“Finding Neutral” by Karen Wollgast
Our bodies are mechanical miracles. When you think of the engineering that goes on in a simple movement like lifting a cup or writing a note it’s really quite amazing. In human activities this dynamic movement causes our muscles to contract to maintain equilibrium or movement control. As we move body parts, a state of imbalance is created and our muscles work to counteract that and maintain balance. The ideal neutral alignment can be described as the line of gravity passing through the midline of the body like a plum bob. This supported position puts the least amount of gravitational forces on the body. As described above, our bodies work to bring our position back to a neutral state when we move, but often in the work we do we put our bodies in awkward postures requiring muscles to maintain static holds that create fatigue and imbalance. Postures such as pulling your head forward to look at a computer screen or reaching for a mouse can create static holds of muscles that were not meant to maintain those positions for extended periods of time. Eventually this can lead to an imbalance that affects the whole kinetic chain causing pain, discomfort, muscle imbalances and may limit movement and range of motion over time.
In order to avoid these issues, we need to be aware of what our neutral posture is and remind ourselves while moving, or in static positions to maintain neutral and supportive postures as much as possible. The University of San Francisco, Office of Environment, Health and Safety describe neutral posture as:
- A position of ease for the body to maintain for a prolonged period of time
- A position that supports the natural curves of the spine and maintain your body in good alignment
- A position of ease for the body to sustain with minimal effort
- A position that gives your body biomechanical advantages to do your work
- A position where the stress on the musculo-skeletal system is reduced
Finding your neutral
To get a sense of neutral posture it is important to observe ourselves while both standing and moving. In a standing position view yourself from the top of your head to your feet. Are your feet straight and equally weighted on floor? Are they pointed out or in, do your shoes wear on the inside or outside of the soles? Are your ankles, knees and hips stacked? Are you able to maintain and support the natural curvature of your spine? Are your shoulders floating over your hips and ears floating over your shoulders with the crown of your head reaching up? If any of these pieces are out of alignment be curious as to why. Tap into your body and notice how something feels if it’s in or out of neutral. What happens when you pull your head forward of your shoulders? How does that feel in your neck and upper back? Slide your ears back over your shoulders, what dose that feel like. Lengthen up your spine and open your chest, how does that affect your back, your breathing?
Now take a walk and notice what happens to your posture, are you able to maintain those supporting positions or do things come out of alignment. When you sit down, is your spine still long and in same position as while standing? Are you able to keep your shoulders over hips and arms at side of body? While moving, are you maintaining neutral position of your spine while bending or squatting? Is there any discomfort in your movements or static postures that you can possibly relate to your posture? Does shifting into a more neural supported position relieve that discomfort?
These are all ways to become more aware of our postures and how they affect discomfort in our bodies. I encourage clients to be curious about why something might hurt. What might you be doing that is creating that imbalance or awkward posture? Can you relate that discomfort to an activity? What is it about the way you are doing that activity that might be problematic? Observe yourself externally and internally. Feel into your body and work toward supportive postures to minimize external forces such as gravity. Below are a few tips to find and maintain neutral posture.
- While standing, stack joints over one another with feet equally weighted on floor, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and ears
- While moving, maintaining that supportive position as possible
- Avoid long static holds of awkward postures allowing the body to come back to neutral support as possible, think of moving more dynamically
- Support repetitious movements with larger muscle support (whole arm vs awkward wrist postures) and micro breaks.
- Move, stretch and breathedeeply often.
- Strengthen core muscles, identify imbalances and work on building weak postural muscles
- Practice a wide variety of movement to keep muscles balanced
- Give yourself reminders to move, sit up straight, etc. until they become second nature
These are just a few ideas to help stay balanced and injury free in order to support the activities you enjoy.