Last week, we talked about the importance of the Mighty Plank. Today, it’s all about technique.
A lot goes on within this seemingly simple core exercise (as you know, if you’ve suffered through any of Sam’s recent classes). A good plank requires upper AND lower body stability, proper core engagement, and correct spinal alignment.
Upper Body Stability
In a plank, your shoulder girdle and rib cage are supported by your serratus anterior, a hand-shaped muscle that hugs your rib cage. To find it, shrug your shoulders all the way up to your ears, then pull them and keep going until you can’t pull anymore. You should feel a bracing sensation on the sides of your rib cage – that’s your serratus.
In a “high plank” position, sink your body towards the floor while your arms remain straight. Then push back up away from the floor – arms still straight. That’s your serratus, too. Engaging this muscle is crucial for supporting your upper body without overstraining the neck and shoulders. Unless you want more tension there? We didn’t think so.
Lower Body Stability
The most common mistake while planking is bearing all your weight in your arms and shoulders. Proper core engagement is one way to fix that – but lower body stability is often overlooked, and just as important.
In a plank, your legs should be straight and your muscles active. None of this saggy-leg business. Imagine there’s a dragon behind you, and you have to shoot fireballs at it from your heels. (Work with me here.)
Also, your hips, heels and shoulders should form three points of a straight line. So no piking up at the hip, and no sagging down either. It helps to practice alongside a mirror, so you can keep an eye on your form.
The Holy Grail of all good exercise technique – proper core engagement is as elusive as it is important.
What’s its not: “Sucking in” your belly. To truly engage your core, you’ll do it on an exhale.
How to do it: Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place on hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take several breaths in through your nose, and notice your chest rising and falling with each breath.
As you lie there, try to get your breath to go all the way into your belly, so it rises and falls as it fills up with air, and empties air, respectively. At the end of each exhale, your belly button should descend toward your spine (without moving your upper body or pelvis).
Once you’ve got that down, take a big breath in. Exhale, and as your belly button moves downward, deliberately continue that motion, squeezing your belly button towards your spine as you push every last bit of air out of your lungs. You should feel a tightness deep in your core – you did it!
When you’ve mastered this, try the same exercise in a seated, then standing….then planking position.
Your pelvic floor muscles also play a role. To tighten them, pretend you have to pee really bad and you’re holding it in. That, plus your core engagement, will make a solid plank.
If you’re new to this type of engagement, you might not be able to hold your plank for very long. That’s okay! Good form always trumps duration, speed, or power. Do what you can and build from there.
Proper Spinal Alignment
On your hands and knees, the dowel should come into contact with the base of your skull, the point right between your shoulder blades (not higher or lower), and your sacrum (tip of the tailbone).
From there, just straighten your legs back into a plank! The dowel will give you feedback if your upper back starts to round, or your low back starts sagging.
Next week, we’ll show you how to incorporate this exercise into a regular routine.
Have questions about the plank? Ask us in the comments below!