The anterior pelivc tilt is one of the more common dysfunctional movement patterns that plague lifters. It's characterized by the ribs being flared, the abdominals staying soft and protruded, the butt sticking out, and the lower back overarched. Imagine your hips are a bucket of water. Now imagine the bucket is tilted forward, spilling all over the front of your legs. This is an anterior pelvic tilt.
The problems with this bad positioning are many. Close up, they cause a number of specific problems at the site: overarching the lower back under a load (like squatting and deadlifting) is a recipe for disc issues down the road, especially as the weight on the bar continues to climb. The abdominals are lax, making bracing and proper breathing during heavy sets impossible. This can contribute to lower back pain during squats. The glutes and hamstrings are prestretched, hindering proper setup in a squat or deadlift and limiting their force production. And the hip flexors..... those horrible hip flexors stay short and tight, working excessively against the glutes and hamstrings and limiting full hip extension (and power) at the top of any heavy hip extension like running or jumping.
The anterior tilt of the pelvis over-arches the lower back, elongating the glutes and hamstrings.
Further away, these individual issues come together to form bigger, scarier ones. So much of the problems are expressed at the lumbar vertebra, which is the hub through which all force is transferred. When the spine stays in a non-optimal position, wear in the form of stiffness, lower back pain, and eventually herniated discs will form. Have you ever slept too long on your stomach only to wake up with your back tight and achy? This is essentially what spending your day with an anterior pelvic tilt does, except time under the bar compounds this stress further. Other problems can arise from the imbalances between antagonists, such as the glutes and hip flexors. If the hip flexors stay short and tight, the glutes are stretched, resulting in a constant power play for dominance over the hip. Not only does squatting and deadlifting with pre-stretched extensors limit power at the start of these movments, but loading into tight, short flexors can lead to severe inflammation and pain that can sideline training until the issue is resolved.
My own issues began with a series of injuries and lower back pain that were caused by being 16 with too much ambition and not enough direction. I have a longer torso relative to my height, which means that it takes much more effort to maintain a neutral spine on a heavy deadlift that some other folks require. As the weight would climb, my back would start to give earlier and earlier in the pull, until the bar didn't even break off the ground until my spine was fully flexed. This is called the 'angry cat'. Eventually, my pride caught up with me and something popped. This happened 6 more times over the next 10 years, all the result of hanging on to a weight well after acceptable positioning had been lost. Finally, I realized I couldn't continue like this and refused to perform a deadlift unless my lower back was completely, 100% arched. Fast forward a decade and my back is my strongest asset. I pulled a 735 from 13”, and a 660 from the floor, both without any changes in my posture during the pull. But now another problem had arised....
In my constant effort to keep my back arched, I developed a strong tendancy to over-arch. My natural resting position now had me with a soft midsection that struggled to maintain tension under a load. Those booty gains I had heard so much about? Mostly just an excessive arch in my lower back, much like a stripper in stilletos. Aside from the noticeable peculiarities of posture, I had lower back pain and my lifts began to suffer. I soon found myself refusing to deadlift from the floor, because tightness in my hamstrings makes it impossible to keep my spine neutral off the floor, which makes heavy pulls dangerous on an already injury-worn area. After years of tweaking I finally realized that the anterior tilt caused by overarching my back at the start forced my hamstrings and glutes into a prestretched position, not allowing me to get to the bottom position without my back rounding again to compensate.
Try standing with your lower back arched hard and your butt sticking out. Now push your hips back and try to touch your toes.
Now stand up and try again with your glutes tensed, hips tucked under, and abs braced. Which gave more range?
When I could find some stable position, my initial break of the ground was horrendously slow, causing my full range dead to lag 150lbs behind an 18” pull. This slow pull was the result, again, of stretching the glutes and hammies at the start, placing them in a disadvantaged position. For two years, pain in the hip flexors prevented frequent squatting. The mounting frustration lead to a host of rolling, scraping, stretching, pills, injections, and wraps, all meant to ease the pain long enough to get through another workout. The culprit? You guessed it..... an anterior tilt resulting in a shortened rectus femoris which fights unnecessarily againt the hip extensors at the transition point of the squat. Years of stalled progress and undue lower back pain all as a result of simple shift in my pelvic alignment.
