The plank is without a doubt one of the most popular core exercises.
Walk into any gym and you’re bound to see a number of gym-goers planking. Attend any fitness class and there’s a high chance the plank (or variations of) will be included.
We also use the plank in many of our personal training programmes with our clients here at our private training studio.
There’s a good reason for this too – it’s a fantastic core exercise (when done properly!). By regularly completing the plank to strengthen your mid-section:
- You’ll be stronger and more stable when performing other compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift and may be able to lift more weight with reduced injury risk.
- You’ll decrease the risk of developing lower back pain not only when exercising in the gym, but also when playing sport and in your every-day life as well.
- And there’s the added benefit of developing a lean, strong and toned mid-section (assuming you’re following a healthy eating plan as well).
It’s certainly beneficial to have a strong and stable core, and the plank is a fundamental exercise in achieving this. Unfortunately, many people do it wrong…
As simple as it may look, it is very easy to perform the plank incorrectly, and there’s not a huge margin for error due to the subtle technique tweaks that can make it effective or ineffective.
Whether it’s having your hips too high or too low, failing to engage/activate the correct muscles, or having your pelvis in the wrong position, any or all of these will dramatically reduce the effectiveness of your plank and could contribute to lower back pain.
Here’s what to look out for to get the most out of your plank and ensure you’re doing it correctly:
1. Hip Position
Problem #1 – Hips Too High
When the hips are too high, you are using the wrong muscles to hold your position and not really activating your core at all.
The image shows an exaggerated hip elevation (although I’m sure we’re all guilty of doing this at some point!) but highlights the point of having your hips too high.
Problem #2 – Hips Too Low
When your hips are too low, you may still be working your core, but much of the muscular work is transferred to the lower back and other muscle groups.
It’s this version that is more likely to lead to lower back pain, both in the short and long term.
Solution – Straight Body/Hips During Plank
Ideally your hips are neither too high, nor too low, but in line with your shoulders, as you can see from the image.
Doing the plank this way will minimise the risk of lower back pain, and set you up correctly to challenge your core muscles properly, in combination with tips 2. and 3.
2. Pelvic Alignment
Problem #1 – Anterior Pelvic Tilt
When the pelvis tips forward (anterior pelvic tilt) you’ll notice a ‘dip’ in the lower back and protruding glutes.
This indicates faulty pelvic alignment and although you may still feel your core muscles working, it’s not an efficient way to do the plank, and may also lead to low back pain.
Problem #2 – Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Less commonly, when the pelvis tips backwards (posterior pelvic tilt) you’ll notice a rounding out of the lower back, and often throughout the entire back.
Ironically, this can actually activate the core muscles more than the regular plank, but shouldn’t be attempted until you’ve mastered basic pelvic control (shown below).
Solution – Neutral Pelvis
Pelvic neutral lies somewhere between anterior pelvic tilt and posterior pelvic tilt. You’re aiming for a small, but natural curve in your lower back.
This position is best achieved through a combination of pelvis/hip position awareness and correct muscle activation, as explained below.
3. Muscle Activation
In basic terms, what we mean by ‘muscle activation’ during the plank is to ‘switch on’ the correct muscles by concentrating on working and ‘squeezing’ them.
The simplest way to describe this is, during the plank, focus on pulling your stomach muscles inwards towards your spine and brace them as if you’re about to be punched in the stomach.
Not only will this help to ensure you’re using the correct muscles during this exercise, it will also help to keep the pelvis in the correct position, especially when you also engage (squeeze) your glute (bum) muscles.
By following points 1-3 above, you’ll be well on your way to an effective plank that will provide an effective challenge and workout for your core muscles.
And, by repeating the plank over time you’ll gradually improve the strength of your core and reduce the risk of developing lower back, or potentially improve pre-existing back pain, depending on the cause of your pain.
- The hips should be in line with the shoulders
- The pelvis should in a neutral position
- Focus on engaging the core muscles and glute muscles.
- Maintain a constant breathing rhythm throughout.
- Ensure your upper back isn’t rounding – keep your shoulder blades down away from your ears.
- Try not to look up – keep the neck straight and eyes looking straight down.
- Keep your elbows directly beneath your shoulders and arms out flat in front.
- Try to avoid clasping your fingers.
By following our advice and tips in this article, when performing the plank you should feel a strong contraction in your stomach muscles.
Some other muscles may feel like they are being worked (typically the shoulders and legs) but this should be minimal. If you feel your lower back doing most of the work, either adjust your technique, or stop to re-evaluate what you may have been doing wrong; don’t push through lower back pain.
As an aside, if you are very new to the plank, or practising what we’ve explained in this article, it can be worth practising on your knees (go into the plank position and drop your knees to the ground) to master your hip position, pelvic alignment, and muscle activation, before attempting the full plank.
Aim to build up your plank to 60-90 seconds, and complete 2-4 sets of this during your workout, depending on your goals and fitness level. Once you can complete 90 seconds in all your sets, it’s time to progress to more challenging variations of the plank (rather than simply holding for longer, which is a common mistake).
We hope this article will help you improve your plank technique so you get the maximum benefit from the exercise. It can be very helpful to use a mirror, video, or have someone give you feedback when you’re adjusting your technique, as it’s very difficult to know when you’re in the right position on your own.
We should also mention that lower back pain is a highly prevalent problem with a number of different causes so this article isn’t a substitution for a physical examination by a doctor or other medical professional, nor is it intended to be. If you are experiencing lower back pain, please take care and don’t rush into anything in the gym without examination and advice from a qualified professional.