Not that long ago, “planking” was all the rage across the social media landscape. From a yoga practitioner’s standpoint, it looked like a Face-Down Shavasana. But as this pose’s English translation – Corpse – suggests, like all fads, it died out. From a fitness point of view, Plank pose means taking your body into a slight incline on your hands and feet while attempting to maintain a neutral spine. And therein lies the potentially insidious problem, which isn’t exclusive to yoga, so this applies to you, too, workout warrior.
Nearly all yoga classes these days seem to include some variant of Plank. Whether it just makes a cameo or appears relentlessly as a component of a Sun Salutation, don’t throw biomechanical caution to the wind when you reach this stance. The version I’m most concerned about is what I’ve dubbed the “Saggy Plank.” It’s something I’ve been noticing across the board, whether I’m teaching private clients or leading classes at yoga studios or CrossFit gyms. You know the one: the lower back caves in (that’s called hyperlordosis or swayback), the knees start to dip, and before you know it, you’re a crumpled heap on the floor, as if you’d just had your hands kicked out from underneath you in Upward-Facing Dog (Google it, non-yoga types). To deflect further torpedoing of your lower back, consider which anatomical anomalies might be causing this lumbar lowdown.
One could easily point the finger at a muscle duo of near celebrity status across the fitness spectrum: the iliopsoas, a consolidated term for the lumbar-to-groin-spanning psoas major and its more southerly sibling, the iliacus, which covers the front, indented surface of the hip bone much like a pie crust covers a metal tin. Both of these hip-flexing muscles fuse into a common tendon on the inside, upper edge of the femur, the bone of the upper leg. If you have a psoas major that’s especially fibrous, tight and weak, it could be tilting the pelvis forward, bringing with it the lower back bones, causing that concave appearance to the lumbar spine in Saggy Plank. Stretching it would be great for all walks of life… literally “all walks” since each and every step – whether walking or running – involves the iliopsoas. How to stretch the hip flexors? There’s an app for that. Actually, I have an idea. Tune in (pun intended) next week for my variation on YTU Coreso Leg Lifts.
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Ugh, unfortunately almost 7 years after you’ve published this article, I’m sad to report that this “version” of plank, which you call “saggy plank,” is still common and thriving. And as our culture becomes more sedentary and spends more time in one position (sitting), I think we will continue to see this on instagram feeds all over the world wide web. Yes this “prone Savasana” on the hands involves so much more than one would think. Thanks for indicating what some of that might be!
Great outlook on what can cause the slump in the low back in plank. I would automatically think of the abdominal muscles (in terms of rectus abdominis, tva, internal and external obliques) being the main issue with a slumped low back. I would love to test opening the iliopsoas and then retesting my plank to compare the difference!
interesting to considere how the hips are important when we do a plank and how the core need to be strong.
The plank – oh how we love to do the plank. It is an easy pose to get wrong, however. Not only is it seen as a saggy plank, I see the ‘banana’ plank all the time with the hips too high and in a flexed position. Like other people have mentioned, the knee down approach is often the solution to this problem. Thanks for the article and possible culprits causing this posture to be out of whack.
Here`s some great suggestions on how to correct a saggy plank pose. I will definitely integrate them into my teaching! Thanks!
Wow, while reading the article I started thinking back to the different types of classes I teach, from yoga to fitness, all with plank and come to think of it I do see a pattern with people who have tight hip flexors and sag their lower back in plank (even the students who appear the strongest). Thank-you for furthering my understanding and anatomical view of one my fav postures, plank.
That is a pretty “saggy plank” but I’ve seen much worse. I really like the cueing that has been suggested in the comments section to encourage people to engage the muscles needed to prevent the sag. This brings to my attention a great way of highlighting the importance of the iliopsoas to the many non-yogi types who boast about fitness goals but can’t hold a straight plank for any length of time.
I would probably start my planks on my forearm with a Coregeous ball under my lower abdominal then work my way up. Another fun use for that awesome ball.
plank stresses me out! Well- not when I do it, although I do get the body shakes from the work, but seeing others do it incorrectly. I can almost hear peoples lower backs just crying in pain and discs going NO!!!! Yes it is a great core strengthener and not just for the cosmetic core, but so many people sacrifice their back while doing it. When I teach this I will be sure to make students aware the back is AS important, if not more, when doing this pose or exercise.
