Having a neutral pelvis and a neutral spine is something that is talked about frequently; whether in an article about how to ride, or in an article about our health. But what are they and why are they really so important?
As horse riders, I suppose the main reason they are so important is because we need to find our neutral pelvis and spine to become effective riders. But there is a far more fundamental reason to worry about finding our neutral spine and pelvis, a reason that applies to everyone, horse rider or not and that is our own long term health depends on it! Stated another way, if you are not in neutral spine and pelvic alignment, your body has to compensate somehow for the less than ideal posture, which causes unnecessary and potential harmful strain in your shoulders, back and/or legs.
A neutral pelvis is exactly the same thing in every human body. It is the alignment of the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) or the bony protuberances at the front of your pelvic girdle (that are often called your hips bones) and the pubic bone on the Sagittal Plane (or in other words the front or anterior plane.)
You can create this alignment when lying down, sitting on a chair, kneeling, standing or riding a horse and in Pilates we look for this alignment at the start of every movement.
A neutral spine is different in everybody, although it has the same elements which are the natural and balanced curves of the spine that occur when the pelvis is in neutral. This is important because it is only when we have the natural curvature of the spine that we get the maximum amount of space between each of our vertebra. Each vertebra is shaped with slightly angled tops and bottoms so that they fit against each other (with the discs in between) to create these curves. When they have the natural curves and the maximum spaces in between, the nerves can flow out of your spinal cord without impingement or resistance. If the spaces are compromised you can get trapped nerves leading to severe back pain and sciatica.
We therefore need as much space between adjacent vertebrae as possible. Obviously our spinal discs are there to do just this but over time those discs degenerate and we need to use muscles to support and separate our vertebra instead, which is why correct exercise becomes increasingly more important the older we get.
Now whilst a neutral pelvis is exactly the same in every person, the neutral spine is different for each individual. Everyone’s spine curves a little (to some degree or another) at the neck, upper back, and lower back. These curves, which create your spine’s S shape, are called the lordotic (neck and lower back) and kyphotic (upper back). They help your body:
- • Absorb shock
- • Support the weight of the head
- • Align your head over your pelvis
- • Stabilize and maintain the structure of the spine
- • Move and bend flexibly
We can’t set a neutral spine because it is the height of each individual’s vertebrae as well as the particular angles of the tops and bottoms of those vertebrae that determine the size of the curves. However when we achieve a neutral pelvis we get a neutral spine – we don’t set the curves, they exist and we can then work to strengthen and balance the muscles to further support the spine.
Of course, life and age seems to do the utmost to ruin the correct curvature of our spine. With all the imbalances of life that we develop over time we end up tipping our pelvis one way or the other, or tipping our shoulder girdle forward or back, and eliminating the natural and correct curvature in our spine.
As a Pilates Instructor as well as a Rider Biomechanics coach one of the common problems I see is the hollow backed rider – or more correctly someone with anterior pelvic tilt. This is when your hip bones (or your ASIS) are tipped forward of the pubic bone which creates an over arch in the lower back. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:
- • Insecurity in the saddle
- • Limited suppleness of the shoulder girdle and hips
- • A difficulty in obtaining an elastic contact
- • Encourages the rider to ride from their shoulders and hands and not from their core
- • Perches the rider on top of the horse
- • Lower or mid-back pain
- • Weak Core
- • Tight hamstrings
The opposite of the hollow backed rider is the C-shaped rider or a rider with a posterior pelvic tilt. This is when the hip bones are tipped backward of the pubic bone (tucked pelvis). This is frequently accompanied by a rounding of the spine and a tendency to look down. This postural problem is not uncommon with those who spend a long time sitting in front of a computer or at a desk. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:
- • Chair seat
- • Strain on intervertebral discs
- • Being left behind the movement of the horse
- • Rounded shoulders
- • Causes the rider to look down, or to jut the chin
- • Using the reins for balance
In life, we move our pelvis through both anterior and posterior tilt, our pelvis and spine are supposed to be able to pass through all sorts of different tilts and curves. However we need to be able to find and stabilize our position in neutral pelvis on command. Now, it’s Dynamic Stability we’re looking for not a rigid, forced stability. That is a position that is created not by one set of muscles, but a multitude of muscles that are in balance with each other to keep up this dynamic stability.
So which muscles do you need to work with to obtain a healthy spine and improve your riding? Well I suppose the answer is any that connect to your pelvis as well as all the spinal extensors and flexors! That is your transverse abdominals, the rectus abdominals, your psoas, illiacus, periformis, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the adductors and adductors, etc.etc.
Probably one of the most important exercise you can do to begin with is one that creates an awareness of just where your hips and pelvis are, one that allows you to feel the full range of movement of your pelvis and spine, that passes from anterior tilt, through neutral pelvis to posterior tilt (and back again).
On the Mat
Lie in Relaxation Position, knees bent, feet flat on floor a hip width apart. Rest your arms by your side.
Release the muscles of your back and let the weight of your body sink onto the floor. Make a mental note of where you feel the weight of your body touching the floor.
Now take an inhale breath and on the exhale scoop in your abdominal muscles and lift your Pubic bone towards the ceiling. This should move the top of your pelvis towards the floor (posterior tilt) flattening your lower back into the mat.
On the next inhale take your hip bones forwards and downwards towards your thighs which will move your lower back away from the floor (anterior pelvic tile), and increase the arch in your back.
Slowly alternate between flattening and arching your back, inhaling as you arch your spine and exhaling as you flatten your spine to the floor.
Gradually decrease your range of movement, until like a pendulum moving more and more slowly your lower back comes to rest in its natural curve and your pelvis is in neutral.
When your pelvis is in neutral alignment, your pubic bone and the ASIS (left and right hip bones) will be parallel to the floor.
For more information on Pilates exercises for your pelvis and spine and how Pilates can improve your riding visit my website http://frangriffith.com Here you will find a number of free videos and articles as well as details of how to join live on demand classes for Riders, or subscribe to a monthly membership that grants you access to a plethora of videos at anytime.