...that is the question. Or, those are the questions.
William Shakespeare, asking the tough questions. The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare
The Pelvis: Tuck, Neutral, Arch, oh what, praytell, doth we choose?
Well first of all let's revert to the basic Pilates rule: do the work with zero unnecessary tension. Forcing the pelvis to arch or tuck is unnecessary and creates tension. Enough said? Don't agree? Been to a class where they ask you to tuck? (You don't have to tell me where you took the class, I can take a guess as I've probably been there, too!)
When we tuck the pelvis like an animal tucking his tail between his legs, we are in a submission position. It is both negative emotionally (albeit on the subconscious level, but that is still enough for me to avoid it) and physically to hold such a position. The iliopsoas (hip flexors) shortens as a result and the lumbar discs are compressed, especially near the sacrum. For those of us with a tight iliopsoas this only exacerbates the problem as we have shortened the distance between ASIS (tops of the hipbones) and ribcage with both abdominals and iliopsoas. For those of us with lumbar tightness it does not resolve the issue. And for those of us who are both flexible with iliopsoas and lumbar, it doesn't strengthen the necessary muscles to balance out pelvis and spine.
For ALL of us it causes strain to the lumbar discs. Our discs have a shelf life: we all have a certain number of movements with the spine that it will allow before it breaks down. Some of us are blessed with better genetics in this regard and can get away with bad form and postural habits. But I'm not apt to gamble with the health of my spine, and my guess is neither are you.
The neutral spine provides the opportunity for the entire core to work evenly and with most efficiency. Take a look at some of the strongest athletes and cultures with the least number of back problems and you'll find that the neutral spine is always present. This does not mean being relaxed or allowing the muscles to be lax. It doesn't mean allowing a naturally arched back if the problem stems from tight low back muscles. It means a gently lengthened spine and evenly placed pelvis. For women there tends to be a little more of a tilt forward but it is ever so slight.
The Spine: it can flex, extend, and rotate. The real question is...
...How much should it flex, extend, and rotate? When should it do so? Some health practioners would rather you move your spine like you're doing The Robot-- no spinal movement. No I mean The Robot dance move, think 1980s dance parties with a few fro's, mullets, Jerry curls, and crimped hairdos. Complete the look with parachute pants. For those of you who remember, I'm sorry for the flashback.
Others want you to fold like a weeping willow at Foster City's Ryan Park-- no stability just the most mobility.
Some want super-lengthening abilities to emerge from your spinal erectors, inhibiting your ability to rotate. Others prefer you move more softly to increase your rotational range.
It's enough to make a Pilates student stone cold crazy. What's right and what's wrong? We don't want any spinal problems so a definitive answer would be great.
You know what I'm going to say already. It's going to make sense: think of the Goldilocks and Three Bears children's story. Not too much, not too little. You're going to move with just the right amount of force and that means the least amount of tension. No pain, no feeling of tension.
The spinal discs are very picky about their movements. They need movement somewhat to relubricate themselves via osmosis. But too much movement and they wear down like tires balding from too much friction on the road. The ligaments that hold the vertebral discs in place also have a shelf life. Too much friction from moving the spine with too much range and they get lax. This means danger for the discs and the nerves nearby.
The nerves that radiate from the spine are delicately placed near vertebrae, discs, ligaments, muscles. Stretching any nerve beyond 12% of their ability to lengthen must be avoided to prevent any damage to the body's full function.
What kind of muscles are used and what should we be thinking about when moving the spine?
- A soft reaching sensation to lengthen the spine fully is appropriate as long as one doesn't use other muscles to get to that goal (neck flexors and upper trapezius, for example).
- Bracing the abdominals to move the spine assists in balancing out the back extensors during extension exercises. (This should be done without scooping the abs in like you're sucking in your stomach or you won't be fully connected and can damage the spine. Remember, brace your abs like you're about to be punched in the stomach.)
- The obliques rotate and side bend the spine and yet can assist in preventing too much general rotation and side bending.
- The multifidus is a rather small lower back extensor for one to three vertebral segments.Therefore it supports only a few joints during extension, very small amounts of twisting and small amounts of side-bending.
- The back extensors lengthen as the rectus abdominus (six pack muscles) flex the spine.
- The quadratus lumborum can stabilize the core, or they can assist in side-bending. The same rules apply to lengthen gently, then apply just enough abdominal bracing.
Fact of the Day: Drink plenty of water to keep the vertebral discs healthy, lubricated, and plump.
By Monique Molino
For more information: www.backfitpro.com
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