For many years, starting in the early 80’s I taught aerobics. One of the things that I remember clearly when teaching abdominal work was to do a pelvic tilt and press the lower back down to the mat so that it flattened. We always said that you should do this to protect your lower back. Even Joseph Pilates wrote that the lower back should be flattened when doing exercises. His reasoning was that when we were a fetus, our spines were rounded like a C and this was the proper curve for the spine – this was the prevailing wisdom in the 1930’s.
Sadly, we were not only misleading people but we probably hurt more than a few people as well with this cue.
Over the years, we have learned that the lower back should have a natural inward curve to it. It should not be flat. When you are lying on your back, there should be two places in your spine that do NOT touch the mat – the back of your neck and your lower back. The inward curve in the lower back is critically important for a strong and healthy spine. Think of it like the foundation of a tall building – when it is strong, the rest of the building is strong and solid. Doing abdominal work with the lower back flattened overstretches the small muscles that support this area of the spine and it creates weakness. Worse, it can lead to herniated discs, sciatica, lower back pain and other spinal problems.
When doing Pilates, it’s really important to have what we call a “neutral pelvis”. This position of pelvis is defined by 3 bones – the two hip bones and the pubic bone (see below).
When you are lying on your back, these three bones will form a level plane when you have a neutral pelvis. In this position, there will be an inward curve in your lower back and it will NOT touch the mat. It’s hard to see in the photos below, but there is enough space that I can slip my hand underneath my lower back. It’s not flattened. In the second photo, you can see that the three bones are level and you could balance a cup of tea on my hands and it would not spill. (In a pelvic tilt, the tea would be slopping into my navel!)
If you have any sort of spinal condition (such as sciatica, a herniated disc, osteoporosis) it is absolutely critical that you work in a neutral pelvis position. Flattening your lower back will cause you pain and can make your condition worse. My neighbour had one herniated disc at L3/L4 and managed to herniate a second one by doing ab work with a flat back.
All of my downloadable workouts include an Ab Tutorial that teaches you how to find and hold a neutral pelvis. All abdominal work is done with this position so that you are strengthening the foundation of your spine in it’s optimal position. Check out the workouts that I have available (my website is on the right side of this page!)
If you are not sure which one is best for you, email me and I’ll help you!