Pilates Language: The Cult of Neutral Shrine

Kudos Paleolates!

Thank you so much Mike Perry for your wonderful and beautifully articulated post: Neutral?

At the risk of jumping on the well-worn band wagon, I must confess that the infusion of the word ‘neutral' into the Pilates Method of Exercise is one that has always confused me.

Neutral vs. Movement

Neutral and movement appear to be at opposing ends of the spectrum. Ironically, neutral is a word that is anything but. Strong passionate feelings surround the argument both for and against the use of the word applied to the Pilates exercises.

But let's leave neutral for a bit to focus on a word we surely agree on.

Pilates Language: How did the word 'neutral' become divisive?


Hang on, I am getting a little ahead of myself…

From wikipedia:

A neutral spine or good posture refers to the three natural curves present in a healthy spine.

Okay, let's have a quibble with the word ‘natural' first.

I agree with Mike that those who have perfect posture and ‘live in neutral' are fictitious creatures and are probably not our clients. 

Ethereal perfections! What need have they for Pilates?

With the gravitational pull on our bodies, a lifetime of sports, activities, tensions and tendencies we have arrived at a posture that may not be ideal or sustainable. We may develop exaggerations in the curves of our spine.

Oh dear, what's to be done?

As gravity continues to weigh on us, one or more areas of the spine can become compressed resulting in a swayback, a rounded upper back or a bit of both as our bodies seek equilibrium.

But just because I have a swayback doesn't make it ‘natural' in any way. My swayback also does NOT need to be honored. What it needs to do is decompress and…


What was that about Length?

Imagine all the instances within the Pilates repertoire where it is desirable to have a long lengthened back.

When you are lying down for Footwork? Of course.

Standing up at the end of the Push Down on the Wunda Chair? Yes, please.

Sitting up à la Rowing Series on the Reformer? You betcha!

These 3 positions of the back are all the same shape in the Pilates Method:

A long (and ever-lengthening) back position

Looking at it through this lens, to keep any one section of the back in a static or fixed position would not aid us on our quest toward elongation.

It is through this very elongation that we create lift, strength and flexibility in our backs.

Strength? Flexibility? That sounds complicated…

Pilates is strengthening (Strength) and opening/stretching/lengthening (Stretch) resulting in balanced strength (Control) of your body.

In other words: Everything works.

To find this balanced strength and length, our spines must endeavor to move in all directions: back bending allows the back to lift and strengthen and forward bending helps us open and lengthen the back. Both are necessary for a healthy, strong and supple spine.

With regard to forward bending: we are not simply flexing the spine, gnashing bones together willy-nilly. We are in the business of finding lift!

The position of the back in the Pilates method is often defined by language created by one book in the '80s that birthed the whole “navel to spine” label. Now we have been branded with it. Your navel needs to lift itself all the way up to the nape of your neck!

Hence the elongated curve of the round shape exercises of the Pilates Method.

Movement must be Job #1 in the Pilates Method.

Et tu, JP?

Could the emergence of ‘neutral' be a reaction to Joe Pilates' direction in his legendary Return to Life: to “lie flat?” I do realize that “flattening” the back is believed to be detrimental to the spine, however I must pose the question:

Is it possible solely through muscular effort to actually “flatten” one's spine?

Surely we would not have survived as a species were we to possess such a capability.

So I tried it – you can read about it here.

Remember I am not suggesting one tuck the pelvis and use the legs and hips to press the low back into the floor. No bueno. Joe Pilates does not say that either, and that's certainly not lengthening anything. 

Perhaps Joe Pilates uses the phrase “lie flat” to indicate that one should not begin the exercise sitting up.

Et tu, PT?

In my understanding from all the Physical Therapists in my Pilates life, ‘neutral' does not come from Joe Pilates, but rather from the realm of Physical Therapy.

“In the Physical Therapy literature the historically older term is ‘core stability.' In the latter part of the 1980s, a concept of a ‘neutral spine' developed among physical therapists and physicians who were treating individuals with back pain.” (damienhowellpt.com)

I believe it should be noted that the presence of back pain is causal to the creation of the term ‘neutral spine.' Conversely the term may not necessarily apply to all populations, e.g., the healthy individual.

The article goes on to differentiate ‘core stability' from ‘core strength.'

