as your pubic bone. 

Think of your spine in an upright position, how the curves sit in your skeleton. Look at the spine sideways and notice its shape. The neck has a forward curve to allow the weight of the head to sit on top of it. The upper part of the spine has a backward curve due to the ribs being connected to it, wrapping around to the front to hold and encapsulate and protect the vital organs. The low back has a forward curve to allow the distribution of the weight from the upper body to sit on top of the lower body in equal proportion front to back. And finally, the sacral part of the spine curves backwards and hooks forward with the tailbone to allow to sit on top of the pelvis. The engineer that designed the human body was pretty formidable, he did however overlook a few important factors, but we’ll leave that out of this blog for the time being. 

The optimal and most efficient way to work your body – spine and pelvis is in neutral.  If your pelvis is neutral it allows your spine to be neutral, in its natural form.  We need to develop muscle strength around our bones to maintain the alignment of our bodies and thus prevent collapsing or degenerating over time. The “neutral” in that sense would be vital as we want to be strong and keep our bones in correct alignment. When you start to build the muscles and the bones aren’t in alignment, you are building a body where you may start to see deficiencies. 

Furthermore, we break muscles of the “core” into 2 groups. The inner unit and the outer unit (taken from Body Harmonics Core Integrity workshop). Think of it this way, picture a house. The inner unit is your foundation, the concrete you pour to build the rest of your house on. The outer unit muscles are your walls, your beams, your roof, etc… 

The inner unit is made up of 4 muscles that act as an internal generator if you wish; the transverse abdominus, the multifidus, the pelvic floor and the diaphragm. We work on these muscles primarily and then work on the outer unit; the group of muscles that move the limbs. Every movement you make should in turn stem from your inner unit if it’s working properly. 

In neutral spine, we work the transverse abdominus, this muscle spans from the front of your belly to the connective tissue on each side of your spine. This is quite often an overlooked muscle and it’s weak. It’s also difficult to access properly unless you are working with an experienced mover who will know how to cue for proper muscle activation.

In imprinted spine, because of the way the bones sit in the socket of the hip to obtain the tucked position, the pattern actually inhibits freedom of movement, over engages the front top part of the hips, the glute muscles and creates an inefficient alignment of the pelvis.  The muscles that will fire in an imprinted spine will be one of your outer unit muscles, the internal obliques. 

From a movement specialist view, it is harder to train the transverse abdomimus than it is to train the internal oblique. If you work on the internal obliques first, it will be harder to get out of the pattern of using them when you want to fire your transverse which is in fact the muscle that you want to work primarily to support the internal obliques. Think of your house again, imagine framing the house, adding the drywall, the support beams and then realizing you didn’t build the foundation and trying to pour concrete after the fact. Sounds illogical right?

I’m not saying to never work in an imprinted spine, but train the foundation muscles first and then go for the larger big building muscles. You’ll notice a difference immediately in reduced back pain, freer movement patterns, improved alignment and most likely better outcome in some of your exercises that are harder to execute. Once your foundation is strong, feel free to experiment with the imprint and you’ll notice the muscle recruitment will be far more superior and exercises will be executed with more efficiency and strength. 

Learn to work with the differences in pelvic alignment and try these exercises for yourself. 

Practice finding your neutral alignment and imprinted spine.

Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat. Tuck your tailbone as you flatten your spine to the floor (this is your imprint) and then tip the tailbone down towards your heels as you create space in your low back. Repeat about 8 times and see if you can find a happy middle in between the two to pause. Check in with your hip bones and pubic bone (like a triangular shape) and imagine setting down a tray on top and keeping the tray level. This is your “neutral”. If you need a little help finding the difference between the two, book an assessment with us. We would be more than happy to teach you about moving your body more optimally. 

If you have a spine disorder such as stenosis, scoliosis, spondylolisthesis, arthritis, SI-joint dysfunction, talk to your Pilates Instructor before attempting any exercise to make sure it’s right for you.

Jocelyne Pelchat - Principal at The Cornerstone Pilates