Neutral or Natural Spine? Which is Optimal for Health and Performance?

There has been great controversy over the past several years about the position of the spine (specifically the low back) as it relates to optimal performance and long term health.  Is the Lordotic spine healthy?  It seems to function quite nicely for a great many athletes.  What about the Kyphotic spine?  This back position seems to produce the greatest amount of symptoms and problems.  But what about the concept of “neutral” spine, how do we define it, what is it?   Is it braced, drawn in, tail tucked, flat back bowed, arched or what?  How do we attain it?  Why are we so worried about it?  What happens if I don’t have it?  How do I get it?  Where do I find it?  Who invented it?

Let’s look at some definitions.

Another way to look at this concept is the tilt of the pelvis.  In lordosis, the pelvis is rotated forward or anteriorly.  In kyphosis, the pelvis is rotated posteriorly.  In neutral, the pelvis is aligned.  In examining this concept as a performance practitioner rather than a researcher, athletic trainer or physical therapist has led me to some conclusions.  First of all is the pelvic position and the corresponding lumbar spine position resulting in some type of symptom manifesting itself in terms of pain, discomfort, tightness or inhibition of performance.  If so, then I will prescribe some corrective exercises, stretching, foam rolling in order to address the inhibited performance due to pain, discomfort and tightness.  I will also refer this person to an athletic trainer for further evaluation.  If there is no pain, discomfort, tightness or inhibited performance, then why fix it if it ain’t broke?  Most sprinter, hurdler, jumper, power, speed athletes will have a lordotic lower spine.  If they are asymptomatic and pass the intrinsic muscle tests for the pelvic floor and lower core region – then train.  The kyphotic person may need some remedial work, regardless of symptom level if you plan on loading the spine with squats, cleans, deadlifts or other types or resistance exercises that place load through the core.  According to Dr. Stuart McGill, one of North Americas leading experts on the spine and its ability to withstand load a flat lumbar spine will tend to exhibit symptoms or problems much more often under load stress than a lordotic spine.  Extension work for the kyphotic spine will be prescribed in order to enhance the lumbar area’s ability to withstand load.

My concern is the ruckus over the “neutral” spine concept and its application to performance training.  After listening to many experts argue over the efficacy of this concept (it reminds me of the back side of the “drawing in” controversy), reading about this in the various publications concerned with performance and health exercise information as well as coaching thousands of athletes performing literally millions of repetitions over the past 25+ years I have come to the conclude the following observations.  In a nutshell, the “neutral” spine is a manufactured and artificial position for the lumbar region.  The term I feel much more comfortable with is the “natural” spine position.  Here is a practical application of the difference.  Have the client/athlete reach overhead until they feel skinny.  At this point, have them take a big, deep breath and lock it in as if you were going to punch them in the stomach.  While maintaining this core-lumbar position, drop the arms, exhale and drop into a basic athletic position.  This is a natural spine position that is ready to absorb and produce force throughout the core region.  In order to convince the skeptic, have the client/athlete produce a lordotic lumbar spine while in basic athletic position and then press down on their shoulders much in the manner of a resistance squat load.  Repeat this drill with a kyphotic lumbar spine and ask the client/athlete, “ which is better to absorb and produce force?”.  Then, if the client/athlete or colleague is still not convinced, ask them to assume the “neutral” spine position and repeat the drill a final time.  The asymptomatic, “neutral” spine is a manufactured position that is unable to be replicated during the duress of performance.  It also goes against the concept of maintaining pillar core integrity in order to transmit the power generated from the legs into the shoulders, arms, hands or implement with very little flexion, extension or rotation in the lumbar spine, until the mobility of the hips and thoracic region have been exhausted.

Dr. McGill explained this concept to me at a seminar in which in a one on one conversation I had asked him why I was being instructed at a performance center to teach the tail tucked position in training performance individuals.  His first response was “I would have no idea”.  When he laughed and said he would expound upon his point, I knew he was teasing me and asked him to please continue.  He asked me if I would humor him in a little experiment.  I said “sure”.  He then instructed me to assume an athletic position, “tuck my tail” and then react to his instruction for the next 30 or so seconds.  At this time he commanded me to “jump, do a squat thrust, shuffle right, shuffle left, do a quarter turn right, do a quarter turn left, squat, buzz my feet, lunge right, lunge left and get back into position”.  At this point, he asked me what had happened to my lumbar postural position.  I responded that I had no idea.  He stated that was his point – that artificial/manufactured core positions are not practical to teach for performance athletes that are asymptomatic.  In rehab settings in which specific symptoms or deficiencies are being addressed then artificial spine positions are certainly a part of the rehabilitation protocol.   The natural lumbar spine position with core integrity to withstand force in multiple planes as well as transmit force in a variety of angles while still maintaining the ability to respire (without holding your breath) is a huge piece of performance that allow us as coaches and trainers to unlock the power of the legs and hips and express that power in our sports.  This “natural” spine position combined with hip mobility, the skill of disassociation of the hip – shoulder complex and internal coordination resulting in huge force summation creates the physical performances we all long to enhance with our expertise.