‘Core stability' as it has been defined since 1992, includes a stable or “neutral” trunk while the limbs are in motion.

“‘Core muscle strength' is usually operationally defined by a measurement of the strength of the core muscles, either in terms of how much weight/resistance a muscle can lift, how many repetitions a muscle can perform, or how long a muscle can hold a neutral, stable position.” (damienhowellpt.com)

The crux of the article looks at the efficacy of ‘core strength' to improve athletic activity and performance and reduce the risk of injury.

The author considers an ongoing debate: can core strength also accurately be measured when the spine is in motion?

Hey! That sounds like the Pilates exercises!

And here we find controversy. Quel suprise…

But we are encouraged to use our intuition.


Despite the lack of hard scientific evidence to irrefutably prove that ‘core strength' (as defined above, including the presence of a “neutral, stable position,”) enhances and improves athletic performance, this article encourages us to use our intuition!

Our common sense.

Surely increased core strength leads to improved athletic performance and injury prevention, yes?

The Physical Therapist then expresses his opinion that “core training should strive to simulate the athletic activity.”

Ok. This is a big statement.

The Pilates Method of Exercise is replete with exaggerated versions of our everyday movements.

For all intents and purposes:

Athletic Activity = Life!

“Much of the core training that is practiced involves abdominal exercises lying on the ground. The only sport I know of in which you are laying on the ground on your back is when a wrestler is losing a match.”

Point taken.

“Core training should involve dynamic movement progressing from slow to fast.”

Our daily tasks are varied in their tempo and rhythm.

“Ideally it should involve diagonal movements as most athletic movements involve rotation of the trunk and spine.”

Daily we reach for things in life that may be on a higher or lower level, or even across our bodies or behind us. 

“It should involve activities which require endurance.”


Some days may be very long and filled with activities – think of preparing a holiday dinner!

“Of course it should involve some reaction to changes in surface, or outside forces.”

Clearly this exists in life, but it also sounds very much like the Reformer.


A life in motion requires an exercise regime that is also full of motion: up, down, bending, reaching in all directions. Our body conditioning must prepare us for a vibrant and dynamic experience of daily living.

Movement must be Job #1 in the Pilates Method.

I find one clear image sticks with me: Do I want to be the wrestler losing the match?

Pilates Language: The Cult of Neutral Shrine

“It is the spirit that builds the body.”

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

Swan Redux: 7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon

Swan Redux:7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon1. Alycea Ungaro started us off with a recent post:

Get Pilates Strong: The Swan

“Your move of the month is the Swan.”

Yes, ma'am.

The Pilates exercises are exaggerated versions of our everyday movements. What?

The length and lifted support you'll gain from even the simplest of the Swan exercises will train you to sit up taller during your day.

The Swan can be your secret weapon for life!

Our mothers were right.

It's good to sit up tall.

Swan Redux: 7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon

2. Strengthen your back with your first Swan.

The Swan: “It's not a pushup!”

The extension of the back you'll perfect with this simple version of the Swan will assure you many more years of lifted upright posture.

3. Alisa Wyatt helps you find the perfect Swan for you and work your way toward the big kahuna: Swan Dive!

Swan Redux: 7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon

4. Even more ways to challenge yourself on your quest for ultimate control in the Swan Dive

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Swan Redux: 7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon

5. Already feeling plenty challenged by this particular back shape? Find some assistance from Pilatesology.

The Shape of All Things Pilates: The Arched Back

Swan Redux: 7 Handy Posts to make it your Secret Weapon

6+7. Yet another way to make the Swan your secret weapon…for crazy Pilates exercises!

Pilates Projects: 5 Exercises for a Better Control Balance Off – video

Pilates Projects: 5 Exercises for a Better Control Balance Off – post

Thank you so much for reading. You are awesome and I appreciate every single Swan-diving one of you!

Now go workout. You know you want to.


This just in!

8. Take your Swan Dive to another level entirely…but you might have to get wet…

(But you're a Swan, so it's probably okay.)


A big thank you to Simon Trangmar of Adelaide Pilates, a fellow Pilates nerd (and tech nerd!) for your beautiful swan contribution.

Anyone else wanna play?

Have a special swan tip to share? Swan success stories?

Honk your horn in a comment below.

(Totally couldn't resist that one.)

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