When I first start working with someone new to the studio, I frequently find that they really want to tuck their pelvis during various Pilates exercises.
What’s more, some people’s bodies actually remain in a tucked-pelvis position throughout their lives, whether they are standing, sitting, or lying down. It’s what they’ve become accustomed to and what feels normal.
If you’re used to tucking your pelvis when you exercise, the idea of not tucking may be confusing and feel foreign because somewhere down the line you were probably taught to keep your pelvis tucked. The reasons you might have been given to tuck may be many: to protect your neck, to protect your back, or even to optimize the focus on the working muscle groups, etc.
However, as I’ll demonstrate, these and other reasons are actually mostly mythical and I’d like to offer a few much better reasons to avoid tucking your pelvis.
Traditional abdominal training, and even some schools of Pilates, still teach people to tuck the pelvis. You might be amazed to know that even Joseph Pilates may have taught people to tuck the pelvis in order to flatten out the back because he believed that “…the spine should be flat like a newly-born infant even throughout adult life.” (Pilates, Return to Life pg. 27)[pullquote_right]I’ve never once heard anyone say “My goal is to get my ribs closer to my hips”, “I’d like a shorter waist please”, or “I’d like my pelvis tilted towards my face.” Quite the contrary, the overall goal I hear is better posture, a longer torso and leaner waist and a body that moves with ease. All these goals are achieved by working and strengthening the body while in a lengthened state and not tucking the pelvis.[/pullquote_right]
But Joseph Pilates didn’t have access to the extraordinary new knowledge of the body that we have today. I like to think that if he had learned what we know, he would have modified his approach to accommodate the constantly increasing knowledge of anatomy.
We now know that the natural curves in our spines are there for a reason. They help absorb the compressive forces we meet through living a life in an upright position under the pull of gravity. Our spinal curves serve as natural shock absorbers.
Interestingly enough, a baby’s back is flat, but only until the baby starts crawling. When a baby begins the transition to living in an upright world through lifting its head, crawling and walking, its little spine begins to develop the lumbar, cervical and thoracic curves.
Originally, I was taught that tucking the pelvis and flattening the spine into the floor was a bad idea because it created spinal compression on the anterior (front) side of the spine. And for a time, I feared that the slightest tuck of a person’s pelvis could compress their spine and send a disc bulging right out.
What I’ve learned since is that the lumbar curve is more resilient than that. Even if you tuck your pelvis and press your low back into the mat, your spine isn’t completely straight, or completely flattened out. Part of your lumbar curve remains and protects you from damaging compression. (However, if you have an existing bulging disc in the spine, tucking the pelvis could exacerbate the issue.)
So, if spinal compression isn’t the main reason you don’t want to tuck the pelvis, as I once thought, what’s the problem with tucking the pelvis?
1. Over-Stretching the Ligaments of the Sacroiliac Joint
When you tuck the pelvis to lift the head, neck and shoulders off the floor, or to lift the hips off of the floor, chances are you’ve squeezed your glutes together to make it happen.
Squeezing the glutes together squeezes the sitting bones (ischiums) together, which makes the pelvic bones (iliums) spread at the top, and this results in a strain or over-stretch on the ligaments of the sacroiliac (SI) joint.
If you look at the picture, you can see that you have 2 pelvic bones that are joined by the sacrum. The top of the pelvic bones are called the iliums. The bottom of the pelvic bones are called the ischiums.
If you squeeze the 2 ischiums together, it will cause the 2 iliums to be pulled away from the sacrum at the top creating a strain on the ligaments that hold the sacrum in place.
This might not hurt right away, but chronic use of this maneuver over time is likely to create pain in the SI joint itself, or even the low back.
For exercises that require glute activation, such as a bridge, you want the glutes to activate, but squeezing the glutes together and activating the glutes are two very different actions.
2. Lost Transverse Abdominis Engagement
If you’re squeezing your glutes to tuck your pelvis, you’re not going to be able to access your transverse abdominis (TA) muscle, which is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle and the muscle you want to connect and activate first in Pilates.
