Written by: Lindsay McGuire, MS, CSCS, PT, DPT

Our core is an essential part of performing the three main lifts in powerlifting correctly, safely and effectively. Core training is vital to amplify our lift potential but also for maximizing the safety of the lift. I see many training programs that do incorporate core training however it seems many do not train their core to be strong in the position in which we perform our lifts. Many programs include heavy sit-ups, cable crunches, leg lifts, etc. All of these exercises include the same movement which is dynamic spinal flexion which is not the position we perform our lifts in, or at least shouldn’t. This particular movement is dangerous, especially during our deadlifts and squats as it puts our spine in a risky position for potential injury. I am NOT by any means saying stop performing those heavy abdominal exercises because they do play a key role in strengthening your core. I am, however, suggesting adding in additional exercises to strengthen your core with a neutral spine, which is the position we all strive to have during squat and deadlift. Performing these activities as endurance-based exercises for your core instead of strictly strength/power exercises will be extremely beneficial.

Why is this important?  Specificity. This means training in a way that is tailored to a particular movement to assist in the perfect execution of that movement. For example, I wouldn’t run marathons to train for a powerlifting competition and vice versa. You train your legs for squats or your chest for bench, correct? You have to train your core the same way. Second, why would you train your core to activate and perform in a flexed position if you are performing, or should be performing, in a neutral position? Doesn’t make sense right? Lastly, why am I saying train your core with endurance AND strength if we are in a purely strength-based sport? Your core is active at ALL times which means it is very endurance based. This means training it for endurance will be key and also specific to its role even in a strength sport.

This article will talk about one major muscle that is overlooked in core training and why it is important to consider during training. It will also provide a few simple exercises to get you started on a neutral core strengthening journey.

First, what is “neutral spine”? Your spine has three curves: cervical, thoracic and lumbar. See picture below. 1

This is what a normal spine looks like and this is how it should stay throughout our lifts, besides bench press of course in which spinal extension occurs.

Spinal Flexion:                                                                       Spinal Extension:

Too often you see this during your squat and deadlift. This is spinal flexion most likely due to a weak and poorly trained core.  


This is extreme spinal flexion. This happens when your core cannot handle the load in which you are attempting to lift. This then causes your spine to flex forward in a dangerous position for all aspects of your spine, especially your disks.

Quick anatomy of your spine:

I won’t dive into the anatomy of your core muscles too much in this article. However, I would like to touch on your transversus abdominis (TA) which is usually brushed over in training.

The transversus abdominis is the innermost layer of the abdominal musculature and it runs transversely along your abdominal wall. Its origin is the inner surfaces of the lower 6 ribs, anterior aspect of the liliac crest, part of the inguinal ligament and the thoracolumbar fascia. Its insertion is the linea alba and pubic crest and pectin pubis. 2 Essentially it runs from the lower ribs to your pelvis and middle/anterior aspect of your stomach (see below for pictures)3.

The purpose of this muscle is to essentially act like your internal weight lifting belt, or a girdle to keep the abdominal wall flat, compress abdominal viscera and helps to prevent bulging of the anterior abdominal wall. 2 Keeping your TA strong as well as the rest of your core is essential in preventing injuries and maintaining proper spinal alignment during our three main lifts. How to activate this muscle will be addressed later on.

Training with a neutral spine

As I stated above, why would we train our core in a flexed position as many do with for example, crunches when our main lifts AND our daily life lifting and movements should be with a neutral spine? Additionally, why would we always train our core muscles as we would our biceps when its main execution is endurance based? It doesn’t make much sense. So that leads me to my next part of this article. How do we train our core in a neutral position?

Step 1: Finding a neutral spine and activating your TA

Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and your hands under your low back. Push your low back into your hands and perform a posterior pelvic tilt. This is considered a flexed position and it is decreasing your lordosis, the natural curve of your lumbar spine.

Then perform an extreme anterior pelvic tilt which means try and bend your back towards the ceiling and create as much space between your hand and your low back as possible. This is increasing the lordosis in your spine.