Beginning Strength Training Loads Based on Percentages of Body Weight

Many times it is very difficult to determine what level of load to use as you begin to resistance train.  I believe you must have the athlete/client demonstrate a certain level of skill with body weight as the resistance before moving on to external resistance loading.  This may be something as basic as the 20 rep rule where the person must be able to do 20 quality reps of a movement before adding external loading.  Being able to demonstrate twenty quality reps of the squat, push – up, lunge, step – up, back raise or glute ham and the pull – up are good base lines to use.  As long as the patterns are clean and the movements are controlled and stable it is now acceptable to add resistance once the baseline threshold has been met or exceeded.  Where do we begin?  Below are some suggested loads to use for some of the exercises and movements we commonly prescribe in resistance training.  There are no set or rep guidelines, those are up to you.  Remember, the chart below is an example of a continuum that can be implemented with respect to the abilities of the athlete/client.  The determination of the sets and reps will move the difficulty up and down the continuum of training.  For example, 3 x 10 will be much more difficult than 3 x 5 at the same relative load due to the simple math of 30 reps (3 x 10) is much greater than 15 reps (3 x 5).


Exercise         Untrained                     Novice             Intermediate               Advanced                Athletic

Squats             Bodyweight(20 reps)      35% of BW           65% of BW                   100% of BW           125% of BW

Increment Change – 10%

Dead Lift          Bodyweight(20 reps)      35% of BW           65% of BW                   100% of BW         125% of BW

Increment Change – 10%

Leg Press           50% of BW                     75% of BW          100% of BW                 125% of BW             150% of BW

Increment Change – 15%

1 Leg Press        25% of BW                    50% of BW            65% o BW                   80% of BW              95% of BW

Increment Change of 10%

Step – Up        Body weight (20)             10% of BW             25% of BW                    40% of BW             55% of BW

Increment Change – 5 % of Body weight

Lunge              Body weight (20)             10% of BW              25% of BW                    40% of BW            55% of BW

Increment Change – 5% of Body weight

Jump Squat      Body weight (20)             2.5% of BW               5% of BW               7.5% of BW        10% of BW

For Power  Increment Change – 2.5%

Jump Squat      Body weight (20)              5% of BW               10% of BW             15% of BW          20% of BW

For Strength  Increment Change – 5%


Exercise               Untrained                 Novice                Intermediate             Advanced                 Athletic

Stiff Leg Dead Lift     20% of BW            40% of BW               60% of BW                  80% of BW              100% of BW

Increment Change 5% of BW

RDL                 10% of BW                30% of BW               50% of BW                 70% of BW               90% of BW

Increment of Change 5% of BW


Exercise                Untrained              Novice               Intermediate              Advanced             Athletic

Bench Press          Push – Ups (20)        25% of BW                50% of BW                  75% of BW            100% of BW

Increment Change 5%

Incline Press    20 Feet Up Push – Ups   20% of BW              40% of BW                  60% of BW               80% of BW

Increment Change 5%

Behind Neck  Prs    5% of BW                15% of BW              35% of BW                  50% of BW               65% of BW

Increment Change 2.5 – 5%

DB Bench               Push – Ups (20)       15% of BW           30% of BW                    45% of BW                60% of BW

Wt in each hand Increment Change 2.5 – 5%

DB Incline      20 Feet Up Push – Ups    10% of BW           20% of BW                    30% of BW                40% of BW

Wt in each hand Increment Change 2.5 – 5%

DB Shlder Prs         5% of BW              10% of BW              17.5% of BW                25% of BW              32.5% of BW

Wt in each hand Increment Change 2.5%


Exercise             Untrained                Novice               Intermediate             Advanced                  Athletic

Pull – Ups        Assisted 50% of BW   Assisted 25%      Bodyweight (5)         Bodyweight (15)         Bodyweight +5%

Increment Change Assisted 10 – 15% Reps +5 per set Weight 2.5% or Pause ea. ¼ rep

Pulldowns                25% of BW         40% of BW               60% of BW                 80% of BW               100%+ of BW

Increment Change 5

1 Arm DB Rows     10% of BW                   17.5% of BW          25% of BW             32.50 % of BW           40% of BW

Increment Change 5%

Individuals will vary greatly from exercise to exercise based on maturity, injury history and training age.  This is a guide to determine a starting point for the individual.  If the individual is overweight, then the load may be set up as a percentage of Fat Free Body Weight.  A functional screen, movement assessment, flexibility test and strength evaluation will assist greatly in determining the actual abilities of the client, athlete or patient.

