by Patricia Staszak, PT, PYT
When it comes to the day-to-day function of our bodies, it’s often the little things that matter most. That’s why at Andersonville Physical Therapy, we place so much emphasis on proper alignment. Luckily, the fitness world seems to be catching up to what physical therapists have known for years: that the heart of any effective exercise (and even everyday movements!) is a neutral alignment that will avoid putting any undue stress on our joints and ligaments while we work to strengthen our muscles.
You may hear your yoga teacher call for you to “tuck in your tailbone,” or a strength training instructor telling you to “engage your core.” These are cues that our fitness instructors will often use to help us find a neutral position. Unfortunately, depending on your own particular anatomy and habits, these may just be a single piece in a much larger puzzle. So, to help you improve your body awareness, facilitate your healing and maintain the long-term health of your body, we’ve put together some information on the alignment that we like to call whole body neutral.
To get started: what exactly is whole body neutral? When our whole body is in a neutral alignment, that means that all of our joints are in the position in which they need the least amount of support from the surrounding ligaments. This position minimizes stress by using deep, stabilizing muscles to support the joint—rather than our ligaments, which are more easily damaged. In neutral alignment, your whole body will be balanced and supported in a way that is unlikely to cause wear-and-tear over time.
Finding your whole body neutral, however, is more easily said than done. Neutral alignment differs from person to person, and your appropriate positioning may not look exactly like your neighbor’s. Luckily, there are some go-to elements you can rely on to find whole body neutral. Once you become familiar with what it looks and feels like in your own body, you can carry it over into your everyday movement by habit.
Here are our favorite cues for finding whole body neutral alignment:
- Find your center. Imagine a plumb line that runs from the center of your head to the middle of your feet. Try to center your body along this line. Gently pull in your navel to engage your transversus abdominus.
- Lengthen towards the sky. Visualize lengthening the top of your head to the sky. Pay particular attention to the position of your head—your ears should be centered above your shoulders and your chin should be level with the ground. Avoid collapsing with gravity.
- Ground yourself to the earth. Feel the points of your feet where they connect with the ground. Make sure that you are centered so that your weight is equally distributed across your feet.
- Release any tension. Pay attention to any muscles that are overly tense. Take a deep breath and relax.
- Make adjustments based on your individual body. This where your physical therapists at APT can help! We will teach you corrections specific to your unique posture and movement patterns.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of finding whole body neutral while standing still, you can begin practicing it while moving. To do so, keep the above cues in mind, and add in the following:
- Keep your chin level to the floor and your gaze focused on a point in front of you.
- Find your center and gently pulling your navel inward to engage your transversus abdominis.
- Maintain neutral alignment in all joints that are not actively involved in the movement.
- As you move from one position to the next, focus on keeping your head centered over your shoulders and your feet grounded on the floor. If you are having difficulty keeping your head and trunk stable during the movement, slow down to increase your control.
As an example, take a look at the picture below. During the lunge exercise, the ankle, knee and hip joints move, but the head and trunk remain in a static, neutral position.
Finding your whole body neutral may seem like a finicky process, but it is much easier if we increase our awareness of our body as a whole while we are moving through the world. Neutral alignment is the foundation of all healthy movement. It keeps our joints and ligaments happy, our muscles stable and supportive, and it fosters a sense of body awareness that can help you stay relaxed and strong as you move through the world.