Tucked vs. Neutral Pelvic Alignment in Exercise

Neutral Pelvis

Young man lying on a yoga mat after workout
Nicolas Hanson/E+/Getty Images

Understanding pelvic alignment in exercise should be a priority for anyone seeking to maximize the effectiveness of the moves they do. The alignment of the pelvis affects everything above and below it, from the alignment of the spine and neck to that of the legs and feet.

Tucked pelvic alignment is associated with poor posture, back pain, and at the least, inefficient movement patterns. When we over tuck the pelvis, we engage a set of muscles including our hip flexors, glutes (butt muscles) and quadriceps in a way that creates an inefficient, and potentially injurious, alignment of the pelvis.

In Pilates instruction, there is some variation about whether to do certain exercises with a flat back or a neutral spine. Some Pilates exercises are done in a way that allows the back to lengthen along the mat in response to the engagement of the abdominal muscles creating a slight tilt of the pelvis. But this is not the excessive tuck that is getting in a lot of people's way. There is not much debate, however, about the overly tucked pelvis. It won't work.

On this page, we take a close-up look at the neutral pelvis, and on the next page, the overly tucked pelvis. I think you will be able to see the difference. In the photo above, our model has a neutral pelvis. Neutral is generally the most efficient and natural alignment for the pelvis, whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down.

To see that our model's pelvis is in a neutral alignment, notice that if a plate were set on her lower abdomen, it would lie flat, not tilting down or up. If she were to take this position standing, you could imagine that her pelvis was a bowl of water and that the water sits evenly and not slosh out to the front or the back.

The Overly Tucked Pelvis

pelvic alignment
An over-tucked pelvic alignment. Marguerite Ogle

Here our model has over tucked her pelvis. This is a common habit in exercise, but ultimately it is very limiting. It is a position that does not stabilize the pelvis or work the abdominal muscles in optimal ways.

You can see that if a plate were set on our model's lower abdomen, it would not lie flat, it would tilt toward her belly button. In order to get her pelvis this tucked, our model has engaged her hip flexor muscles in a way that is going to inhibit freedom of movement. There is too much tilt to the whole pelvic structure.

This position might look familiar. Lots of people end up here when they try to do exercises like crunches, or the Pilates roll up and chest lift. This position makes it harder to get up, and harder to work the muscles you really want to work, like the abs.

Tucked Pelvic Alignment Inhibits Efficient Movement

pilates exercise
Our model's pelvis is too tucked to let her roll up. Marguerite Ogle

Take note all of you who have trouble doing the Pilates roll-up! Here, our model attempts to do a Pilates roll up with an overly tucked pelvis. You might be able to see the futility of it. You might also imagine how practicing moving with a tucked pelvis would promote back pain and other inefficient movement patterns in daily life.

Here, our model's hip flexors are bunched up at the front of her thigh at the hip crease, her quads are overly involved, and there is no way she is going to get her upper body up-and-over with the pelvis tucked to this extent. Not only that, but you might be able to imagine how the exertion of hip flexors can make the legs want to fly up - a common problem in roll-up moves. Our model has gone so far that she is having trouble maintaining parallel legs and her feet are rolling out to the side

Do you see how our model almost looks compressed where the top of the thigh meets the hip, rather than long and open? What we want to see here is a pelvis that naturally reflects a slight lengthening and flattening of our model's back along the floor as she prepares to roll up -- without the big tuck and the hip flexors getting in the way.

Learn to work with differences in pelvic alignment for exercise yourself: Practice finding your neutral alignment. Then go to the roll up and do it without a tuck. Once your abs get strong it will be much easier than fighting your hip flexors!

Thanks to Susie Haggas of Happy Cat Pilates for being willing to demonstrate some "wrong" positions.