Neutral Spine | How's Your Form?

Neutral Spine | How’s Your Form?

Through years of study and research, I now have a better understanding of the role of abdominal muscles, core strength, and back positioning in terms of posture and fitness. What I have learned has greatly improved how I teach my online fitness classes, create my DVDs, and develop the content of my method, BarreAmped. Gone are the days of excessive ab work in my routines or barre classes. While our focus on full body workouts integrates the core in all directions, we also place emphasis on proper breathing and neutral alignment so our clients get the most benefit from exercise while remaining safe.

I was classically trained in New York City under the USA’s original barre technique, the Lotte Berk Method. Here there was a great emphasis on the “tuck,” this posture of driving your hips under your spine, with or without gluteal engagement. Popular in many posture books of the 1970s, it was deemed helpful for tight, ailing backs. (Cues we might have given at the time: “Pull in the abdominals and tuck under. Relax the ‘seat’ and let all of the work originate from the abdominal wall,” etc.) While I don’t doubt that many people saw changes in their backs and physiques from the method, I would venture to guess that this was actually the result of exercises designed to strengthen and stretch, reflecting an overall shift in body composition.

The problem for me was, after being at Lotte Berk for little over a year, spending 24 hours a week teaching and another five or more taking classes, I was starting to feel numbness and tingling in my legs. As a young instructor, I was already feeling the pain of what I now deem a very outdated and dangerous practice. Fascinated by exercise and movement, I went on a mission to find out the purpose of the tuck.

By the time I started my first studio classes in Nashville, I had studied enough to know this was an outdated modality. I had no problem letting go of the “tuck.”  However, I also had some ego to let go. As a ten-year-old, I was taught by a family friend to pull my abdomen tight so it would look flat. She actually kind of slapped my “tummy!” As I was in that awkward phase of wanting to do anything to fit in, this had a big impact and contributed to years of breath holding and becoming extremely ab-centric.

Maybe you are wondering what the outdated barre tuck and the learned ab gripping have in common?  They are basically one and the same. While you can pull your abs in without driving your hips under into a tuck, you can’t tuck without flexing the abs. Sitting, standing, or lying in an abdominal contraction for an entire class (or essentially living in a tuck) compresses the anterior (or front) lumbar spine. No back needs that much of a stretch- it needs to stay neutral. Here’s why:

  1. Compressing an entire side of the spine, as in a tuck, cuts off circulation. My genius chiropractor told me years ago, “You always want to maintain the natural curves of the spine whenever possible.” This ensures proper blood flow to all of the nerve endings in the spine.
  2. Another genius, friend and physical therapist Julie Wiebe, taught me that you have to breathe. If you want the core to work properly (emphasis on transverse abdominis, diaphragm, and pelvic floor), this system has to move. Feel it open and expand as you inhale, close and contract as you exhale.
  3. I have also learned from Julie what happens when you tuck under – you lose the support of your pelvic floor muscles. Losing pelvic support might lead to pelvic floor dysfunction, including incontinence or even prolapse.
  4. Finally, this may seem like a stretch, but tucking is very vain when used to flatten the abs to look good! Natural women with natural bellies are not all flat abs and six packs. We often have a little roundness. Can we celebrate that please?

I have lived through the damage of years of excessive ab work and bearing children. As a leader in pre-pregnancy, prenatal, and postnatal fitness, I am on a mission to continue learning and to educate you in the best methods I know to work out. I have evolved and so have my workouts.  If you have my first Lotte Berk DVD, you will see me teaching the tuck! To be honest, it’s not a terrible move for a little ab action. I’m also not saying you should NEVER do a crunch, Pilates mat exercise, or Barre’s “Curl” position. However, you don’t want to spend your entire class excessively gripping your abdominals or driving your hips under to a compressed, tucked position. Think this:

I will allow my pelvis to settle and stack up my structure over my hips. I will breathe. I will inhale through the easier part of each exercise. I will exhale through the hardest part. I refuse to believe the lie that I must have perfectly flat abs and must pull in my tummy and tuck in my butt for the illusion of a six pack. (Need help with that one? Imagine what you look like from behind! Let that booty go!)

Maintaining the natural curves of the spine really makes sense when you think about it. Why live life compressing nerve endings of the vertebrae in either direction?

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