Great post and lots of great comments – so many things to organize for a really good plank! My favorite Plank cues/images of the moment are “heels back” – it gets people to fire up their glutes and hamstrings and “zip your skinny jeans up,” to get the obliques and transverse online.
Love all the comments on Saggy Plank. I think all of them are part of the eqqation – shoulders, abs etc. However I try not to drop folks to their knees, as the glutes cannot fire as much as when the legs are straight. I teach this with a tight butt. A tight butt also gives them more proprioception of the pelvis, whether its sagging or not.
Try doing it with a saggy butt and a non saggy butt and see the difference. Then try doing a push up with a saggy butt and a non saggy butt.
It is a bad habit to dive into the traditional excuse of “weak core” when it comes to a sloppy plank. So many times I revert back to the comfortable. automatic excuses. Being mindful in a reading of a body, especially in traditional yoga and fitness poses creates a revolutionary change in he way you work out and in the way that you teach. I just have to be mindful of my decision to be mindful now… 🙂
This is a very common problem – I see it often. People unfamiliar with this pose seem to struggle with the corrections and need reminders repeated as the body loves to return to its old habits. It is a challenging pose physically as well and important to consider building up to the pose by placing the knees on the floor until the form is mastered.
Plank is the last exercise performed in a pilates class. This allows the spine to be warmed up and the client’s ability to utilize their abdominals to be assessed. I would first ask a client performing a plank like the one above to scoop their abs in and up and lengthen their tailbone towards their heels. In addition, I would be sure that they understood what I was saying by using tactile cues such as placing my hand on their abs and asking them to lift and if they could not then they should lower onto their knees.
I find it most interesting to explore relationships in plank pose, the two that have been most relevant lately are the intersection of the intersection of the thoracolumbarfascia, diaphragm and psoas in the back of the body and the tubular core front/back trunk relationship.
thank you for sharing. depress & protract, depress & protract, depress & protract. lesson learned from YTU TT. my plank & chattarunga dandasana have been polished!
[…] So someone may think they are super strong in this area of their body, but when asked to hold plank pose for a minute or longer, their bodies will not be able to hold this pose. Vital to this pose are […]
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Claiborne, While I haven’t noticed this much in my students, it could be that I am not looking for it carefully enough. Certainly, I can see why having a short psoas (pretty common for anyone that sits a lot), can contribute to this. I agree with Kate’s comment above that the alignment cues she offers can mitigate this. In fact, drawing the navel into the spine then drawing the pelvic floor up is the first cue I give in plank. This serves to initiate the posterior tilt (tucking the tailbone). While I have always thought of pushing into the floor as a way to engage the serratus anterior more actively, I see how it also can lengthen the back.
This is a helpful article on this pose, however, I find that by tucking my tailbone and engaging my thigh and calf muscles and pushing into my hands automatically lifts my core and lengthens my back. This is something someone taught me to do a while back to help me properly hold the pose. So, am I still doing plank wrong by this approach?
This is such an important issue, since so many Americans have weak cores, gluts, traps, etc. And the core takes the heat in a position like plank. I’ve found it easiest if i start to ignite my core at the beginning of a training session. Doing my warm ups, corrective exercises, and so on. At least from there I know my core is turning on and that I should be using it from here on out. But in Yoga, what would the core warm up be? I know for myself, even in Tadasana, I need to ignite all of my muscles for proper stabilization and strength, including my core muscles. Shouldn’t this be something happening throughout our day? How do we get across to our students the importance of a strong trunk if they are doing it wrong all of the time?
Thanks for the good read and knowledge on this pose, after being positioned properly in a class recently I realized that my breath shortened because of my weakness in the core muscles. Learning to breath into it allows me to continue to strengthen those core muscles and keeping my back protected and stable.
It’s suprising to me that the on your knees variation is offered so rarely in yoga classes, especially when the teacher plan on keeping the student in a plank position for a while. In group exercise classes such as ” Les Mills Pump” this is the standard and the full variation seen as an option. Kind of strange that there would be more ego involved in a yoga class than in a fitness class or is it lack of biomechanical understanding (levers) that is at play?!
