Neutral Setting and Core Activation

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Before beginning Pilates, there are a few key points we must review and master in order to reap all the benefits Pilates has to offer. In this blog we will review the 5 key aspects of body position and core activation that are fundamental to Pilates when performed as a form of exercise. It is important to master the basics of Pilates before progressing to more advanced levels.

Whether you have heard of the 5 key points of Pilates or not, these are the techniques that underpin how we practice Pilates both in the form of exercise, as well as how we should carry ourselves through our daily activities.

By utilising these key features in our daily lives, we are able to reduce stress on important structures and tissues in the body, allowing the body to move freely, reducing the chance of pain and injury.

The correct use of the 5 key features of Pilates, both in an exercise setting, as well as in daily posture, places the spine in a neutral position. The neutral spine is one in which the least amount of stress is exerted on our important supportive tissues, which is key to injury prevention.


The key features of our neutral spinal position include:

  1.       Core Activation
  2.       Head and neck position
  3.       Shoulder positioning
  4.       Ribcage positioning
  5.       Breathing

We will look at each of these features and how it is used in Pilates, with examples of how you can practice this technique. Once you master the basics, you can try and incorporate them into all of your daily activities.

Core Activation: This element is one of the most important to master as it relates to finding the neutral position for you lower back as well as mastering the activation of those muscles responsible for providing your lower back and pelvis with support to hold it in the neutral position.

The muscles involved in supporting and stabilising your lower back and pelvis include your abdominals (internal and external obliques as well as your transverse abdominus), your low back muscles (your multifidus) and your pelvic floor. As mentioned earlier, finding your neutral spine is important in reducing the amount of stress going through the structures of your lumbar spine.

Give it a try! Finding your neutral spine. Lying flat on your back with your knees bent to 90 degrees, tilt your pelvis as far forward as you can, increasing the space beneath your lower back. Then, tilt your pelvis in the opposite direction as far as you can, flattening your back into the floor. Find the middle point between these two positions, this is your neutral spine.

Activating your core. Again, lying flat on your back. Find your neutral spine. Placing your fingers just inside and below your hips bones, imagine you are zipping up a tight pair of jeans, fresh from the dryer. Drawing your lower tummy in, you should feel a tightening beneath your fingers. This is your core engaging. Continue to breathe normally as you keep your core engaged.

Head and Neck position: Again, by correcting our head and neck position and placing it in the neutral spine, we are decreasing the amount of stress put on the important structures of the neck and shoulders.


Many of us suffer with chronic neck and shoulder pain, which can often be related to our posture and how we hold ourselves during our daily activities. Correcting head and neck posture is also important for those people who spend prolonged periods of time sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car.

To set our neutral position for the head and neck we want to stop the chin ‘poking’ out. We do this by actively lengthening through the muscles on the back of the neck. This, in turn activates the deep neck flexors on the front of our neck, providing appropriate support for the head and neck.

Try this! Lying on your back, set your neutral position in your lower back and switch on your core. Imagine you have a string attached to the top of your head and it is being pulled gently towards the wall behind you. Alternatively, gently tuck your chin in towards your chest, imagine you are holding an orange underneath your chin. Once in this neutral position, keep the neck and shoulders relaxed.

Shoulder blade position: Shoulder blade placement is another important feature, both to good posture as well as effective Pilates practice.

Due to the amount of time we spend sitting in offices and behind the steering wheel, many of us experience chronic neck and shoulder pain, or recurrent muscle tightness. This is often related to poor posture when seated, leading to the joints and soft tissues of the neck and shoulders becoming over worked and tight. By adopting the appropriate shoulder position, you can relieve the tension held in these muscles, encouraging good posture and reducing muscle pain and soreness.

The ideal placement for the shoulder blades is down and away from your ears, with a broad, open chest. When we focus on positioning the shoulders down and away from the ears, we open through the chest, improving posture.

Try this! Lying flat on your back, find your neutral low back position and switch on your core. Slide your shoulders down and away from your ears, as though your shoulder blades are sliding down and towards your feet.

Ribcage positioning: Ideally, our ribcage should sit directly above our pelvis when we sit and stand. However, many of us tend to arch our backs in sitting and standing, pushing our ribs too far in front of our bodies. This position can increase the stress on the muscles and joints of the lower back, leading to pain and discomfort.


During Pilates exercises, we aim in engage the ribcage and draw it down towards the floor, preventing the ribs from poking up towards the ceiling. You should feel your entire rib cage in contact with the floor. This technique can also be used in sitting, drawing the breast bone inwards, as if through to the wall behind you.

Give it a try! Lying on your back, find your neutral pelvic position and activate your core. Try raising both arms up and over your head, whilst keeping your rib cage drawn down to the floor beneath you. Make sure your ribs are not poking up towards the ceiling.

Breathing: As odd as it may sound, a key aspect of Pilates is teaching the correct and natural way of breathing.

So many of us breathe with the upper-most part of our lungs, not using the valuable lower sections at all! In Pilates, breathing focuses on using all of the sections of the lungs, those which are often forgotten about, by encouraging people to breathe wide into the lungs utilising all sections. This technique allows for maximal intake of oxygen which can then be delivered to your muscles to ‘do work’ and remove waste products. This is often one of the most difficult techniques to incorporate into a Pilates routine, as people are often concentrating of engaging their core. However, when used correctly, it can greatly improve Pilates performance and technique.

Give it a try! Try placing your hands on lower ribs. Take a deep breath, focusing on breathing deeply into the lungs. Feel your ribs expand as you breathe, your hands moving with your ribs. As you breathe out, feel your ribs soften and relax. Aim to maintain your core contraction while controlling the movement of your rib cage.

Combining these 5 features is essential for correct Pilates practice and can be extremely useful to utilize in all of your postures throughout a day. With correct use of these techniques, you should be able decrease the stress on important structures in your body, reducing your chance of pain or injury.


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