The all-encompassing plank – an essential core training exercise, and what’s more- it’s completely portable to take along with you! Whether readying for a road trip or settling for a stay-cation at home, the summertime is perfect for getting a taste of new outdoor activities. I hope you’re out there exploring something new this year – something outside your usual. Perhaps you were inspired by The Hunger Games show of skill in archery? Or maybe you’ve seen the Stand Up Paddle Surfing on Lake Michigan? Whatever it is, venture out and give it a try. Like so many sports – both pro and leisure, a strong core is definitely to your advantage. And the plank is a terrific exercise, because it includes core, and really addresses the entire body.
You could be missing out on reaping all the benefits this move has to offer if you’re practicing with improper alignment or inefficient technique. I often see a mistaken effort of bearing the majority of weight into the arms and upper body. Here’s my list of techniques to create a plank that’ll work your full body optimally.
Elbows down. While you can certainly execute the plank in the push-up position with your hands underneath you, try perfecting it first by coming down onto your forearms, with the elbows in a direct line with the shoulders.
You can place your forearms in a triangle position or straight in parallel. Hands can be (a) flat to the ground, (b) palm open with the pinky side down, as in “karate chop,” or (c) in lightly-clenched fists. Avoid over-clenching in a fist – it’s an unnecessary use of your energy during the exercise.
Press the forearms down and away from each other in order to activate the serratus anterior – a muscle that helps keep your shoulder blade stable against your back, connecting your limbs to your core.
Shoulders. Avoid “hunching” or rounding the shoulders up by your neck. Do a small mindful activation in the in your middle-upper back, between the shoulder blades. You should also feel like the muscles that wrap under the armpit and back around your ribs are “on” without “gripping.”
Eyes. Avoid dropping your head and looking at your feet. Remember that the head is the top of the spine. To align your head properly, direct your gaze in front of you to the ground about a foot in front of your hands. Make an image in your mind of a long strong spine! It will help direct part of your focus on your head-to-tail connection. Which brings us to the…
Core/pelvis. Turn on the muscles of your inner core, and together, while firing up the glutes, slightly tuck the pelvis. This should position the back hips about the same level as your shoulders. Watch out for piking high at the hips or dropping them too low toward the ground. The correct technique and alignment helps protect the lower back!
Barefoot. From a Pilates perspective, it will be more ideal if you can execute your planks while barefoot rather than in shoes. Why? It allows you to fully utilize the tactile senses in the foot; effectively use the foot as the lever system of its intended design; and both strengthen and create flexibility in the ankle joint/lower leg
Place the feet together (or if needed, separate hip width to modify). Dig the ball of the foot down. Put your weight evenly into both feet, and drive the heels back (think dorsiflexion).
Stretch to strengthen. Imagine a mat under the pressure of your arms and feet that you are trying to stretch from end to end. Then, rather than thinking of it in terms of pressing down in order to lift up, you can change your mind set to focus on lengthening along the horizon line.
Note that this technique works best when on a surface where you have enough friction to keep you from sliding.
Breath. Inhale to position both arms and one foot down, and then exhale to come up onto both feet. Then keep your breathing even. Just as an example, a count of 4 to inhale, and 4 to exhale, depending on the length of your timed set.
Start with a doable time – 10-20 counts – or use a timer and work your way up to a minute with the best form possible for extra challenge. The plank is a full body exercise, so each technique mentioned is a piece interdependent on the others to build the “picture” for optimally working your best plank. Okay – how many planks can you get in each week this summer? Ready, Go!!