What the tuck? Pelvic tucking vs neutral spine

To tuck or not to tuck? That is the great debate among Pilates teachers, barre instructors, and fitness professionals.

Some claim tucking saves your back and strengthens your abs.

Others argue it wrecks your spine n’ hips.

Who’s right?!

In this post, I’m going define what it means to tuck or have a neutral pelvis. I’ll also explain why you might choose one position over another.

But first, a PSA juu-uuust in case you decide reading is hard and biomechanics are boring.

Stop freaking tucking in standing work like squats and plies.

Doing it in a single instance – particularly without weight – isn’t a crisis. However, over time #100barreclasseslater, it can make your back, hips, and knees unhappy.

Why?

Hardcore tucking disrupts the natural movement of your knees, hips, and back. It also compresses the heck outta your joints.

Not sure what to do with your hips in a plie? Check out this video.

What’s a tuck?

Tuck
/tək/
verb

1. A posterior pelvic tilt where you gently roll the pubic bone towards the rib cage to flatten the low back curve. We call this an imprint in Pilates.

2. Sucking belly button to spine, flattening the back, and squeezing your butt – aka the “suck and tuck”

The first, I use for specific exercises. The second is a biomechanical nightmare, but I hear it cued a lot in fitness.

However, for most exercises, particularly when standing, the default pelvic position is neutral.

Dude, where’s my (neutral) pelvis?

Neutral pelvis + spine means your natural spinal curves are prevent. These curves act shock absorbers when your walk, squat, or deadlift. Performing these exercises outside of neutral may cause more force to land in your joints, which can contribute to pain.

The greater the impact or load (aka weight) involved, the greater the forces running through your joints + the more important your alignment becomes.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of neutral, see the video + definitions below.  

NEUTRAL SPINE = ribs stacked roughly over the pelvis with a small low back curve present.

NEUTRAL PELVIS = pubic bone and front of the hip bones in roughly in the same plane.

I emphasize roughly, because everyone’s neutral will be different.

Forcing your body “neutral” position that hurts isn’t any better than forcing it into a tuck.

However, neutral alignment is a reasonable landmark during exercise, because:

  • It’s where forces pass most evenly through your joints for minimal compression
  • Your deep core (e.g. pelvic floor, diaphragm, multifidus, TVA) engage best from this position
  • You’ll get balanced muscle activation
  • An important aspect of core training is the ability resist spinal rotation against outside forces.

Conversely, forcing your pelvis into a tuck, jams your hips and back, and disrupts core timing.

In short, it’s a weird position that can contribute to repetitive stress injuries and pain with enough repetition and load.

And in the really long run, it can even = hip replacements. #justsaying

And that was a fancy way of saying the “suck and tuck” isn’t a functional or realistic way to move. If you’re unsure, try walking a mile like that.

It’ll look hilarious and you won’t get very far 😉

But what about all the people who say that the suck and tuck will help your back and fix alignment?

I don’t think they’re trying to hurt you, but I do think they’re confused about the application of the #science

Here’s what we know about the core, the spine, and tucking:

  • You DO get more abdominal engagement from the outer unit of the core (6 pack muscle, obliques, ect) when you tuck. This applies to both imprint and the more aggressive tuck.
  • Imprinting can reduce low back tension if the low back muscles (extensors) are a hyper active.
  • Joint movement is healthy and flexion is a natural movement of the spine. You should be able to move your pelvis and your spine in all directions + without load, the risk of injury is low.
  • It’s possible to over recruit your abs and science has found that “strong” abs don’t mean less back pain. Rather, the ability to control + feel where you are in space is a better indicator of if your back will hurt.

When should you tuck?

1. During unloaded mobility or abdominal exercises that emphasize spinal articulation

Cat cow is a great exercise that happens to involve a pelvic tuck. The pelvis rolls under into a tuck and the spine gets to flex. Then the pelvis moves the opposite way and the spine extends.

You can also tuck during exercises like Pilates roll ups or articulated bridges.

If you aren’t injured, this is one way train your core to control movement through your spine.

Pain science suggests that body awareness is a key way of decreasing signals of pain, so this is a good thing!

2. If a core exercise is challenging and tucking will stop you from putting a big arch in your back.

A small tuck creates more abdominal engagement. This can help support your spine during exercises like dead bugs, where you lie on your back.

Ideally, you would be able to maintain a neutral position for these exercises. But if you don’t have the strength to do this, tucking can help you recruit your abs and minimize low back strain.

3. If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt.

For some people, the pelvis tips too anteriorly, which is the opposite position of tucking.

If this is you, going into a small tuck could help you find a more neutral pelvic position during exercise.

However, an anterior pelvic tilt can also come from the tension in the legs or the ribs. In these cases, tucking won’t address the problem.

For more information on this, watch the video below.

4. If you want to emphasize hip extension to access your glutes or stretch your hip flexors.

Tucking the pelvis emphasizes hip extension, which actives the glutes. This is helpful in glute exercises like bridges or hip thrusts.

Also, stretching the hip flexors can feel nice and the best way to stretch a hip flexor is through hip extension.

5. If you have a spinal pathology that requires moving with a flexion bias.

This is a #askyourdoc question, but for some spinal conditions it’s safer to work with the back a little rounded.

