When it comes to any strength training or core exercise it's not always what you do that matters, it's how you do it. One of the core principles we follow with all of our training programs at AMP Fitness is "form BEFORE intensity." This simply means that before you increase the difficulty or volume of an exercise you must first own the technique. I don't expect every move to be perfect, especially when starting out, but you should always strive towards becoming at least 1% better each time you train. This will ensure that you A) aren't getting hurt from an exercise done improperly and B) aren't creating a dysfunction so you get hurt later.
That said, one exercise I see being butchered left and right when I visit a commercial gym is the plank. For a seemingly simple exercise there are actually many technique flaws I see that are not only preventing you from getting the most out of this exercise but are also feeding into other muscle imbalances that may be hurting your posture and performance.
To help you get the most out of planks (and pretty much any other core stability exercise) I am going to share some of the common technique flaws and how to fix them.
Mistake #1: Not locking your pelvis to your abdomen.
Holding a plank exercise is not only meant to strengthen the front of your core but also the sides, back, top and bottom in a neutral posture to create balance. Not only that, planks are also meant to connect your upper and lower body to your core as well. When you neglect to lock your pelvis to your abdomen you aren't effectively locking your lower body to your core.
This means you are neglecting the muscles of your pelvic floor (the bottom of your core) which are VERY important for biological function, posture and quality movement. Training to effectively connect your lower body to your trunk will help you squat, lunge, and deadlift more efficiently as well as help you move better outside of the gym as well.
The Fix: Engage your glutes by squeezing your butt cheeks together, almost as if you were trying to hold onto your last dollar with your cheeks. This will effectively lock your hips to your core by activating your pelvic floor muscles which are key to maintaining a neutral spine.
Mistake #2: Too much lumbar extension. (aka letting your low back arch/sag)
This is a very common compensation pattern because it is much easier to rely on the integrity of your of your spinal cord to hold you up than by actually using your core muscles. I'm sure you can appreciate why this can be a BIG problem.
Lumbar extension is cause by two things: anterior pelvic tilt (which I mentioned above) and letting your hips sag. Both are causing you to neglect the core muscles you are looking to strengthen.
The Fix: Again, squeeze your butt AND your stomach! This will not only help you to lock your pelvis to your core but will also help to posteriorly tilt your pelvis diminishing the curve of the lumbar spine. Make sure you are using the muscles in the front and sides of your core effectively and NOT relying on the 'arch' to hold you up. Also, do NOT let your hips sag towards the floor as this will also cause excessive extension in your lower back.
Once you can't hold this position anymore and feel your back start to arch it is important to end that set. Quality before quantity!
Mistake #3: Reaching your butt to the sky.
You shouldn't look like you are doing downward dog while planking. You aren't necessarily going to cause any damage this way but you aren't really getting any benefit from the exercise either.
The Fix: Get 'long' meaning create some distance between your elbows and your feet. Just like above, make sure you are squeezing your glutes and keeping tension in your abs.
If you find it hard or impossible to hold a good plank position without keeping your hips bent then try doing a plank with your elbows on an elevated surface or even holding the plank from your knees. These variations will take some of the tension off of your back and let your abs do more of the work.
Mistake #4: Letting your ribs flare.
If you picture the bottom of your ribs as bucket handles, you don't want the handles to swing out away from your body. The bottom of your rib cage should be held tight and sit flush against your abdomen. The diaphragm muscle which should be active is considered the 'top' of your core musculature and 'ties' your upper body to your trunk or core. That muscle is VERY important for everything from breathing to posture to protecting your internal organs.
The Fix: This is hard to do once you are already holding a plank so before you get into position make sure your ribs are tucked down into your abdomen. As a good rule of thumb, the bottom of your ribs should be relatively flush with your trunk. To help hold them in place you want to actively engage your front and side core muscles as well as your diaphragm (sometimes it helps to exhale and tighten to feel your ribs drop).
Mistake #5: Creating a 'hump' in your upper back.
Piggybacking off of #3, you want to avoid creating a buffalo hump by rounding your upper back as you plank. I see this quite often as people have to make up for lack of upper body stability and core strength. Getting into this more kyphotic (low back arched and upper back hunched) posture is easier to hold for longer time but you are relying on your spine to hold you up and neglecting the necessary core muscles.
The Fix: You must keep your chest up or "tall" to prevent this from happening. One way to achieve this is to keep your shoulders back and down and also to engage your lats (squeeze your armpits). I'll admit that it's tricky to be able to keep the chest tall AND the ribs down so it's something you may have to play around with to get the positioning just right. It helps to do that while vertical, not while planking.
Mistake #6: Letting your neck drop or excessive forward head posture.
Having a forward head typically goes right along with rounding the upper back as the head has nowhere to go but forward and it will be hard to get out of this posture without first fixing your thoracic posture. Letting your head flop over may just mean you are getting tired from holding a plank TOO long.
The Fix: The two cues we use with clients is to create a double chin and stare at your fists. The act of making a double chin will prevent forward head posture and if you are staring at your fists you head can't be flopped over. If the rest of your plank is perfect you DON'T want to get lazy at the neck!
Maintain a neutral spine from your butt all the way up through your cervical spine (neck). At this point, you should be able to place a dowel on your backside and it should be a straight line and in contact with the back of your head (not the top of your head), your mid-back, your butt and perhaps your hamstrings.
Mistake #7: Not engaging your lats and muscles of the shoulder girdle.
The plank should be treated as a whole-body exercise since more is being trained than just your abdomen. Posture is everything from your spine to your hips, shoulders and other joints. Neglecting to stabilize in your shoulder joint is another common mistake that I tend to see across the board.
Do NOT push your shoulders forward out of the socket which will 'stretch' your upper back muscles. Also, don't 'sink' your chest through them and 'hang' on your ligaments.
The Fix: Try to find the area where the head of your humerus (upper arm bone) is centered in the shoulder socket. Once there, squeeze your lats by pretending to have someone in a headlock. Same as above, make sure you keep your chest tall and shoulder blades back and down. Training joint centration is a great way to train stability of the rotator cuff muscles and will help you increase overall shoulder strength/health as well.
Mistake #8: Sacrificing quality for quantity.
Anytime someone tells me that they won a plank contest and held for 3+ minutes I can assure you that their spine was taking the brunt of the force. If you master techniques 1-7 and use perfect form AND hold longer than 60 seconds or so you are on the right track. Remember, form before intensity!
The Fix: If you master techniques 1-7 with perfect form AND can hold longer than 60 seconds you are in line for an upgrade. You can elevate your feet, add weight, do a moving plank, grab and move weights, put your feet in a TRX or on a stability ball, the variations are endless! Just remember, form before intensity!
Bonus Tip: It helps to get into good position with your upper body first before going up onto your toes. I've found it helpful to step back one leg at a time and lock each leg into place by getting long and squeezing each butt cheek to lock the hips. Here is a video to demonstrate:
Did you find these tips helpful? Looking for more technique articles like this one? In the comments section below, let me know what exercise technique gives you trouble and we'll cover it in the next article!