Then I want you to find the middle ground between the two. This is the best way to find a general neutral without a professional like a physical therapist doing it for you.

Now that you have found your neutral spine, I want you to contract your core without allowing your low back to move closer to your hands and without your head coming off of the floor.  This is almost a foolproof way to turn on your TA as well as your other core muscles. This may take several tries to achieve and that is OK as this is a critical part of finding and maintaining a neutral spine.

Step 2: Exercises in a neutral spine

Now that you have found a neutral spine and are able to maintain that while contracting your core, you are ready to perform higher-level core activities. Let's start with the basics

Here are three exercises to start with.

The Deadbug

Level 1

  • Lay on your back with your knees bent
  • Find your neutral spine and contract your core. The first picture is too much spinal extension. The second is too much spinal flexion. The third is neutral.
  • Put your hands on your hip bones

  • Slowly lift one knee off the floor without allowing your hip bones to move.
  • Slowly lower that leg back down and repeat on the other side

Level 2

  • Lay on your back with your knees bent
  • Find your neutral spine and contract your core

  • Straighten your arms up overhead

  • Bring both arms back while maintaining neutral spine
  • Do not allow your rib cage to move or your low back to change position

Level 3

  • Lay on your back with your knees bent
  • Find your neutral spine and contract your core
  • Extend one leg while the opposite arm goes into flexion
  • Again, do not allow your rib cage to move or your low back to change position
  • Bring arm back to starting position and repeat on the other side

Level 1

  • Plank on elbows. See below for the proper form.

  • The key with this exercise is to not allow your low back to sink towards the floor or be pushed up towards the ceiling. As shown below.

Level 2

  • Plank with extended arms. See below for the proper form.

  • The key with this exercise is to not allow your low back to sink towards the floor or

be pushed up towards the ceiling. As shown below.


Level 1

  • Begin on your hands and knees
  • Find your neutral spine (see below- first image is too far into spinal extension. The second is too far into spinal flexion. The third is neutral. Then contract your core


  • Slowly extend one arm without allowing your core to move and slowly bring

it back to starting position.

  • Repeat on the other arm.

Level 2

  • Begin on your hands and knees
  • Find your neutral spine and contract your core

  • Slowly extend one leg without allowing your core to move and slowly bring it back to starting position. Then repeat on the other leg.

Level 3

  • Begin on your hands and knees and find your neutral spine. Then contract your core.
  • Alternating arm and leg extension without your core moving.

  • * You can check if you are moving too much by putting a foam roller on your low back and watching how much it moves* As shown below.

All of these exercises should be performed for 1-4 minutes each and increase as your core allows.

In summary, training your internal weightlifting belt with a neutral spine is extremely important in not only the safety of your spine but also your execution of the main lifts.  Additionally, adding in endurance based core stability exercises will promote better spine mechanics throughout all activities and also prevent back injuries in the future and improve the quality of movement during our main lifts.

If you are currently having pain and the pain does not decrease or if it worsens you may consider seeing your primary care physician or local physical therapist to further address these concerns. If you do not have back pain, these are a good and safe option for preventing back issues in the future. I personally program these into my daily routine as I had a pretty debilitating back injury in the past. I have not had serious back pain since after incorporating these concepts into my routine. If any of these exercises cause pain do not continue to persist as this may indicate that these are not appropriate for you.

Thank you to my friend Hannah Elizabeth (Instagram: @han_camfit), NPC Bikini Competitor, for being my awesome model for this article. Also thank you to CrossFit 217 for allowing me to use your facility for these pictures.

Learn more about Lindsay


  1. Orthopaedics C. A Patients Guide to Scoliosis https://http://www.concordortho.com/patient-resources/patient-education/topic/7d73c3bc48d4ee36a79ec50b56f0ac11, 2017.
  2. Moisio K, PT, PHD. Gross Anatomy Course Notes 2014. Chicago, IL Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Department of Physical Therapy & Human Movement Sciences 2014.
  3. Transversus Abdominis -  A Muscle in Profile http://www.pfiwa.com.au/transversus-abdominis/, 2017.


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