Troubleshooting the plank

If the plank seems to you like an exercise that is too easy to master, you’re right!

We trainers think planks are great.  Almost everyone should have the ability to get into some sort of plank.  It can be elevated or even standing, but the ability to defend the position of the spine while it is exposed to forces pulling it out of good position is an essential component of safety and effectiveness in moving things around.  

WHEW!  

Nerdy safety stuff aside, the plank is also a great exercise for “tightening” the midsection (and who doesn’t want that?).  

A well done plank requires a balance of tension from all of the core musculature in a safe and anatomically appropriate way.  More specifically, the abs, lats and the glutes get their invitation to the “party”.

So, let’s cover the details about troubleshooting the plank: 

  • what does a good plank look like?

  • most common positional errors:

    • 1. too much “sag” in the torso
    • 2. too much “rounding” of the back
    • 3. hips too high in the plank position
    • 4. head out of position 
  • a good way for a training partner to “check” for tension in your plank

Here’s what a good plank looks like: 

 

Here, Marcela has a nice neutral spine and you can see the generally straight line from ear to hip to ankle.  

This plank challenges all the right stuff; it helps improve performance, safety in activities and “tightens” things up.

We like to use a PVC pipe or dowel to check position and to help the participant “feel” what the neutral spine is like in the plank position.  

 

The pipe should generally contact your spine at the tailbone, the space between the shoulder blades and the back of the skull (a.k.a. “the inion” for you anatomically inclined out there!).

Some individual differences in spine shape and posture are normal, so don’t worry too much about the “perfect” amount of contact with the PVC pipe.  

There is a soft curve “inward” at the neck and low back (as seen in the image of the spine below) and a slight “outward” curve at the mid back and tailbone.  The pelvis and diaphragm are parallel to each other and the ear, torso and tailbone form a generally straight line.

So, we’ve seen some good examples, now let’s look at some common versions that might prevent us from getting the most out of the exercise.

Too much “arch” or “sag” in the back:

 

The “too much arch” is one of those that we want to nip in the bud.  The reason for addressing and correcting it quickly is primarily an issue of safety.  A quick peek back at the neutral spine post reveals why.  In this case, the plank is being executed without adequate tension in the abdominal wall.

In addition to enhancing the safety of the plank, practicing a plank without enough support from the abdominal wall ends up with the spine “hanging out” on itself (bony/ligamentous end range of motion).  This renders the value of a plank to somewhere between a small step above useless and potentially hazardous.  

Too much “rounding” of the back and/or hips too high:

 

In this case,  we’re just not reinforcing good trunk position and good posture. It probably isn’t unsafe, but it won’t likely do much for performance and safety improvement.

Head not part of the “neutral spine”:

Here, we see the head taking a different course than the rest of the spine…  This isn’t necessarily as risky from the safety perspective, but certainly isn’t the most effective version to practice.  

It’s amazing how often we hear people reporting that they “feel it much more in the abs” when they get their head back in line with the rest of the torso.  

Perhaps this common postural fault in the plank is a result of our “screen-centric” lives: turn the picture upright and it might resemble a person reading a computer screen or phone…

In this photo, we clearly see that the head and neck are “behind” a neutral position and the shoulders get a little to close to the ears.  This often exacerbates tension in the neck and upper back (sound familiar?).

Again, these positions aren’t going to put us immediately in harm’s way, but these versions of planks do not maximize the return we get out of the humble exercise.  

So zip that head back in line as best as possible to get the most out of your horizontal fight against gravity!

Here’s a nice way to see if you have enough tension in the plank:

As you can see, the plank is an exercise in “defending position”.  Marcela demonstrates a check of my ability to “get tight” in the plank and hold my position.  Provided I can stay in a neutral position, and add tension evenly across my body, I can withstand her harassment of me for just long enough to get a “very good”!

We’d be delighted to take a look at your plank (*no harassment required), so feel free to stop one of us on the floor if we’re not with another member.  Of course, there’s always the option of emailing me!  That way, we can take a look before we try to knock you over…

 

~Mark Reinke

They’ve given me the title Personal Training Director, but I really just love to help acac members and give my team the tools they need to do the same.  I graduated with a B.S. in Human Physiology and Biology from the University of Oregon and M.A. from Willamette University. I have over 15 years experience personal training and have also taught anatomy, physiology and biology. I love spending time outdoors and growing, cooking and eating great food.  Learn more about me and read more of my blogs on our website

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About Mark

I am a busy guy; husband, father, coach, mentor, gardener, outdoors man and cook are the primary hats I wear. To be the best of these I can be, I need to stay in shape for all those pursuits, and feed myself in a way that allows me to keep up the pace. I can help you to take the next manageable step in fitness and wellness to get you closer to your ideal self.