Perfecting Your Plank

The plank has become one of those exercises that I can’t help but love to hate. Don’t get me wrong, I can see value in this exercise as, when done properly, it truly aligns and engages our entire core plus more. But maybe it was the “planking” fad that put me over the edge, it just seems that the world is now filled with ugly, held way longer than they should be, planks! My original intent was to write a post about all the variations of the plank you can do, but before we can dive into the world of variations, we really just need to get the foundation correct. (sneak peak: next week's blog is all about plank variations).

Let's focus on the top seven mistakes I often see in the plank and how to correct them. I have even created a one-page checklist for you to print off and take with you to the gym, your living room, hotel room, roof of car (joking), wherever you decide to start planking! Please note that each mistake will build on the next and help to correct the entire plank – do not just focus on one mistake!

1.    Weight is positioned too far forward on the foot.

In order to feel truly connected through the entire body and not place too much strain or discomfort on the shoulders, hips and abs, your feet need to ground into the floor and help to distribute the weight. The feet should be hip distance apart (bringing them closer together or wider apart would be variations) and the weight positioned through the centre of the ball of the foot. To do this, feel as though all ten toes are pressing into the floor and then draw your heels back towards the wall behind you (away from your shoulders). This will help to create an oppositional pull, and therefore a feeling of suspension, throughout your body.

2.    Knees are too soft or too stiff.

Most people are so busy thinking about what they need to do with their torso in the plank that they forget about what to do with their legs. This usually leads to one of two problems – the legs are just kinda hanging there without much thought or energy to them and knees are bent OR the legs have too much tension and the knees are slammed back in the joint (ie. hyperextended). Optimally there should be energy and engagement of the legs without a feeling of extreme tension or rigidness.

To achieve this, with the feet in the proper position above, feel as though your knee caps are sliding along the femur to the hip. The quadriceps should engage and straighten the legs without hyperextension.

3.    Pelvis is in an anterior tip (or dropped down to the floor).

If the pelvis is anteriorly tipped the spine and core muscles don’t have a chance of getting into a proper and safe position! Draw your glutes together (yup, squeeze your bum) BUT also tuck your pelvis slightly underneath you. This will lengthen out your low back while allowing the bottom rib and top of the hips to feel connected. The tuck should not be excessive but rather think of rolling your sit bones down to your femurs (thigh bones).

4.    Abdominals are hanging down to the ground.

A true sign of zero abdominal engagement, and likely discomfort in the low back and front of hips. Just as in the abdominal engagement we discussed in the Number One Myth When It Comes to Ab Engagement, the abdominals must be hollowed out in this position. Draw the abdominals into towards the spine and up under the rib cage feeling long through the entire vertebral column.

Remember, this is not “sucking in” the abs, you still need to be able to comfortably breathe in this position.

5.    Shoulder blades are too retracted and often winging away from the rib cage.

Too often I see too much weight in the hands or forearms of the plank and a collapse through the upper body. This causes the shoulder blades to draw together and wing out away from the rib cage. Combine this with the lack of abdominal engagement and we often see rib cages that are dropped towards the floor or flared open.

Correct this by engaging your Lats and Serratus Anterior! How? Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows directly under your shoulders. Allow the palms of the hands to rest flat on the floor. Draw your armpits into your body and feel them slide down towards your waist. Then lift your sternum (breast bone) away from the floor. To achieve this, I often have to place my finger into a clients sternum and lift them up towards the ceiling. Automatically they will press the floor away and the scapula will lie flat along the ribs.

6.    Chin is either too tucked into the body or neck is hyperextended – either one breaking the line of the spine.

Eye gaze is the easiest way to correct the position of the neck as the head will automatically position itself to the centre of your gaze. Keep your gaze on the floor, approximately one foot in front of your hands. Think about your neck as an extension of your spine and therefore being a part of a long line from the crown of your head to the tip of the tailbone.

7.    Holding the plank for too long!!

Whenever someone brags on facebook or instagram that they just planked for five minutes, I can’t help but think, what a waste of five minutes!! As the prevalence of plank challenges continues to grow, so does the idea of holding the plank for as long as possible is the most beneficial. In my eyes, this could not be more wrong. First off, most people who are holding the plank for over a minute are beginning to lose their proper technique and rather than deriving the benefits of the plank, are actually reinforcing incorrect movement and alignment patterns.

Secondly, there is no real value of holding the plank for longer than 30 seconds. Once you (or your client) can maintain a proper plank for 30 seconds, it’s time to start adding in variations and challenges. Being able to dynamically move your limbs while keeping the technique of the plank is much more beneficial and of course, functional!!

As I mentioned at the beginning, the plank must be thought of as a whole body exercise and therefore your focus should be on all seven of these common mistakes. You may be amazed that correcting the foot position actually leads to correcting the position of the pelvis! Don’t forget to download and print off (or save to your phone) my one page checklist to make sure you and your clients are performing the perfect plank!

Although not nearly as sexy, let’s start a new trend of performing the proper plank ;)