Alignment is pretty important for all of us, but especially so if you are pregnant or postnatal. Would you like to say goodbye to your lower back and neck pain? Want to repair your abdominal separation? Would you like a pelvic floor that doesn’t leak?
The first step in achieving these things is mastering your alignment. We don’t want to build strength on a body that isn’t optimally positioned, because without improving on your alignment first you are not going to be able to improve your core strength, the foundation on which all other movements are built (see our blog about the core muscles here).
What is Alignment?
Basically, it’s how your body is positioned, the placement of your body parts relative to one another. When our bones and joints are in an optimal position, our muscles can apply force onto those joints and do their job most easily. A lot of chronic aches and pains, a diastasis, and pelvic floor dysfunction call all benefit from improved alignment.
What Does Good Alignment Look Like?
Pilates is based upon the principle of biomechanics, the area of science concerned with the analysis of mechanics of human movement. In other words it is the science of explaining how and why the human body moves in the way that it does and the different forces that are acting upon it in different positions.
The skeleton on the left shows optimal alignment, the ribs are stacked over the hips, there is a natural curve in the lower spine with the pelvis untucked.
In the skeleton on the right, you’ll notice that the ribcage is no where near being stacked over the hips. The pelvis is jutting forwards, and the lower back is being compressed. Ouch. Oh, and the glutes? Total mum bum territory 🙁
Unfortunately, this shift in alignment is a common side effect of pregnancy. The extra weight of the foetus causes changes in your body’s centre of gravity, and this is exacerbated by the relaxin making your joints unstable. For some women, the response to the growing bump may be to tip the pelvis forward to counterbalance the extra load, increasing the curve in the lower back, putting strain on the lumbar spine and increasing pressure on the disks. In other women the pelvis tips backwards, placing increased stress on the sacrum at the bottom of the spine. One further change that occurs is the rounding of the upper spine due to the increased weight of the breasts, bringing the shoulders out of good alignment. To compensate for this we may thrust the ribcage forward.
On top of all this these changes in our alignment mean that our core muscles cannot function properly. Tucking the pelvis under shortens the pelvic floor muscles leading to weakness and problems such as incontinence and prolapse. Thrusting the ribcage out over the hipbones increases the strain on the linea alba, which may result in a diastasis recti (see our blog about what an abdominal separation is here and what you can do about it here). Ultimately, many changes in pregnancy and postnatal alignment tend to increase intra-abdominal pressure, as shown in the diagram below, placing your core muscles and joints under increased stress.
These postural changes do not automatically mean that you will get back pain or joint problems, but they may be a contributory factor. A lot of women report that their back problems first started during pregnancy. If nothing is done, these problems do not always automatically disappear after the birth and may go on to be long-term problems.
So, what can you do about it?
If you only remember one thing from this post, make sure it’s this: ribs over hips. I’m giving you permission to check yourself out every time you walk by a mirror. Stop and stare, even. Where is your ribcage in relation to your pelvis? Flaring up? Rounding forward? This is a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” kind of situation. We need to get it juuust right.
Your ribcage needs to “live” over top of your hip bones. This allows our inner core unit – our diaphragm, our transverse abdominis, and our pelvic floor muscles – to work optimally. It allows our body the chance to create core stability and then strengthen our body in correct movement patterns.
Next, untuck that tailbone! If you are guilty of being a tucker then you need to release your sacrum. Pay particular attention to the way you sit, as a common tendency is to sit with the pelvis tucked under rather than sitting up on the sit bones. Also, aim to build strength in the glutes (see our mum bum workout here), which helps to prevent the sacrum from collapsing into the pelvis.
Another key step to developing core stability is breathing. Proper breathing is necessary for our core muscles to fire on cue. How efficiently we breath is highly dependent on our alignment, and when we’re able to breath well, we are much more likely to accept and handle intrabdominal pressure, which is necessary for core stability. When our core cannot handle intrabdominal pressure, it is not well contained and usually goes OUT (belly bulges) and/or DOWN (pelvic floor leaks).
Living and exercising with your body in good alignment is at the heart of Pilates, which is why it is such a great form of exercise for pregnant and postnatal women (and why we’ve included it in our fitness programmes). We’ve created an infographic that summarises the Pilates fundamentals, the core principles of Pilates alignment and movement for you to stick somewhere prominent in your home. Now, in your daily routine try to check your alignment whenever you can. Doing dishes, brushing your teeth, holding babies – where are your ribs? Doing squats, lunges, press ups – where is your pelvis?
Good luck! Tamsin x