Jan 29, 2015
From Neutral to Drive

By Vern Gambetta

In the fall of 1992, when Training & Conditioning was a new publication, finding its niche and its voice, we hooked up with Vern Gambetta, then the Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He wrote an article for T&C titled “A Tailored Program.” Then, he wrote another article for us. And another. And another… He has since penned dozens of articles for the magazine, on everything from training pitchers to periodization. Now 15 years later, we are pleased to offer a different side of Vern Gambetta–as a blogger. Here, he offers thoughts on a current buzz question: How important is a neutral spine?

Having a neutral spine is a concept that has taken on a life of its own and the term is often used totally out of context. It seems to be the current buzz at many local gyms.

Let’s at this concept in the context of the three movement constants: the body, gravity, and the ground. When it comes to the body, are we once again taking a sub-cortical action–this time the neutral spine position–and making it conscious? For instance, I doubt a tennis player has time to think about a neutral spine.

If we are, then ultimately it will not prove beneficial because in movement we must react, not think. Regarding gravity, we are told that to learn the “neutral spine” position, we must start in a supine position so that we can feel the proper alignment of the pelvis to achieve this elusive position.

In regards to the ground, we are bipedal terrestrial beings who move over the ground off one foot and onto the other. Can we maintain a “neutral spine” during gait without stiff, robotic actions?

Once again I feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness. I do not want to be contrary, but I do want to urge people to use common sense. The “neutral spine” is not a position, it is a moment in time–part of a bigger picture.

During a seminar in Seattle I was demonstrating a squat, and at the break the question was: Do you tell the person squatting to keep their spine neutral? My answer was, you tell them to squat.

However, I was concerned that my answer sounded flippant, and that was not the intention. It also made me think of some other instances when people asked questions about movements that seemed to focus on small movements or extraneous motions that really did not affect the desired outcome.

It dawned on me that someone, somewhere was teaching people to be aware of all this stuff. I know the term “stuff” isn’t very scientific, but stuff does get in the way–especially when you focus on stuff that is extraneous.

If we were building a robot and we had to program each action, it would be a whole different story. However, the body is not a robot. We do run motor programs, but some are faulty and some are fine-tuned. The body has to constantly solve movement problems that are supplied by its environment. Most of the time it finds successful solutions, but sometimes it does not. In either case, the body moves on.

Movement is flowing and natural. Many of the body’s problems are due to lack of movement. It just seems that having to teach someone neutral spine by putting him or her in a supine position on the floor or plinth creates a fundamental disconnect. There is too much of a gap between the supine position and weight bearing on one leg–this is as true for athletes as it is for 82-year-old grandmothers.

Unfamiliar and unnatural positions will not help the body to solve more complex movement problems. Gravity and the ground treat everyone the same–gravity always wins!

There is, however, a simple solution to all this: Get people moving by bending, reaching, pulling, extending, walking, and stepping in short, natural movements that work through all three planes of motion. Good motion occurs through the center of the body. The center is a relay site that smoothes out movement and helps with efficiency.

Thinking about the pieces and components of the movement will be robotic, and that is not what we want. So step back and look at the big picture.

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. The former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox, he has also worked extensively with basketball, soccer, and track and field athletes. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. Vern also maintains his own blog at www.functionalpathtraining.blogspot.com


I would like to add a comment to this article regarding neutral spine. I do agree that the use of the phrase is thrown around gyms just likethe previous sayings of CORE training and functional training. I feel that a sub-cortical motor program has been taken to a cortical level, but this is not always a bad idea. It does have it’s place, as in rehab programs. When we are dealing with motor-control morons who have no idea how they move and function, but are in pain, it can be necessary to make this a cortical process. Tissue sparing strategies must be employed to get these people out of pain and back to a normal level of function. Many times they have no idea that simply standing from a seated position can be the source of their pain by loading the disks and placing strain on the posterior musculature of the low back. In these cases individuals must be taught neutral spine and how to support it.

As far as training of athletes, this should be a natural occurrence and should not have to be taught. So teaching the neutral spine position does have it’s time and place, it’s place just shouldn’t be in strength and conditioning of athletes.

– Dr. Jeff Bruno, DC Gateway Natural Medicine & Diagnostic Center

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