Enhanced Core Training: The Band Pullover and Pelvic Tilt
There’s no doubt that training the anterior core is an important part of getting stronger and staying healthy as a lifter or athlete. The anterior core (primarily the rectus abdominis and internal/external oblique) plays a vital role in properly positioning and stabilizing the pelvis. During almost any lift, the goal is to keep the pelvis and lumbar spine in a neutral position as much as possible. Essentially, this means we need to start the lift in a proper pelvic position and maintain that position during the movement; it should not be moving around. Typically, pelvic movement will manifest itself as either anterior or posterior tilt. If you are unfamiliar with those terms, take a moment to put your hands on your waist and feel around for two bony projections on the front, outside of your hips. Put your middle and index fingers on them (if you are familiar, jump ahead to the next paragraph). With your hands on your hips, stick your butt out, rock your pelvis forward, and try to increase the distance between your fingers and your belly button (your fingers should move down). That’s anterior pelvic tilt. Now, keep your fingers where they are, rock your hips back and think about tilting your belt buckle up towards your face and shortening the distance between your fingers and belly button (your fingers should move up). That’s posterior pelvic tilt.
The video below may help you visualize it further (the beginning shows the pelvis going through anterior/posterior tilt):
You can see in the video that whenever the pelvis moves, the low back moves with it (anterior pelvic tilt = lumbar extension, posterior pelvic tilt = lumbar flexion). Movement of the pelvis (and therefore lumbar spine) is not something we want to happen while a bar is on our back or while pulling a heavy weight off the ground. We want our pelvis to stay neutral (no excessive anterior or posterior tilt) or at least maintain its starting position throughout the movement. Most of the time, we talk about stabilizing the lumbar spine in order to prevent too much flexion which is certainly a good thing. However, while the normal curve of the low back is slight extension (lordosis), it is possible to create too much lumbar extension which can cause some people to have back pain. Most often, this is seen during bigger compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, RDLs, and overhead presses in an effort to “get tight” or prevent lumbar flexion. The result can be the potentially problematic positions we see below.
Fig 1: “A” shows the low back in a neutral position with a normal lordodic curve. “B” shows the low back in excessive extension. The two pictures on the right show the low back going into extension while moving arms overhead (left) and a neutral lumbar spine while moving arms overhead (right).
This is where anterior core training becomes important. The anterior core is responsible for preventing anterior pelvic tilt and therefore lumbar extension. If we want it to do its job under a heavy load, it needs to be strong and it needs to be able to maintain pelvic position as we move. So how can we train the core the make it stronger while promoting proper positioning? Enter the band pullover technique.
Band Pullover Technique
Most of the exercises utilizing this technique will be done on your back. For example, the dead bug is a great exercise to train the anterior core, and when done correctly it is very challenging. However, many trainees struggle to sufficiently activate the anterior core in order to prevent the lumbar spine from going into extension (i.e. low back getting farther from the ground).
Fig 2: The picture on the left shows the lumbar spine in excessive extension while the arms and legs move. The picture on the right shows the pelvis and low back staying neutral as the legs move.
Adding the band will accomplish a couple things:
First, it can be used as a teaching tool. This method will automatically increase core activation so you have a better idea of how an exercise (such as a dead bug) should feel without the band. More importantly, when you progress to exercises on your feet you will know how your anterior core and pelvic position should feel as you squat, deadlift, or overhead press. Second, using the band is a great way to add intensity to certain core exercises. One of the main reasons most people train their core with very high-rep crunches or long-duration side to side heel touches is “the burn” you feel by the end of the set. When using the band, you will feel “the burn” like never before!
OK, enough of the “why”, let’s get to some exercises.
I’m going to say right off the bat that quality is better than quantity when first starting these exercises. If you’ve never done them, you might struggle to keep pelvic position. Therefore, it is much better to start with lower reps as opposed to trying to create as much burn as possible. A good place to start is just trying to hold the dead bug (or 3-month baby) position with the pullover:
Notice that when he pulls the band down, his tailbone slightly comes off the ground. This is an important aspect of these exercises as it will teach you what a slight posterior pelvic tilt feels like. It will also greatly increase activation of the anterior core. Also notice that his breathing is very controlled. You have to breathe during these exercises. Breathing and core training could be another article, but this is another important aspect of activating the core. For this specific exercise, make sure you are inhaling and exhaling fully (in through the nose, out through the mouth). On the exhale, if you don’t feel your ribs move down, your belly button move towards the ground, and your abs kick on like you’ve done 50 crunches you aren’t exhaling enough! A good place to start is an aggressive exhale of at least 5 seconds. This will be much harder than you think. Start with 2-3 sets of 3-5 breaths.
Once you feel somewhat comfortable with holding the position (if done correctly it will never be “easy”), you can start adding movement.
Remember that we want this to translate to when our limbs are moving such as lifting, running, throwing, etc. So let’s add in some lower limb movement (the video does not show the band):
Start this exercise the same way you did with the holds, pull the band down and let your tailbone reflexively come off the ground. From there, touch your heel to the ground without letting your pelvis move. This may be relatively easy for some, but for others who lack core control it will be very difficult. Think about keeping your pelvis rocked back (belt buckle towards your face) as you let your leg down. Again, remember to breathe. To facilitate core activation, exhale as you lower your leg. 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps each leg is a good start.
From there, we can progress to extending the leg fully. The same rules from the previous exercise apply:
You can also add difficulty and variety by extending your leg at different angles. However, as you do so make sure there is no movement in your low back and your pelvis stays neutral or slightly posteriorly tilted. Your limbs should be moving independently of your pelvis. To practice this, you can add the pullover to exercises that don’t specifically target the anterior core such as a hip thrust:
By adding the band, you ensure hip extension without lumbar extension. This will not only protect your low back, but increase glute activation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of exercises, but it can give you a good start. Once you have the technique down and have developed some strength and endurance, feel free to get creative with how you implement it. However, don’t forget to apply the feel and concept to your ground-based, compound exercises or the benefit becomes diminished. When utilized correctly, the pullover can be a great tool to enhance your strength and most importantly keep you healthy!
Authors note: Huge thanks to Quinn Henoch of Clinical Athlete, Juggernaut Training Systems, and Darkside Strength as well as Dan Forbes of The Strength Guys who introduced this technique.