From Pelvis to Hamstring, Mastering Seated Forward Folds

Jennifer Pilotti

Coach

Yoga, Personal Training, Mobility & Recovery

Do you dream of being able to sit comfortably on the floor, with your legs long in front of you? Or maybe you have loftier goals, like being able to fold forward in a wide leg straddle with your chest approaching the floor, but no matter how hard you try or how long you stretch, nothing happens. You remain (mostly) vertical, your muscles rejecting the position you are trying to place them in by announcing their discomfort.

 

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about because you can easily fold forward, chest on the ground. However, you may still want to continue reading because chances are high at some point you will meet someone who struggles to sit on the ground, limited by a lack of movement and motor control.

 

 

Hip Movement

When you consider the movement of your hips, you probably think of what position your leg can easily move into. While that is definitely one piece of the movement, let’s quickly review how the hip joint works.

 

 

The head of the femur, the long thigh bone, meets the pelvis in neatly designed cup called the acetabulum.1 The acetabulum located a little bit forward on the pelvis, in the place where the three bones that comprise the pelvis meet. The femur does indeed move all directions inside the joint, enabling the leg to move in a variety of directions.

 

The pelvis also moves around the femur in a variety of ways. This is also a form of hip mobility.

 

Try this: Come into a tall kneeling position, probably on a blanket or something that supports your knees. Now, step your left foot forward and transfer most of the weight to your right knee. How many ways can you move your self around your right knee?

 

You can also try coming into a hands and knees position, with your knees set up directly under your hips. Begin by rolling the pelvis down and up. Now, rock your pelvis back and a little bit to the right. Try it going to the left. Go in a circle. Can you begin to feel how these motions are actually mobilizing the hip joint?

 

Why does this matter? Because when you sit on the floor with your pelvis rocked back because you lack control/awareness/strength/flexibility to move the pelvis forward, you can spend the next 12 months diligently stretching your hamstrings and still never feel truly comfortable. If your pelvis is unable to roll around your femur, you will bend from somewhere else, more than likely the place where your pelvis meets your back at the sacroiliac joint. This isn’t necessarily bad, it just results in more work. It’s less economical and will limit your mobility potential.

 

Steps to Improve Your Hip Flexion

Okay, so what are you supposed to do to improve your hip flexion?

 

  • Step one: learn how to feel how your pelvis moves around your hips.
  • Step two: learn how to isolate hip movement in seated positions.
  • Step three: use your newfound pelvic control to find forward movement in seated positions.

 

 

We will begin with step one, improving your sense of how the pelvis moves around the hips. Since the goal is to be able to do this seated, a couple of reference points in the pelvis might be helpful, the first of which is the ischial tuberosities.

 

When you are sitting, at the bottom of your pelvis are two bony protrusions that serve as attachment points for multiple muscles. These are your ischial tuberosities or sit bones.2 They provide sensory feedback to the nervous system about where the pelvis is located in space. The ability to feel these two bones while you are sitting in a chair makes it much easier to understand how to move your pelvis when you are folding forward.

 

In the drills below, I am moving my pelvis forward, back, and circularly while sitting. I alternate which leg I have crossed on top, and when I move circularly, I am moving around my sitting bones.

 

Another way to approach sensing the pelvis is by feeling how the pelvis moves in space. What I mean by this is if you can differentiate pelvis movement when you have less contact with the floor, chances are high you will be able to control how your pelvis moves when you have lots of contact.

 

Try this: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the two front hip bones. Gently bring your low back towards the floor. What happens to the area under your hands? The two bones probably feel like they are moving up towards your ribs. Now, arch the low back away from the floor. What do your hands do now? They probably feel like they are moving further away from the ribs.

 

Come into a tall kneeling position with your hands still on your two front hip bones. Can you make the same motion in this position, letting the area under your hands move towards your ribs and then away from your ribs? Can you feel how the pelvis is moving around the femur. Go ng back and forth a few times, clarifying how it feels to move the pelvis in isolation.

 

You can do the same thing in a variety of positions, isolating movement at the pelvis and coming one step closer to realizing your twerking skills.

 

Your Pelvis While Sitting

Now that you can feel your pelvis moving in a variety of positions, let’s return to how all of this works in the sitting position.

 

 

If you sit down and promptly feel your pelvis roll backward, rounding your low back, sit on a blanket, book, or very small step. Can you prevent your pelvis from rolling backward in the slightly elevated position? If the answer is yes, this will make a good starting position. If you still feel your pelvis rolling backward and you can’t seem to prevent it, prop yourself up a little bit higher. The props are temporary and are tools that enable you to feel what pure hip flexion feels like and allow you to get comfortable and build the necessary strength and motor control to translate the motion to other positions.

 

What does it mean to not roll your pelvis backward?

 

  • Remember the sit bones we discussed earlier? See if you can find the place where you feel those two bones pressing into the ground.
  • Once you have that, extend your legs forward and wide, so they are straddled. It is generally easier to learn the action needed for hip flexion with legs wide than it is with the legs together, so we’ll start here.
  • Place your hands on the two front hip bones. If they move back, away from your fingers, what happens to your pelvis? Where does the weight go, in front or behind of your sitting bones? And did you get closer or further away from your legs?
  • Now let the two front hip bones come forward, towards your fingers and down, towards your thighs. Your torso will move forward as well.

 

What does this feel like? Where does the weight shift in the pelvis? Can you feel how you roll in front of your sitting bones, even if it’s just a little bit? And does your torso move a little bit closer to your thighs?

 

Go back and forth between the two positions a few times, just feeling what happens in the pelvis and how where your torso goes. Allow the torso to go the same direction as the pelvis, so you aren’t arching or rounding your back- it’s like the entire unit is being moved one direction or the other. Think about what’s happening at your hip joints as you do this- you are flexing at the hip when you move the pelvis forward.

 

Now that you have an idea of how to isolate and feel the pelvis during a seated position, it’s time to build up endurance in the position. This, really, is all flexibility is- the ability to hold a particular position or shape comfortably, for a set amount of time. How much flexibility you need depends on your goals. All of us can benefit from being comfortable on the floor, so I will stick with the example of the legs long in front, spread a bit apart.

 

Own Your Pelvic Position

In order to really own the position, you need to be able to hang out there. If simply sitting with your legs long in front of you is a challenge with your pelvis not rolled back, then start there. Remember to prop yourself up on something if you don’t quite have the strength to prevent the pelvis from rolling back. Set a timer for three minutes. Play with movement. You can roll the pelvis back and forth a little bit, roll the knees in and out, point the toes away from you and towards you, throw a ball, reach your arms in different directions. The possibilities are endless, but the goal remains the same: stay in the position.

 

 

Once that becomes comfortable (and it will if you practice this regularly), begin to explore the possibilities of folding forward. Remember, the movement initiates at the pelvis. In the video below, you see I start with my torso fairly vertical. As time goes on, I become more horizontal with the ground. The way I do this is by revisiting the idea that the movement comes from the pelvis. Once the pelvis rolls forward a little bit to a new position, I stay there, either statically, or doing something. At the end of one minute, I am a lot closer to the ground than when I started.

 

References:

1. Banerjee, P., & Mclean, C.R., (2011). Femoroacetabular impingement: a review of diagnosis and treatment. Current Reviews of Musculoskeletal Medicine, 4(1), 23-32.

2. Kaya, D., Yosmaoglu, B., & Doral, M.N., (Eds.), (2018). Proprioception in Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. Springer: New York.

 

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