Agility Loads and Progressions

In my experience of training athletes the need for a progression of individual agility/mobility drills as well as a generalized load progression is very apparent. Garrett Giemont was the first individual that enlightened me to the concept of agility drill progressions. Mike Arthur and Bryan Bailey of the University of Nebraska also helped shaped my thoughts as they felt that agility/mobility drill for sport are nothing more than multi-directional plyometrics. Melding these concepts with the experience of observing literally thousands of athletes executing millions of reps have created the following progression examples.

Level 1: Linear Movement requiring various forms of locomotion.

Shuffle into a run carioca into a run backpedal into a run
Butt kick into a run crossover run into a run backward skip into a run
Slide kick into a run Lateral skip into a run backward butt kick into a run
Cycle kick into a run shuffle skip into a run

All of these movements require coordination and varying levels of impulse into the ground. However, depending upon the distance of the run and the violence of the transition to sprinting, these drills are relatively safe to prescribe to an athlete early in the preparation process.

Level 2: Speed Angles 1 – Drills requiring a change of direction of less than (or more than, depending on your orientation) 90 degrees requiring various forms of locomotion (such as crossover runs, carioca runs, sprint – shuffle – backpedal runs, etc.).

Circle drills “W” Drill “L” Drill

Level 3: Speed Angles 2 – Agility drills requiring a change of direction of more than 90 degrees, but less than 180 degrees (down & back shuttle type drills), while utilizing various forms of locomotion.

“T” Drills “V” or Triangle Drills and Square Drills

Level 4: Speed Angles 3 – Shuttle type drills that are down and back in nature on the same path that also utilize various forms of locomotion.

5 – 10 – 5 Short shuttle suicide/jingle-jangles and Sprint/Backpedal Drills

The load of these drills must be figured much as you weight strength training exercises.
The total volume is figured as sets and reps and will suffice in order to quantify how much work is done from a volume standpoint. Generally, most drills are shorter in nature, generally in the 5 – 10 yard range of acceleration before the athlete must decelerate, change direction and re-accelerate. Depending on the number of legs there are in the drill combined with the number of trips per leg will generate the distance load.

For example, if I prescribe a square or box drill and the athlete will be required to run 4 legs with each leg being 7 yards in length, the entire drill will be 28 yards per repetition.  If the athlete executes 6 reps at this particular station, then the volume load for this drill is 6 reps and the distance load is 168 yards. Some rules of thumb I gathered over the years of assigning agility training sets and reps for athletes and teams concerning yardage are as follows:

Sets            Reps           Volume           Yardage

Level 1           2 – 4           2 – 4             4 – 16          160 – 640

Level 2           3 – 5           3 – 5             9 – 25          360 – 1000

Level 3           4 – 6           4 – 6            16 – 36         640 – 1440

When developing the training session for the day, the work load for the week and the program for the month I found it better to begin with a large number of lower level drills and very few if any of the more stressful level drills. At the beginning of the training session the athletes will be less fit, experience more soreness and be more prone to injury and subsequent loss of preparation time. As the athletes progressed in response to the demands of training, the stress of the load in both volume and intensity levels of the drills would be increased.

As always, you must determine the ability of your population to handle the load prescribed. The above chart is for collegiate and professional athletes. For high school or middle school athletes, the total loads will be less in volume, probably 30-50% less.

Another factor to consider is what type of coaching is gong on during and after the drill for each athlete. Are they being coached on movement mechanics, posture, footwork and angles of attack or is most of the coaching “c’mon, get after it boy, you’re moving like molasses” type of instruction.

Remember to keep in mind the overall effect of the training load for each week and month. Sprints, plyometrics, speed development, strength training, and medicine ball drills all need to be factored into the equation of the training prescription. In and of itself each training parameter may look like just enough. However, when examined with the overall program in mind, it is easy to over load the athlete with too much cumulative training stress. Combine training with too little focus on recovery/regeneration and the injury bug will soon rear its’ head in the form of shin splints, low back problems, impingements, illness and the various forms of the itis’s.