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.
To find your whole body neutral alignment, use these cues:
- Lengthen the top of your head to the sky, with your ears centered above your shoulders, your chin level with the ground and your gaze fixed on a point in front of you.
- Ground yourself. Distribute your weight across your feet and feel where they connect with the earth.
- Center your body along an imaginary plumb line running from the center of your head to the middle of your feet.
- Engage your deep muscles and your transversus abdominis. Gently pull in and up at your low belly.
- Relax any muscles that are overly tense, paying special attention to your jaw, shoulders, buttocks and toes.
To practice keeping your body in neutral while moving, keep the following in mind:
- To prepare for movement, first engage your transversus abdominis and find your center of gravity.
- As you move from one position to the next, keep your head centered and your gaze fixed on your focal point.
- Maintain neutral alignment in all joints that are not actively involved in 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.