Four Tips to Improve Your Plank & Back Pain
Planks are presumably one of the most popular body weight abdominal exercises. Usually, the intention of the exercise is to promote abdominal strength while simultaneously reducing low back pain. However, the exercise often strays from its intended purpose due to improper form, lack of body awareness, and excessive hold time. As a contradictory result, it leads to a stronger low back and weaker abs. This newfound low back strength creates an inclination for us to overuse these muscles with movement which promotes further back pain! Unfortunately, this is a common scenario from improper plank technique. Learn how to avoid the top 4 most common mistakes by reading below!
1. DON'T LOOK UP: People often perform the plank looking up either to talk to friends if they're in a group fitness class or simply to pass the time by. The result of the wondering head is neck pain from excessive/unwanted tension. However, it is imperative that when we are trying to improve abdominal strength, we are doing so with a neck that is turned "off." A neck that is termed "off," is one that is in a neutral or in a slightly elongated position (chin tucked). In this chin tucked position, it makes it extremely difficult to compensate with the neck while performing a plank. Instead, I want you to think bobblehead doll. Yep, we're bringing the bobblehead back! Why? Well, this is how I want you to envision your neck the next time you are doing a plank. Your neck should be limber, loose, and moveable as if it were a "bobblehead doll." Instead of the neck kicking in when your abs fatigue, the abs will continue to be the primary focus and be forced to train harder!
2. CHEST UP: The standard plank position inevitably has us fighting gravity throughout our entire body. Although the exercise focuses on the abs, the upper extremity needs to be accounted for as well. Many struggle to correctly hold the chest "up" towards the ceiling when performing a plank.This creates poor scapular (shoulder blade) control and a source for potential pain at the anterior shoulders. Besides keeping your shoulders healthy, pressing through your elbows to lift the chest "up" allows you to strengthen the mid and low traps. These muscles are prone to become weak and can cause an abundance of back and upper trap issues. So, why not get more bang for your buck and train the plank as a FULL BODY exercise?
3. BELLY BUTTON UP: As previously mentioned, it is a constant battle between you versus gravity during a plank. The battle continues when we look at what's going on at the hip and pelvis. When gravity wins, we see the low back sag or excessively arch (sinking too low towards the floor). Alternatively, if we don't put up enough of a fight then we end up with a hip hike (hips too high in the air). The problem with these positions is that the former causes us to overuse our back which weakens the abs and the latter simply doesn't create enough stress for change. So, if we're in a standard plank position and we think about the cue "belly button up" then it tends to keep our hips in a challenging position while the pelvis goes into a posterior pelvic tilt. A posterior pelvic what? Don't worry, this is a fancy phrase for our backs slightly rounding out which in return, turns on our obliques. This is the desired movement during a plank and this is the position that should be achieved.
4. STOP HOLDING FOREVER: Since when did holding a plank for minutes upon minutes become a thing? Whatever happened to quality not quantity. Your reasoning as to why you're holding the plank for so long comes down to not understanding the "why" behind the movement. If you understand your "why" then you'll quickly realize, you don't need these excessive hold times. Actually, if you can maintain the three tips mentioned above, then holding for minutes upon minutes shouldn't be possible! Furthermore, while holding your plank try counting breathes instead of time. When you maintain the three tips above, it puts us in a good position to breathe properly while efficiently utilizing the diaphragm and lungs. Guess what...when you breath you naturally activate your abs. When we hold the plank the correct way we really use our abs. So, why wouldn't we add the component of breathing to maximize our plank? Moreover, proper breathing mechanics is going to decrease the risk for neck and back pain, which should further contribute to your "why" behind performing a plank.
So, What's the Point of the Foam Roller?
Most modifications change the properties of the plank such as the height of your arms or the starting and ending positions.
In contrast, using the foam roller allows you to maintain proper position and sustain intensity while enabling you to better avoid the above mistakes. Overall, when this is performed correctly it will improve body awareness, build stronger abs, and decrease low back pain! Check out the video below for the full discussion and demonstration on these common mistakes and correct technique.