A year ago, I shared a blog about a healthy and well-balanced movement diet. (See July 2018 – How’s your movement diet?) In that blog, I recommended ten movements or activities to consider incorporating into your daily movement diet to optimize your health and life enjoyment. #10 was the recommendation to do plank daily. I did add the caveat that plank may not be for everyone; however, today I am sharing several variations on the traditional high plank that help make it healthy and accessible for nearly everybody!
Plank is an isometric core stabilizer / strengthener that also strengthens many muscle groups outside of the core. The primary core muscles strengthened are the spinal muscles – erector spinae, and the anterior abdominal muscles – rectus abdominis and transversalis abdominis. These muscles all help support and protect the spine. In addition to the core muscles, the plank also strengthens the shoulder girdle, hip, and leg muscles. Wow, that’s a lot packed into one pose!
Recommendations to safely and effectively incorporate high plank into your daily or weekly routine:
Watch your form.
There are two schools of thought regarding alignment in high plank. Some say a straight line from heels to hips to shoulders, and others say that the hips should be slightly elevated from this line. I tend to prefer hips elevated slightly, you try it out and see what works best for you! In addition to this basic alignment tip, other recommendations include:
Align wrists (or elbows in forearm plank) with the shoulders – wrists / forearms should be directly under the shoulders, and shoulder width apart or just slightly wider.
Gaze at the floor just forward of your hands (between wrists in forearm plank) allowing your head and neck to stay in alignment with the rest of your spine.
Keep your upper back active and broad. Actively press into your hands / forearms as if pushing the floor away from you, as you broaden the shoulder blades and collar bones. Avoid allowing the upper back and / or chest to sink towards the floor.
Engage your abdominals to keep your low back long – a sense of gently drawing your belly button up and back towards your spine, and / or gently drawing your pubic bone and sternum towards each other may help.
Keep your legs active – feet can be together or hip distance apart. If your knees are lifted, engage your quads and press back into your heels, while avoiding locking the knees into extension.
If in doubt, ask if you are unsure about your alignment in plank, ask your Physical Therapist, Yoga Teacher, Physical Trainer, someone educated and trained in anatomy and alignment.
Move it up, move it down, move it all around.
There is no one way to experience the benefits of a plank. I have included several pictures of high plank variations, and for each variation pictured you could probably come up with at least 3-4 more! Find the variation that works for you.
Move from high to low – To decrease any stress on your back and arms, start against the wall.
If it benefits you gradually increase the challenge by moving to counter height, chair height, the floor, eventually maybe elevate your feet up onto a chair (or a therapy ball for an even more dynamic challenge!) You can also explore lifting one leg at a time in any of these positions to increase the challenge.
The important thing to remember is that being able to maintain healthy alignment is more essential than making the posture harder and harder. As Vince Lombardi said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
Protect your wrists.
Not all hands and wrists have the skeletal structure or range of motion needed to find healthy alignment in plank. If you find that your wrists are bothering you in plank come down to forearms, or use a prop such as a foam wedge, yoga blocks, push up handles, etc. (I suggest the Perfect Pushup Stands.) Feel free to keep it in a chair or on your back.
Sitting in a chair, you can get many of the benefits of the plank by leaning forward 45 to close to 90 degrees keeping the spine long hands at heart center, out to the sides or reaching forwards.
You can also place hands on thighs elbows slightly bent and spine long, actively press your palms into thighs to feel your abdominals engage.
On your back, align your knees over your hips, with knees bent 90 degrees, place hands on thighs just above your knees – isometrically press your hands into your thighs as you resist with your thighs, hold for 1 to 8 breaths. (I like to call this a push-o-war!)
Gradually increase your hold time .
Your hold time for plank should first and foremost be guided by your form and breath. Once you have set yourself up in plank, focus on the smooth flow of your breath. If you sense that you are shifting out of alignment or that your breath is becoming strained, then you’ve done it long enough. Take a rest and perhaps practice another plank or move on. You may begin by moving in and out of plank with your breath, exhale – plank, inhale – resting position, or eventually move to hold for 12-16 breaths or a minute. Fun fact – the world record for holding plank is 8 hours, 1 minute. Probably too much of a good thing for most of us!
Find your perfect plank and make it part of your daily movement diet!