And if that was TMI, here are the quick n’ dirty rules:

Avoid tucking…

  • If you have a spinal condition where your doc or physical therapist told you not to.
  • During loaded standing exercises (e.g. squats with a barbell, deadlifts)

Gentle tucking is cool if…

  • You’re stretching your hip flexors
  • You’re practicing spinal articulation (usually with minimal load)
  • You’re targeting your glutes in a hip extension based exercise
  • You have an anterior pelvic tilt and it helps make you neutral
  • You have a spinal condition and your doctor told you to tuck
  • You feel your back moving into a big arch during a hard exercise and you need to find more core engagement
  • You’re trying to rock some sweet dance moves #anythinggoes

Conclusion:

What the Tuck? Pelvic Tiltling vs. Neutral Spine #pelvictilting #neutralspine #pelvictuck #naablevyI’m not in the militantly neutral camp.

I think your spine is built to move in all directions. I don’t have a problem with moving spinal flexion or tucking with a specific goal in mind.

But we create problems if we aggressively tuck in every exercise we do.

I understand that most fitness professionals are well meaning when they cue aggressive tucking.

Tons of people (myself included) look like they have a giant arch in their back and tucking makes it look better.

The problem is that the pelvic position isn’t always the problem. Often times it’s from poor placement of the ribs due to a poor thoracic/upper back mobility.

The suck and tuck might make things look better, but it can create more dysfunction, without addressing the underlying issue.

I realize that was a lot of information. This is the THIRD rewrite of a blog I wrote 4 years ago (yes, you read that right!)

So if you’ve got a question, please feel free to reach out to me via social media or email. I’d be happy to answer it!

And if you found the info in this blog helpful, I’d love for you to share it with your friends over brunch! #Ilovewaffles

There are 6 comments on this post

  1. vicki
    10 hours ago

    I have always tucked my pelvis and held my hips tightly for some reason. I have just had an xray and told I need hip replacement surgery. One hip is 2 inches higher than the other one. If my pelvis is messed up from all this tucking, will the hip surgery put me in a position for it to get back to neutral or am I just going to keep have this misalignment , but now with a new artificial hip?

    Reply
    1. Nikki Naab-Levy Author
      12 hours ago

      Hi Vicki,

      Thanks for your question.

      For a more technical answer specific to your case, I’d say consult a physical therapist or your doc, but here’s a more general answer based on what I’ve studied/my experience working with clients who’ve had or have been recommended hip replacements. While the hip replacement may change the relative alignment of your bones, it’s muscular strength/weakness/tension that determines how the muscles fire and therefore the pelvic position. Knowing this, even if the surgery changes your relative alignment, you’ll likely have the same areas of strength and weakness around your hips and spine that you did prior to surgery. The good news is that if you start strengthening the muscles around your hips in a more neutral alignment (which for you may initially be in a small tuck), then your body will learn to support holding the pelvis in this new place and as a result you might feel less tension and discomfort around the hips and recover from your hip replacements faster once you’re in the post-rehab phase. If you need examples of hip exercises, I have tons of videos on my blog for hip and core work, but here’s one with 3 of my go tos: https://naablevy.com/gluteus-medius-exercises/

      Also, I’ll be doing a free challenge in the coming months for happier, stronger hips + sharing a lot of new content on this subject, so if you want to be in the know and you aren’t already on my list, feel free to sign up for it via the red opt-in box for the foam rolling handbook on this page 🙂

      Please let me know if you have any questions. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  2. Susan
    4 hours ago

    This was a great article. It was the perfect balance of science and easy to understand, practical applications. I also loved your use of humorous videos to demonstrate a posterior tilt!

    Please don’t ever feel like you should be apologetic for making an article too long or reworking it. You are obviously very good at what you do. OWN IT. I don’t think I’ve ever read An article by a man in which he apologized for what he wrote. I think it’s what we as women Sometimes do.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog posts. Thank you so much.

    Reply
    1. Nikki Naab-Levy Author
      18 hours ago

      Hi Susan! Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words. I’m so happy you liked the article! So true re the bit about men having an easier time owning their words 😉 xo Nikki

      Reply
  3. Danielle
    8 hours ago

    I absolutely adore my NASM certified personal trainer, but she cues me to tuck until my tailbone is pointed straight down to the floor for pretty much everything, which I assume is the cause of my recent development of chronic low back pain. I spoke to a physical therapist who confirmed that my assumption is likely correct, but my trainer is 110% convinced from her own personal experience and professional training that the tuck is safer than neutral so she doesn’t feel comfortable instructing me to workout without tucking. Can you share some reference materials I can use to help convince her that her method is no longer considered the safest option?

    Reply
    1. Nikki Naab-Levy Author
      18 hours ago

      Hi Danielle,

      My apologies for the delayed response. Somehow this got buried in my inbox :-/

      I’d suggest looking into Stuart McGills work, because it’s centered heavily around neutral pelvis under load. I do think as always it depends and preparedness/adaptation to load can matter as much as the body position (aka it’s not a crisis to work outside of neutral and some people may be fine in flexion), but in any case, he’s highly respected and has done a lot of work on that subject relating to back pain, so perhaps start there.

      Hope that helps!

      Nikki

      Reply

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