By Todd M. Cambio, CSCS, SFG – Westerly, RI
Or should I say…WHEN planks cause back pain, your form is off!
I know everybody is probably doing planks. Unfortunately, most people know how a plank should “look” they just don’t execute it perfectly. Many people, trainers included, are not quite sure what muscles should be firing or how to cue clients to align their spine to get the correct muscles firing. So I will offer some strategies to help you find that “Perfect Plank.”
A proper plank includes more than just cueing to squeeze the glutes, flex the quads and brace the core. It also requires you to fully align the spine in a neutral position. By aligning the spine along with squeezing your glutes, flexing your quads and bracing your core, you will keep your abs firing at all times. You definitely want your abs firing instead of finding ways to compensate. Many times the back, especially the lower lumbar, gets overworked. Quite simply, if you feel your back, you are out of position and something in your kinetic chain is off.
By planking correctly, you can transfer this neural recruitment pattern to most other movements and exercises. For example, all a basic push up is, no matter what step or progression you are on, is a moving plank. The push up just recruits a few more major muscle groups like the pecs (major and minor) the anterior deltoids and the triceps.
Here are a few common form issues that you can visibly correct:
Low Back Arch:
This arching will compress the lower vertebrae and many times will cause a sore lower back. By continuously doing movements like this with poor form, you will create poor neural recruitment patterns. Meaning, your body will automatically fire the wrong muscles at the wrong times leading to more and more aches and pains over time, possibly some chronic pain and even injury!
Mid Back Arch or “Turtle Back”:
This type of arching is actually a false neural recruitment pattern. By doing planks like this, you are firing your back muscles instead of the proper core and ab muscles. In my opinion, this is actually a form of overuse or even over training in some people. By having a majority of your movements go through your back, you are destined for back problems because his pattern will transfer to everything you do in life.
Neck Reach or “Bobbing For Apples”:
This is usually the first visible sign someone is struggling with a plank and push up. By doing this poor movement pattern you are making the upper traps and neck muscles strain. This generally leads to upper back pain, neck pain and even constant head-aches. (Guy in the Middle)
Butt in the air:
Not the worse of the bunch mentioned above but it can put excess stress on shoulders and kink up your traps and neck. (Guy in the bottom of the picture directly above) Basically you are not engaging your hips and glutes so you are actually not firing your abs very much if at all. So, why do something that doesn’t give you much of a benefit. Simply do a proper plank for a few seconds, put your knees down when form begins to fade, and then pop back up when ready.
Other scenarios to watch for: Planking like an upward dog or cobra position in yoga, tilting your hips to one side or not packing the shoulders
Solution: So, by squeezing your glutes like there is a “quarter between your cheeks” you will get the hips in proper position to allow the abs to fire. By firing the quads along with your glutes, you are helping your glutes line up your hips so that your spine is in a neutral position. By doing this, your abs should turn on through out the movement you are doing.
Start by doing a high plank or push up position until you have improved your core/ab strength enough to do them on your elbows. Holding for one minute is a solid time frame to hold a true plank.
Advanced Solution: You can also go a step further and use a stick and make sure your spine is straight and that the stick makes contact with the back of your head, your upper back and your tailbone. We have also applied this solution to doing body rows, dead lifts, KB swings, RDL’s, bird dogs and more. If you analyze each of these before mentioned exercises, they all require a neutral spine. By holding a stick along your client’s back on the three contact points, they will truly fire their abs and engage their glutes. This method works great for teaching the hip hinge as well.
I like to think of neural pathways as turning on light switches. If your abs are not firing during an exercise, I think how can I “switch that light on” to get them to fire. Now go and light those abs up like a Christmas tree!
Todd M. Cambio, CSCS, SFG
Todd is the owner of Precision Fitness in Westerly, RI. He is a strength and conditioning coach that specializes in sports performance and obstacle course race training. Todd is also a published author, StrongFirst (SFG) Kettlebell Instructor, Spartan Group X (SGX) Obstacle Course Coach and Master Body Weight Trainer for Lebert Fitness. See what Todd is up to by visiting www.ToddCambio.com.