How to do a plank without hurting your back

Updated: Sep 22


Core exercises are the cornerstone of any fitness, yoga, sports performance, or rehab program. 


The plank has become a signature core move across all of these industries, and is hailed one of the best exercises for strengthening your core and healing back pain.


A strong core is indeed necessary to support your spine, which is an important component of both healing, pain management, and injury prevention.


Fun fact - did you know your core is a series of 29 muscles that work in a coordinated fashion to stabilize your torso, lower body, and upper body, as you move through daily activities?!  Yep, it takes 29 muscles to hold you together!


Another fun fact, did you know your diaphragm is actually a huge key player in your spinal stability? 


It takes more than just muscle, you need a good breathing strategy to get the most out of your core strengthening exercises!


Unfortunately, most of the people I see demonstrate poor form and poor strategy in their plank position, which can lead to pain and injury, but also wasted time!!


If we're going to take the time and effort to exercise and get all sweaty and tired, we should at least be getting some benefit out of it right?!


So let's take a moment and fix your plank!


Here are my top 5 tips for fixing your plank for optimal performance:

1.Lift - but do not tuck -your hips. 

Alignment will either enhance or diminish your ability to access your core stabilizing system. 


If your pelvis/hips are sagging way down below the shoulders and not in line with the rib cage, the pelvic floor and transverse abdominals will have difficulty firing, which likely means you are using compensatory strategies to hold yourself up, and not strengthening your abs a tall. 


Conversely, if you tuck your hips too much you will be relying on your hip flexors and shutting off the very abdominal muscles you are trying to strengthen.


Your hips should be in line with, or just slightly below the shoulders with the rib cage stacked directly above a neutral pelvis.  Think of your standing alignment and simply tip it over 90-degrees!


2. Check your rib cage alignment

Beyond stacking the ribs over the pelvis, I want you to particularly watch the lower front ribs.  There will be a tendency to spill forward against gravity if the core recruitment and strength are not up to speed. 


Keep the ribs down and in, not overly gripped but not flared outward.  One great way to know if you are doing this correctly is to see if you can take a deep breath.  Which leads me to...


3. Breathe!!! 

Breath control is a vital part of proficient and efficient core stabilization. 


We often either reverse our hold our breath to create the same sensation of stability as contracting our abdominals when a task is beyond what we are ready for. 


Be super aware of any breath holding or backwards breathing, and understand that this is a compensation strategy.

If you are holding breath you are NOT strengthening your core and you're likely going to make your stomach look bigger not flatter. 


Not to mention the pressure you are placing on the pelvic floor, yikes!!  Not great if you're trying to heal a diastasis after pregnancy.


Breathe fully inward and outward.  Let the pelvic floor, abdominals, back muscles, and rig cage expand equally on your inhale and then engage these muscles to pressurize your core canister throughout your exhale.  Aim to hold for 5-10 full inhale/exhale cycles.


This is a really really important piece of your plank, so let's take a minute and make sure you know how to breathe:


4.  Maintain head control. 

So often I see loss of cervical stability in plank. 


Again, plank is basically your standing posture tipped over 90-degrees, so the head should still be right in line with the shoulders against gravity. 


If the head is not in line you cannot breathe properly, and if your diaphragm is not functioning properly neither will your core. 


Don't let your head drop off the body, this will pull on your entire spine and damage your neck.


5.  Engage your shoulder blade muscles. 

One thing I love about plank is that it's a strengthener for more than just the abs.  It's actually a great exercise to work on shoulder stability and shoulder blade strength.


The scapular muscles need to be actively working to hold the upper body against gravity. 


Engage by actively pushing the hands into the floor, then simultaneously lengthening the chest forward so the thoracic spine (between the shoulder blades) is flat but shoulders are strong and broad, not hunched into the ears.


Watch that the elbows don't hyperextend and make sure the wrists have enough flexibility to support a broad shoulder line.  (If you lack wrist extension you will make up for it with poor shoulder alignment in plank, modify by dropping to the forearms.)


How long should I hold my plank?

Great question.  Here's your bonus tip - more is not better!


Let's look to the evidence.  Research gives us the following guidelines:

  1. The average healthy female can hold a plank of about 75 seconds (vs males just over 2 minutes).

  2. Female athletes should produce longer duration (closer to 2 minutes)

  3. Subjects with back pain demonstrate an average performance of 25-30 seconds.

Takeaways?


Aim for a good 90 second plank. 


If you can hold that with all 5 reference points above in solid form, with no pain or discomfort anywhere, then you can start progressing to more advanced techniques such as planks with leg lifts, pike ups, and moving/rotational planks.


Does not living up to these normals mean you're more at risk for back pain?  Not necessarily.  Of more

importance to me is that your core unit is functioning properly.  Plank is not the end all be all, but it's a great exercise!


References: 

Norms for an Isometric Muscle Endurance Test

A Clinical Tool for Office Assessment of Lumbar Spine Stabilization Endurance: Prone and Supine Bridge Maneuvers