Notice how the neutral position on the right allows the abs, glutes, and hamstrings to start in a stronger, shortened position.
Diagnosing an anterior pelvic tilt is a matter of pinpointing several tell-tale signs. The ribs will be flared, the abs will be soft, and the butt will be back. An easy way to find where you lie on the spectrum is to over arch your back as hard as you can, and then reverse by tucking your hips under you (by squeezing the glutes) as hard as you can. This represents the range of spinal flexion you are capable of. Does your normal posture have you with more of a lumbar arch? Is squeezing the glutes to neutralize the spine difficult for you? Does the waistband of your underwear ride lower in the front than the back? If any of these are the case, then your hips are likely tilted anteriorly.
Learn to Breath Under Tensed Abs
One of the first revelations I had that put me on the path to treating my hip issues was the acknowledgement that my abdominals were weak. As part of a seminar on healthy movement mechanics, I volunteered to demonstrate bracing and breathing techniques that are supposed to encourage range and mobility while lifting. The exercise required pulling the bellybutton in and bracing the abs hard in that position. Breaths were then taken in against the braced abs in such a way that pressure could be felt in the back as air was taken into the lungs, (they called this breathing into your back).
As I inhaled, my blood pressure went through the roof like I was mid squat on a max effort attempt. As I exhaled, my abs almost immediately went soft. After 3 breaths, I was light headed and covered in sweat. “your abs are weak”. Screw You! At the time, I had just hit my first 600lb squat and was working to get my deadift over that long-standing 700lb mark. How can my abs be weak?? Sure enough, they were, and lack of proper bracing was impacting my joint health.
Now, as I ride in the car or stand while coaching, I periodically remind myself to neutralize my spine, brace my abs, and take some breaths into my back. While it still isn't second nature, simple awareness of it has improved my setup on big squat and dead attempts, and a stronger midsection has resulted in a happier lower back.
Like a Standing Crunch: Ribs Down, Hips Tucked
This was my 'ah ha' moment, where I officially knew what the diagnosis was. The first time I tried to stand straight up with locked knees and a neutral pelvis, the tension created by my short hip flexors was intense. Resetting the hips into a neutral position is a matter of bringing the spine to neutral from an overly flexed position. This happens when the abs tense to bring the ribs down and pelvis up while the glutes work to tuck the hips under and in to place, just like a standing crunch.
The pre-stretching that occurs with an anterior pelvic tilt puts the glutes in a weak position, whereas squeezing them at the start of a lift puts them in a shorter position, making their contribution to the start of the lift much greater. This is best practiced with other movements leading in to the big one for the day. Foam rolling, back extensions, kettlebell swings, glute bridges, planks etc. all should be done in the context of lowered ribs, braced abs, and tensed glutes. As you transition to the main barbell movements, take as many practice sets as needed to cue tight glutes and tensed abs.
Start Small - Rebuild with Simple Hinge Movements
These technical points can have a deep and long lasting effect on the big lifts, but they take time to implement from scratch. The first time I tried to keep my glutes tensed and hips tucked at the start of a squat, my legs started shaking and I almost fell over! As time went on, lowering myself under a load with this setup became more natural and I began to feel how much more power I could generate at the bottom position. But to this day I still have to practice to keep from resorting to old habits.
My recommendation is to practice simple hip hinge exercises, beginning each rep with lowered ribs, tensed abs, and tucked glutes. Feel the abdominals brace your spine throughout the movement while only the hamstrings release to allow the hip to move. Kettlebell swings, pull throughs, back extensions, and glute bridges are all fantastic at drilling complete, powerful hip extension in the context of stable posture. As the movement becomes more natural, begin transitioning to good mornings and other deadlift variations, always being cautious to stop the set when technique breaks down. Correcting postural issues takes time and persistence, but simple awareness is the first step in correcting unhealthy movement patterns that can cause years of undue stress and pain.