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On Core Stability and Neutral Spine

Over the weekend I was presenting the Upper Body Strength and Mobility Workshop during which I was asked a LOT of questions.

We could do a whole “Ask Dave” series of posts just on the what was asked over that day.

But one big one, and I mean for a couple for people in the audience, a paradigm shifting, bedrock shaking, belief challenging question or questions came about when I mentioned two things.

What are these two things?

  1. I don’t like the phrase “Core Stability” and think it needs to go away

  2. The idea of Neutral Spine is extremely limited in application

Now I don’t want this to turn into a massive essay on the subject, but I do aim to cover the main points inside the limits of a blog post.

First then, Core Stability.

The word “Core” itself is problematic enough. I myself use three separate definitions depending on the audience and context I’m referring to.

But if I was forced to give just one single definition I would have to say it’s the spine.

That is our core. Inside it you will find the Spinal Cord, aka our Central Nervous System. Our pelvic and shoulder girdles attach to it and pretty much everything revolves around it as we move.

It also has a bucket load of articulating joints.


Each vertebra articulates with the one above and below it. It articulates at the SI joint where it meets the pelvis, it articulates with the ribs and of course it articulates with the skull.

If these articulations are prevented from happening, the body can not move freely. It can’t express power completely. It can’t handle unexpected forces adequately.

In other words, it becomes fragile.

The Aisians tell us how a the mighty oak can be uprooted and broken by a strong wind, yet the Willow simply bends and sways with the force unharmed.

Do we want our spine to be the Oak or the Willow?

So what about the word “Stability” ?

Stability and Mobility are not separate things. They are in fact two sides of the same coin. The goal is to keep our joints strong and safe as they move through their entire range of motion, either as a single joint or as part of a chain of joints moving together.

Again, in the martial arts, a huge part of the training involves learning how to isolate an opponents joints to cause damage.

Joints don’t like being isolated!

So stability has become misinterpreted into immobility.

Ie our ability to resist movement.

So we have people talking about “Anti-rotation” “anti flexion” “Anti extension”

The smart guys talk about this in the right manner (check out the work of Eric Cressey)

Most don’t though.

Lets take Pilates as an example.

I’m a fan of the work of Joseph Pilates. The guy was a legend in his day.

Modern pilates though has got it wrong.

Joe wasn’t about creating a core so stiff and strong it couldn’t move. On the contrary, Joe was all about movement, all about athleticism.

What he wanted was a core that could move in all directions safely, with strength and power.

This requires a combination of both flexibility (there are many Pilates exercises that take the spine through full range of motion) AND strength.

Most importantly he wanted strength through the full range of motion of the spine.

This is mobility. Which is simple stability in motion.

So the term Stability is a little too simplistic for my view on training.

I like the term Elasticity.

I think it better describes the way we want our core to move. Elastic can stretch and bend, but it springs back to centre. It can load up potential energy by moving one way and release it to move the other.

Elasticity trumps stability and is a better explanation of what true mobility really is.

Mr Fantastic is the epitome of good mobility!

Mr Fantastic is the epitome of good mobility!

But what about our spinal disks?

Won’t they get damaged if we move our spine too much?

Well, yes the potential for that is certainly there.

Again, I like stories to explain ideas. And here we use the story of the car.

Cars have gears, a clutch and gear box. In order to move a car has to start in first gear, move THROUGH neutral to second gear, move THROUGH neutral to third and so on and so forth.

If the car stays neutral it can’t go anywhere.

But by changing gear and passing through neutral we run the risk of wearing out the clutch and the gear box.


Unless we drive well. Drive smoothly. Change gear at the right time, balance the engine speed with the wheel speed. etc.

(Nowadays we have computers and automatic gear boxes to do this for us, but I still remember when we had to actually drive a car!)

If we consider our spinal disks to be the clutch, we can accept that it’s possible to burn them out.

So why are they there?

Why do we have them?

Why is this movement possible if it’s harmful?

We have joints in the body that are fused shut. The bones of the skull and the sacrum being the best examples.

So if movement isn’t required the body can shut it down.

If harmful movement patterns develop in the body, it can lay down bone growths to shut down rage of motion. This is common in the hip joint when arthritis sets in.

So the body allows movement.

Spongy disks between the vertebrae allow movement.

The muscles that run between our pelvis and rib cage, that attach to our spine, allow movement.

What would happen if we never use that movement, if we spend all our time preventing that movement?

What state do you think those muscles would be in?

How would the body cope when suddenly life throws us into a scenario where we are forced to move? A car accident, a rugby tackle, a skiing holiday, bend over to pick up a pen we dropped?

The late great Jonah Lomu, poetry in motion, power embodied and look at that spinal alignment!

The late great Jonah Lomu, poetry in motion, power embodied and look at that spinal alignment!

Are those joints and muscles conditioned to performing this action?

Can they control the spine as it bends and flexes to absorb the forces needed to safely bend?

So like we can drive in a manner that saves the clutch from burning our and keeps the gear box in good nick, we can train our body to do the same with our spine.

This means training to move our spines fluidly, safely and in all directions.

It means developing the elasticity of the core musculature.

See how he loads his spine up storing elastic energy to power the throw?

See how he loads his spine up storing elastic energy to power the throw?

It means moving outside of neutral and developing strength there.

It means learning to create strength in the torso to keep out of end range, but to move towards it and back again with strength and control.

It’s something Gymnasts, Dancers, Climbers, Martial Artists, Rugby players and Strongman and Girevoy Sports competitors do naturally. So do kids and animals.

I'm pretty sure she's not thinking about staying in neutral here

I’m pretty sure she’s not thinking about staying in neutral here

And so should you.

But is there a time where neutral spine is necessary?

Oh, absolutely.


Heavy direct loading of the spine in a bilateral stance using liner movement. You better stay neutral under that bar!

Heavy direct loading of the spine in a bilateral stance using liner movement. You better stay neutral under that bar!

I’d love to hear your feedback on my thoughts above, hit me up on Facebook


Dave Hedges

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