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Flat Back VS Neutral Spine in Pilates

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

You grow strong where you work.




One of the most common questions I have in class when demonstrating exercises are – Is the spine in neutral or is the lower back pushed into the mat?

The truth is, participants wouldn’t be asking that question if we - the instructors didn’t make such a big deal out if in the first place and I can understand why it can become confusing.


Pilates has different “styles”, or I like calling it “approaches” and I get asked what ‘type’ of Pilates I teach at times.

There are now as many different variations to the Pilates method as there are people who practice it. Current styles of the Pilates method can be divided into two very broad categories: The repertory approach and modern Pilates. The repertory approach closely follows the original exercises as set out by Joseph Pilates. This traditional method provides with a small amount of modification for different body types or problems. Modern Pilates seeks to adapt the original method to better suit the individual needs of the participants.

All these approaches have a different view regarding the spine alignment. Pilates himself advocated the flat back posture, whilst Stott Pilates and Modern Pilates focuses on keeping the spine in a neutral position. Both categories seem to be fixed into an ideology – which serves us no good. Science is not an ideology!






There are two important points to make here

1. Joseph Pilates was around one hundred years ago… our knowledge of the human body and understanding of science has changed a lot since then. Joseph was all about science, so I find it absurd to think he wouldn’t have changed his method with the times. There is no doubt in my mind that the “original” Pilates exercises would look very different today if he was still here. Equally important – Joseph worked mostly with dancers and athletes - Pilates hadn’t yet reached the global fitness phenomenon it has today, reaching and becoming accessible to the general population.


2. WE GROW STRONG WHERE WE WORK –

If you workout with a flat back only, you will only be strong in a flat back position. Do we walk around with a flat back doing our daily activities? I sure hope not.

Equally - if you work out in neutral position ONLY, you will become strong in neutral position only. Do you bend over to pick something up from the floor in a neutral spine position? Or reach for the cereal box from the top shelf in neutral position? If you do, I would love to see it! If you have an unfortunate fall or accident, your body will not remain in a fixed flat back or neutral position.

The spine is meant to move in flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion, so we must strengthen the musculoskeletal structure all around those movements and positions.




There is no such thing as a ‘bad position’ or ‘wrong alignment’ or even a ‘perfect posture’

It has to do with the load bearing capacity of the tissue in those positions. (strength)

As humans, we are built to move in every way possible, neutral spine is a range and not a fixed position. The goal should be – to explore many different ranges of motion, to train the body to be strong in all positions and ranges of movements.


Posture is a dynamic thing; your whole body is!


In my teaching I try to reach and strengthen all these positions and it takes work to be able to do so with a group of people with different needs, capabilities, and problems. But it is very doable.

There are many exercises in which I instruct flat backs, especially when doing movements with both legs up in the air and for those with lower back problems. But the goal is always to build up enough strength to safely move the participant to new ranges.


Why do I teach flat back at times? Well, I want my client to be strong there too and if I have a client with weak core and lower back muscles, the flat back position will be a difficult one to be in, so strength training is achieved just by the position itself. If I have a client with lower back issues or weak core, flat back is safer because its further away from “falling” into an arched back which could cause injury. Its about training with specificity to the individual. If we keep strengthen already strong ranges and neglecting the weak then the training becomes pointless, and the body is susceptible to injuries.


The fitness industry has us boxed into a certain repertoire because we are taught to stick to it. I say it’s a lazy approach and its dangerous when a fitness instructor is afraid of growth and expansion in their learnings. There is a fear of – if I change my message – that means I was wrong yesterday. But to be a great teacher, one must be comfortable with being a student.


Fitness is based on science and science is ever changing. New research/development is a constant thing. When science changes – it didn’t lie to us, it learnt more!


Therefore - fitness instructors need to change with the times/science. We have a greater understanding today about the human body then we did a 100 or even 5 years ago.

So, when I get asked what style of Pilates I teach, I say Modern Pilates and when I say that I really do mean I follow the most recent scientific research and development. It does not mean I teach only in neutral spine position. I owe that to my clients and it’s my responsibility to provide with the most effective yet safest form of training.


So flat back or neutral? Both, plus extended, rotated, and sideways - because that is what your spine was built to do.




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