By Olivia Allnutt
The ‘Pancake’ is an exemplar exercise in flexibility, and much strived for. It involves sitting on the floor with legs spread wide, then bending forward and placing the torso flat on the floor – pubic bone/abdomen/ribs/chest/arms, in that order – via flexion at the hip, not of the spine. An essential component of the pancake is anterior pelvic tilt. It is this aspect that many, many people struggle to master, even people who are relatively flexible in the other muscles involved in the movement, so hamstrings, adductors, etc.
In this post, I take you through ways to develop the capacity to roll the pelvis anteriorly. First, a couple of key global points. Trying to do this from a too-strong stretch position will not be effective in my experience. By too strong I mean, any version where lack of range of movement in hamstrings, adductors, external hip rotators, other muscles/tissues, are stopping the pelvis rolling. So, don’t go as far forward as you can and **then** try and roll the pelvis: instead, stay as upright as you need to so that you can roll the pelvis, and practise the movement there. Focus on rolling the pelvis actively in each position – actively means using muscles in the hips and the groin to do the movement. You can reach out to a pole or rail in front of you, but in my experience relying on the pulling force from the arms/lats (or indeed, a partner’s weight lying on your back) is not as effective as actively rolling the pelvis yourself … until that movement is in your body. To belabour this point: make all pelvic movements via muscular effort of the muscles that attach to the pelvis, not by pulling with your arms/lats, or application of an external force.
Your goal here is to **feel** how to tilt the pelvis, from a position where you can produce some movement: that is, where the stretch sensation is not overwhelming the nervous system and/or just preventing any pelvic movement. In my experience, unless you are already very flexible in the pancake exercise, practising it getting the chest – and only the chest/shoulders, not the abdomen – close to the floor by letting your lumbar spine flex strongly and then trying to straighten the lower back by pulling with the arms is not effective. You might get lower in the pancake, sure, but you will not be feeling how to do the key component, which is the anterior pelvic tilt.
First is a short video of my cold pancake today, to show the result of this work!
Now, six still images taken at a November 2016 workshop at ST HQ, Greenwell Point: this 1–2 partner exercise has many very effective elements.
Adrienne Smillie is helping me settle into a comfortable stretch position – while I can easily put my whole torso on the floor, I am purposely not going to the full position. She is blocking my ankles with her feet to stop my leg-angle from changing. I am actively lengthening my torso to reach towards her, and resting my elbows on her thighs: I could rest on my palms to increase the lever length, thereby making the position more intense. I am making sure my shoulders are in full flexion (think handstand line), with a straight line between my wrists and waist: a closed shoulder angle is very-often accompanied by spinal flexion which you do not want (see notes for image 3 below). Adrienne is holding my lats up high near my armpits. She is not pulling or drawing me towards her, rather I am **actively reaching out to her**, and she is taking some of the weight of my torso – the less weight she takes, the greater the load I experience.
Partner #2, Czon Wong, has placed soft hands on the back of my hips. This provides a tactile cue for me to practise tilting the pelvis anteriorly. Czon is not moving or pushing my hips: she has only placed her hands. This gives me a direct connection to the part of the body I am trying to move, in this example to pull my hips forward away from her hands (towards the floor). Any time you are in a strong stretch position – which by definition means you are outside your ‘normal’ range of movement – it can be very difficult to differentiate all the sensations being felt and focus on the additional movement you are trying to produce. The touch of the partner’s hand(s) aids this refinement in discrimination and enables you to feel how to do the movement. If no movement is possible, it simply means you are too far into the stretch, so ease off slightly. In this exercise, especially if you are close to the perfect final position, the amount of extra movement you can feel yourself producing may be so small that an outside observer would not pick it – the key is the feeling in your body: you are producing the movement, not a partner’s or object’s external force.
Czon has placed one hand in my mid-thoracic, again no weight or force, just a touch. My cue here is, with each breath in, to move my sternum along the floor towards Adrienne. I’m engaging my spinal extensors to do this, to straighten/lengthen the spine. Do this movement slowly and smoothly, to maximise sensation. And, key point, feel how the anterior pelvic tilt follows the extension of the spine. Take a little bit more of your own torso’s weight, and stay in this position, letting the belly go soft, and breathing comfortably.
I am now assisting Adrienne. I need my hands free so rather than me holding her lats, she is holding the back of my hips. A gentle pulling with her arms can help her lengthen her torso, but ensure there is no shoulder extension or spinal flexion produced. I have placed my hands on Adrienne’s waist and my thumbs just on the top of her hips. I am gently drawing her hips towards me, while at the same time she is feeling how to do the movement using her own muscles: mine is a guiding touch only.
Same position from a different angle. Notice that, due to our position and roles in this assistance exercise, my feet are blocking her legs just above the knee rather than at the ankles.
Our Stretch Therapy mascot – she of CatLikeMovement – is always with me.
I’ve long argued that being able to move the pelvis – particularly in anterior tilt, but not only in this direction – is the key to being able to do the pancake: it has certainly worked for me! I do think many other techniques – such as active compression, active reaching with momentum, having a partner’s weight added by lying on your back, etc. – will help ‘get you further down’, but, what I observe when I see people doing many of these is that, often, the pelvis does not move anteriorly. Practising pelvic movements well out of a stretch position, so that movement is possible, is gold, and once available, the pelvic movement can be used in conjunction with all other techniques.