Remember the days of sit-ups past, where a fitness teacher instructed you to flatten your back into the mat and crunch, crunch, crunch? The reason you were told to do this, if you recall, was to protect your low back. Isn’t it ironic, then, that millions of collective curls later, we have become a nation of back pain sufferers?
So let’s examine the premise that flattening one’s back into the mat “protects” the low back, and see the logic and limitations of this method. Last week, I described and lauded the Pelvic Tilt as a means to developing a relationship with your lower abdominal region. Just as your fitness instructor told you, pressing your back into the mat does have a strengthening effect on the lower fibers of the rectus abdominus (the six pack muscle), provided that the flattening motion occurs through abdominal effort rather than pushing with the legs. For those who are particularly weak in their lower abs, flattening the low back is important and effective for developing awareness and strength. However, our culture is so focused on midriff tone that we ignored what was going on in the back body while our front body was getting ripped.
Most of our muscles work in pairs (or complexes) that aid and support movement. While one muscle contracts on one side of the body to make our bones move (the agonist), another muscle on the other side of the body stretches (the antagonist) to allow for that movement. A clear example of this is the bicep/tricep relationship in our arms. Pick up a sack of groceries, and you can feel the front of the arm contract. Now, keep holding up those groceries, and feel the back of the arm. Notice that it, too, is moving, but it is elongating to allow for the arm to bend.
Our abdominal muscles and our back muscles have a similar, albeit more complicated, relationship. When we did daily crunches with our backs pressed into the mat, our abdominal muscles were shortening and becoming tight. But our back muscles weren’t just standing at the ready—they were elongating to make space for the trunk to move. Crunch after crunch we were over stretching our low back muscles and tightening our front muscles creating a very unhealthy postural habit of tucking the pelvis in stance. Our natural lumbar curve was gradually diminishing and our spinal discs were bearing an unusual load. Combine weakened back muscles with hours of sitting at the computer and voila! Back problems.
Enter the concept of “Neutral Pelvis”—a vexing Pilates term that new practitioners have trouble understanding. Instead of doing all of that crunching with our spines in a consistently lengthened position, modern Pilates theory posits that doing those same small crunches while maintaining our natural lumbar curve allows our back muscles and our abdominal muscles to tone together as they would in stance. And, though not covered this week, maintaining a neutral pelvis throughout a variety of movements (not just endless sit-ups) provides a functional foundation for core support.
To find neutral pelvis:
• Start by pelvic tilting for a few minutes.
• Feel the outer ranges of your back arching and flattening.
• Come to the center where you are half way between your arch and your flat back.
• Place the heels of your hands on your hip bones and your fingers angled in on your pubic bone. If you are in neutral pelvis, these three bones will be on the same plane. Your fingers will not be above or below your palms. In other words, if you were to lay a pane of glass on your hip bones and pubic bone, it would be level.
Once you have achieved neutral pelvis, interlace your fingers and bring your hands behind your head (to support your head and neck). Try lifting your head, neck and chest off the mat (keeping your low ribs on the mat) and see if you can maintain neutral pelvis. If you are not used to doing this, it will seem counterintuitive, but I urge you to keep going. You will begin to feel a different sort of abdominal contraction that starts at the base of the body (the pelvic floor) and engages the muscles between your pubic bone and belly button without compressing the area under your sternum. One sign of success is that there will be an intense core sensation without restricting your breath. You will be able to maintain a gentle curve in your low back toning your back extensors without strain. And you will begin to feel this tone when you are standing and walking.
Now you have two exercises you can perform on your own to build basic core strength:
• Pelvic Tilts
• Chest Lifts
I encourage you to practice both this week in preparation for next week’s discussion of the breath.