Despite only being bodyweight and something we just did as kids when playing sports or getting in trouble around the neighborhood, running is a complex set of actions that require stability, timing, and coordination. One area in particular that I have paid extra attention to over the years is the pelvis.
What we need to realize about running is the set of demands acting in multiple planes of motion. Even though the movement itself happens in the sagittal plane (forward), there are frontal (lateral) and transverse plane (rotational) stresses occurring simultaneously which the body needs to withstand in order to maintain an optimal position.
While looking more closely at the pelvis and the single leg demands of running, it’s obvious that this junction helps tie together the lower extremity and trunk. Poor positioning and control of the pelvis can limit performance and cause a myriad of issues both above and below this area. That’s why emphasizing proper positioning of the pelvis is of the utmost importance within your strength training and injury prevention routine. But, unfortunately, it’s something that’s easily overlooked for more range of motion or greater loading during specific exercises. This can be a detriment to your running.
The two positions at the pelvis which I observe closely when watching my running clients are an excessive anterior pelvic tilt and pelvic drop. Now, before we go any further please realize that these positions are needed and will happen during running. But, it’s important to resist the extreme that reduces efficiency of movement. Because running is a mid-range activity that requires stability around the pelvis and trunk, excess motion is undesirable.
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
First, let’s talk about anterior pelvic tilt… Like I mentioned above, this is a common motion at the pelvis which needs to happen for proper mechanics of the lower extremity, pelvis, and spine during gait. Specifically, the pelvis will tilt anteriorly to allow for a greater hip extension range during the late stance phase and push-off. However, teaching runners how to control against an excessive anterior tilt in a controlled environment within their strength training program will help promote core stability and a more aligned and rigid position on the road or trail.
The most beneficial exercise that helps tie together the spine and pelvis while resisting against motion at the extremities, just like while running, is the dead bug. The dead bug is classified as an anti-extension core stability exercise. When classifying this exercise in relation to the spine, that is exactly true. But as I noted above, hip/spine extension and anterior pelvic tilt go hand and hand. So by limiting spine extension, you are also teaching the pelvis how to resist an anterior tilting pelvis.
How to perform the dead bug:
- Lay supine with your hands above the shoulders and your knees above your hips
- Reinforce a position where you engage the abdominals and slightly pull the rib cage down
- At the same time, move the opposite arm and leg away from each other in a controlled manner
- Return back to the starting point and repeat on the other side
- Repeat this for 2 to 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per side while resisting any change in position around the pelvis and lumbar spine
Note: The emphasis of this exercise should be around maintaining stability at the pelvis and core while moving the extremities. Therefore, being thoughtful and always reseting when form is lost will be important.
Now, please understand that the dead bug is the best starting point to teach proper anti-extension core stability and resisting against the anterior pelvic tilt. But, it’s not the end-all-be-all. This is the foundation which should be applied to your other core stability exercises as well. These exercises can include front planks, side planks, bird dog, straight legs lowering, stability ball rollouts, etc.
Pelvic Drop: Part 1
The next position of the pelvis which we will cover is called the pelvic drop. A little bit different then the forward tilting motion of the anterior tilt, the pelvic drop is lack of control in the frontal plane.
To paint a clear picture… pelvic drop happens when you are standing on one leg as you are running, and the opposite side pelvis drops towards the ground. This is also referred to as a positive Trendelenburg sign (see picture below). Although the ‘opposite’ side drops, it’s actually a stability and neuromuscular issue on the stance leg. That’s because muscles surrounding the hip joint, pelvis, and spine need to fire in anticipation to and throughout single leg stance to maintain an optimal position. This drop is a sign of a poor feedforward and feedback mechanism that causes inefficient movement and increased injury risk in the surrounding area. Clinicians might also tell you that the hip abductors are weak.
Over the years, I have experimented with many exercises to figure out which allow people to appreciate this position the best. The hip hike and/or hip hike walking exercise is one that is simple to observe but challenging to execute. I usually try several different variations to see which one is the most easily achieved and then progress appropriately.
How to perform the hip hike:
- This exercise can be done stationary, while standing on a weight plate or step, or while walking
- Place your hands across the top crest of the pelvis on both sides
- While isolating one leg as your standing leg, try to lift the opposite side pelvis so that it is level with or higher than your stance leg
- When lifting the pelvis, do so without rotating the body or excessively laterally flexion the spine
- Hold for 2-3 seconds and lower
- Repeat for 8-12 repetitions and switch to the other side, or walk in an alternating fashion
Note: This should be a subtle motion when lifting the pelvis and more so to appreciate the position. Do not allow the body to alter it’s vertical position. This drill can easily be used as a neuromuscular prep before any single leg strength training or within your running dynamic warm-up.
Pelvic Drop: Part 2
Once proper control and positioning of the pelvis is appreciated with the hip hike, I like to take it a step further. This is where most people struggle when it comes to controlling the pelvis. It’s important to realize that running requires varying angles at the lower extremity joints and a significant force during initial contact. Therefore, the hip hike is a solid neuromuscular exercise to appreciate the position which then needs to be loaded further.
Since running requires control through a degree of hip flexion and extension, this needs to be simulated while emphasizing levelness at the pelvis. One exercise in particular that can be helpful is the slow eccentric step up. Now, before I explain the movement, it’s very important to realize that height of the step matters tremendously. Using a step that is 6-10 inches is all you want when re-training control of the pelvis. Anything higher and the added range of motion will be working against pelvic control.
How to perform the slow eccentric step up:
- Find a stair or low step that is approximately 6-10 inches high (the lower the better to start)
- Place one foot on the step with a bent knee, and slightly lean the body forward over that leg
- Adjust the pelvis to determine what position allows you to be level across both sides
- Drive through the front leg to pull the body up into single leg stance
- Ensure you are completing this motion slowly and maintaining levelness of the pelvis
- Lower back time while emphasizing the front leg controlling you down, rather than the back leg reaching for the ground
- Complete for 2 to 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per side
Note: Control of the pelvis trumps height of the step. Therefore, start with a lower step and progress once you master the position. This same positional control of the pelvis should be implemented with other exercises, such as: lunges, single leg stance, etc.
In the end, this approach to re-establishing and reinforcing proper position of the pelvis takes time and consistency. I usually recommend that my runners progress through focused exercises for 3-6 months to see reliable results. It’s also smart to consider other running variables such as cadence, vertical oscillation, and crossover sign which will impact position of the pelvis. So make sure you are determining what areas require an intervention and proceed as needed.
If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to comment below or schedule your FREE 15-minute Discovery Call. The Discovery Call is a way for us to connect and talk more specifically about your needs, as well as answer any questions you might have.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART