What is a neutral pelvis? Often when talking about posture, you’ll hear the following words applied to your spine, “elongate,” “lengthen,” “suspend,” and possibly, “float.” What you won’t hear too much of are words like “flatten” or “straighten.” The reason is that the spine is not built straight, it has three curves in it – similar to an “S.” Therefor, our healthiest spine is never straight: it is neutral, with the natural curves of the neck, the upper back, and the low back aligned.
At the bottom of that snakey spine is our pelvis, and its positioning both relates to the neutral curve of our low back and the ability of the muscles around the pelvis to fire. When laying on your back in Pilates class, if your lumbar spine (low back) and pelvis are in neutral, the vertebrae come away from the mat. (The flesh may or may not, and this doesn’t always relate to our perceived “extra flesh” – if you’re laying on your back gravity will pull the fleshy tissues and organs down towards that mat, and some spines are less curvy than others and will thus have less of a window.)
In this neutral position, your body is able to fire a 360 degree support system for your low back and pelvis – consisting of your pelvic floor and your deepest layers of abdominal and back extensors (transverse abdominus and multifidi). It is this 360 support that we need to protect our backs when standing, lifting heavy objects, and doing vigorous movements. Back in Pilates class – if you take your pelvis out of neutral by flattening your low back into the mat, your back extensors are now in an elongated position and are unable to fire.
Here is where we enter into the debate of neutral vs. tucked pelvis (with the low back flattened into the mat). If you are doing your abdominal exercises with your low back pressed into the mat, you WILL be deeply strengthening your low abs. Because of the tactile sense of the mat, you will also have a good idea of where your back is, and so it will be easier for you to avoid injury to the low back by overworking the large back extensors. These are both good things, and that is why in large mat classes instructors will often tell everyone to press their backs into the mat and keep them there.
What everyone is missing in these classes, however, is the strengthening of the multifidi – the smallest and deepest back extensors. (Remember that if you flatten your back into the mat they are elongated and unable to fire.) I have seen multiple clients with SI joint instability, lumbar disc issues, and general low back discomfort that NEED additional multifidi strengthening in order to overcome their discomfort. And even if we’re not in pain, developing uneven strength can set us up for it down the road. What we need is to be able to safely work the multifidi by keeping the pelvis in neutral, and be able to sense where our pelvis and backs are as we’re moving so that we don’t go into a position that will overwork the larger back extensors (overworking these guys is an injury waiting to happen). This is a delicate balance, and one I feel is critically important to practice.
I’m a neutral pelvis gal because I want my clients to develop their 360 degrees of strength, and not walk out of my classes with only 180 degrees turned on and ready to meet the challenges of the day. I keep my classes small so that I can coach everyone to find their neutral pelvis and move with it safely. A supported neutral pelvis is harder to sense that pressing your back into the mat, and in a small class I can give individual attention to ensure we’re all working correctly, safely, and getting the most out of our hour-long class.
With that said, it’s never a “never.” I have taught large classes to corporate groups and pre-professional dancers, and in these classes I have instructed everyone to press their backs into the mat so that, even if I didn’t have my eyes on them, I knew they would be safe. I’ve also worked with clients who would benefit more from the additional abdominal work of pressing their backs down, and so I may have them work there. My passion is always working to understand each client’s individual body and help him or her also understand it and live in it better. Thus, I’d like to send a big THANKS out to all my clients. Only for people like you do I get so concerned and adamant about such a peculiar issue as the position of a pelvis.