Squeezing your glutes and tucking your pelvis is, in fact, completely backwards. The glutes are external muscles and activating them first actually works against the goal of strengthening the core and flattening your abs.
The core muscles are the deepest muscles in the body and are closest to the bones. If muscles were runners, the core musculature would be your marathon runners. These are your postural muscles and they are in it for the long haul to support you throughout the day. When doing Pilates, you want to connect to and activate these core muscles first and work outward from there.
Your more exterior muscles (glutes, quads, 6-pack) are your sprinters. They carry you from point A to point B when you are walking, dancing or running. You totally need them, of course, but they are not designed to sprint non-stop all the time.
Underneath the exterior muscles, your deepest core muscles are working as a support system so the exterior muscles can work more efficiently. Because of this support system, when everything is in working order, you will have more power and stability behind every single move you make.
This support system will also help you age more gracefully and with better balance and the transverse abdominis (TA) is a vital key to developing and strengthening your core muscle support system.
Tucking the pelvis for an exercise prevents the TA connection from happening because, in order to tuck, not only are you squeezing your glutes, but you have to invite the hip flexors to the party too. Chances are, the hip flexors are going to bring their friends the obliques along. With all these external muscles activating first, you’ve got an external muscle ruckus going on and the TA doesn’t stand a chance. It’s more likely to remain unactivated and you’ll miss the opportunity to build your core strength.
3. Are You Creating a Short Compressed Body with Poor Posture?
Or are you creating a long, decompressed and relaxed body with beautiful posture?
Think about the type of body you want to create. Pilates is famous for the long, lean bodies it creates. The reason? Every single move you make in Pilates is designed to focus internally on the core to create length in your spine.
Whether you’re building strength or flexibility, it doesn’t matter, the method you use to strengthen and stretch your body is ultimately what it will become.
If you strengthen your body in a shortened and compressed state, your results will be short and compressed. Shortened and compressed equates to tighter and less mobile.
If you work and strengthen your body with length, your results will be long and decompressed. Long and decompressed equates to length, flexibility and greater mobility.
Take a look at the crunch, or sit-up.
First, consider the abdominal-crunch with a tucked pelvis. Look at the space between the ribs and the hips.
Now take a look at the crunch with a neutral pelvis. Look at the space between the ribs and the hips.
If you were to take these photos and turn them so that they are in an upright position it gives you an even clearer idea of what you are creating in the body when you tuck and compress versus maintaining length.
In the photo below, note the alignment of the heels remains the same and you’ll more easily be able to see the huge difference in length that occurs when you don’t tuck your pelvis and instead engage the TA.
I’ve never once heard anyone say “My goal is to get my ribs closer to my hips”, “I’d like a shorter waist please”, or “I’d like my pelvis tilted towards my face.” Quite the contrary, the overall goal I hear is better posture, a longer torso and leaner waist and a body that moves with ease. All these goals are achieved by working and strengthening the body while in a lengthened state and not tucking the pelvis.
If you’re used to working with a tucked pelvis, or you feel like your workouts are currently done in a compressed state, Pilates feels very different at first. Having the work come from the inside out and working in a state of lengthened awareness feels completely different from working on the exterior muscles and compressing things.
And the beauty of Pilates and this lengthened workout is that it translates into every other part of your life.
In every physical activity you participate in, whether it’s dance, football, hairstyling, running, Crossfit, yoga or swimming, these principles go underneath it all to give your body the length, stability and efficiency that helps you excel in everything you do.
All you have to be is willing and open to feeling this difference in your body. This is the first, most important step.
The best thing I can hear someone say after they’ve completed a session is “I feel taller”. This is my favorite side effect of Pilates!
Now that we know why tucking the pelvis isn’t an efficient, or safe way to strengthen and lengthen the body, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll talk about the antidote to a tucked pelvis. I’ll share with you exactly what a neutral pelvis is, why you want one and how to do it perfectly all the time.
See you in the studio,