Back to Basics: Plank Pose
You love it, you hate it. You love to hate it.
It’s plank pose.
What’s plank pose?
Also known as “Phalakasana,” plank pose is a modification of Chaturanga Dandasana (“four-limbed staff pose”), which is doozy of a core stabilizer found in the traditional Sun Salutations. Plank looks like a high push up position; Chaturanga is pretty much the same pose, but with the elbows bent to ninety degrees. In a traditional Sun Salutation, practitioners jump back from a preparatory pose directly into Chaturanga – a challenging move even for advanced practitioners. To better control this transition, we usually step back to plank first, and then lower down into Chaturanga.
Uses of Plank
Although it has humble beginnings as a modification, plank has become quite the showstopper in its own right. Forearm plank is held for a minute in the YHot practice to help practitioners develop their core strength and stability. Plank is used in power and flow classes to create heat in the body, cultivate scapular stabilization, improve core strength, and act as an intermediary through transitions.
Anatomy of Plank
Plank pose is a lot of work for the upper body. The shoulder girdle is intrinsically a joint of mobility, not stability (this ball and socket joint actually looks more like a baseball stuck to a plate). In order for the practitioner to effectively manage his or her body weight, he or she must actively recruit the larger muscles of the back to stabilize the scapulae (the shoulder blades), so that the rotator cuff (the four little muscles that hold the humerus to the shoulder blade) isn’t struggling to bear the burden.
The primary muscles that keep the scapulae happily secure are the rhomboids, the trapezius, and the serratus anterior. They work in opposition to each other to make sure that the shoulder blades don’t “wing out” or slide too far afield. You can understand their respective actions through the following exercise:
- Come onto all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips, as if you were about to do cat/cow.
- Keep your arms and your spine straight (unlike cat/cow, where we round and arch)
- Now, slide your shoulder blades closer to each other on your back (your chest will move closer to the floor, but your arms stay straight). The drawing closer of the scapulae to the spine reflects the action of the rhomboids and trapezius.
- Now, slide your shoulder blades apart from each other so that they wrap around your ribcage and your upper back lifts to the ceiling. This action is created by the contraction of serratus anterior, a wing-like muscle that pulls your scapula around the sides of your ribs.
When these muscles act together effectively, the scapulae stay well-secured on the back for plank – and ultimately for the transition to Chaturanga.
Finding your awesome plank pose
To find your plank, first find and excellent foundation:
- Come onto all fours with your knees slightly behind your hips. Place your hands outer shoulder distance apart, line up the center of your wrist with the space between your index and middle finger, and press firmly through the four corners of your hands.
Now, engage your scapular stabilization:
- Lift your back ribs up to the sky so that your shoulder blades slide apart (this is serratus working).
- Keep the upper back inflated as you draw your shoulder blades closer to each other on your back until they are nestled securely against your ribcage.
Now find your core:
- With your shoulder girdle well-supported, draw the sides of your waist skywards in order to activate your core. This action will help you to support the back body with the strength of your front body.
Add the pelvis:
- To recruit the integration of the pelvis, roll your upper inner thighs back as you draw your sitting bones down to your knees.
- If this feels like good work for you, then you can stay here on your knees in modified plank.
Add the legs:
- To come into full plank, keep the stability you’ve created through your shoulders and your pelvis and step one foot back at a time.
- Engage your quads and fully straighten your legs.
- To prevent collapse in the lower back, lift your pelvis in line with your shoulders and lengthen your tailbone to your feet.
- Finally, reach your sternum forward as you reach your heels back to expand the length of your plank fully.
- Eventually, you may lower your hips to make one straight line from your heels to your shoulders (rather than keeping the hips and shoulders in line).
Plank to Chaturanga
Once you are able to hold your plank solidly for 5 breaths, you are ready to explore lowering to Chaturanga. Through this transition, it is vitally important to keep your scapulae securely on your back. We often allow the shoulder heads drop forward and down as we lower, which is a compensation can be injurious for the rotator cuff over time.
To come into Chaturanga:
- Keep your legs engaged and your scapulae securely on your back.
- Shift onto your toes so that your chest moves forward in space a few inches.
- Keeping your shoulder heads lifted, bend your elbows and smoothly lower until your shoulders and elbows are in one line and your elbows are over your wrists.
- Nothing about the pose should change save the angle of the arms.
- Work up to holding Chaturanga for 5-8 breaths.
Modifications and Variations
Here’s a couple common modifications to make plank more accessible:
- For wrist issues, come onto your forearms or fists. You can also place the heel of your hand on a rolled up blanket or mat to decrease the angle of flexion in the wrist.
- For a developing core, keep your back knees down
- To cultivate great adductor strength, put a block between your thighs
To increase the intensity of the pose:
- Lift one arm
- Lift one leg
- Lift opposite arms and legs
- Draw a knee into your chest
- For abductor work, tap a foot out to the side, then back