At one time or another many of us could be caught with a “saggy plank”, especially when beginning our yoga practice or planking for other workouts. Every time I step into plank I pause and make a mental note of how I am positioned. Alignment is tough but it’s something that you should always take account for. Like Claiborne says, if the lumbar is spin can be the key to the posture in the way that it effects the knee and hip.
Equally important is to make sure the students’ planks don’t sag between the shoulders. Students often allow the scapulae to cave in and retract, putting the glenohumeral joint, neck, and clavicles at risk. Protraction of the scapulae is vital to a healthy plank.
Plank you Claiborne for the article! (sorry, I couldn’t resist) .. but is that really a photo of you doing it the WRONG way!?? cuz… it looks better than most of my students’ planks. I think you should have another photo — side by side would be best — showing you doing it the “correct” way.. I do see that dip you are talking about but it’s not that exaggerated. You could do better 🙂
This is a great topic of discussion, This is one of the many exercises that actually can cause more damage than good when performed incorrectly. It is important as a practitioner to find cues that get your clients to change their biomechanics. We have a variety of cues up our sleeves to get them to “engage their core”, but really we need to take a minute to examine them specifically. Do they naturally have an anterior or posterior tilt and/or is their core “weak”. Finding cues to get your clients to do what you want is extremely important but taking time to analyze their body is also important. Maybe we need to make a variation to table top before they move onto plank pose. Help them find the strength and the proper body mechanics to improve their practice! This is the ultmate goal.
Definitely have to consider the hips. I also find that a tubular core is of great help in ‘plank’. I feel a lot more strength and stability throughout the body when I maintain a tubular core in plank.
I lost a lot of upper body strength and this posture is a must for me. but yes I too have “hyperlordosis or swayback “syndrome. I need a lot of focus on this or Ioose it .Elbows are also a problem if you hyper extend them.
I have seen the “saggy plank” position time and time again in yoga classes, though hadn’t really focused my attention toward the hips. Thanks for the insight and suggestion- another nugget to add to my yoga tool belt!
As a personal trainer I often see the saggy back model. People come in and want to do push ups because they think it will make them look fit. In my opinion they have to start with a solid plank with scapular protraction, engaged core muscles in the gym. At their desk, they have to either take “standing breaks” to include a psoas stretch or elevate the hips as far away from the ground as possible to extend the hip as much as possible. We really need to rethink the office chair!
I appreciate all of your good insights on the cause, and the tips to prevent, “saggy plank.” Although I didn’t have a term for the phenomenon, “saggy plank” has been a concern of mine as a yoga instructor for some time. I am happy to have some new tools to take back to my students.I especially like Jaime’s “belly in cold water” approach. I think every human being on earth has the same reaction to cold water on the belly.
I had never considered the iliopsoas as contributing to saggy plank. I will now use plank to help assess potentially tight psoas and can give my students yet another benefit to them for stretching it out.
Jamie I love your que to get people out of this!! Maria, I feel that weak shoulders muscles create a retraction and elevation of the shoulder blades, thus creating instability thought the whole core, upper and side body. The culmination of all these things will create a “saggy plank”. Opt for forearm plank like Nicole said, maybe even with the knees down to create the engagement necessary to hold plank well for those that cannot manage.
Interesting, I hadn’t thought about the issue of tight psoas muscles hindering plank. Aside from a weak core and tight psoas, could weak shoulder muscles cause a swayback since it compromises the integrity of the thoracic spine?
Yes, I completely agree that swayback easily becomes a problem when in plank. And an additional problem I see is that the weight on the wrists can be too much for some, so I often recommend elbow-plank to my clients. Of course one still has to watch out for a strong core…
I think that the blame is usually given to a lack of chest or core strength, good point to consider the hips. I just wish that more students were willing to take the “drop to your knees” cue.
I use the “belly in cold water” cue here and it works almost every time. It seems no one likes that moment when the cold water reaches up to the belly button and we all have the same reaction, tuck the tailbone and draw the belly back towards the sacrum. Instant tubular torso;-)
lank – either on the hands or on forearms is often difficult for those not strong in their core or have shoulder or wrist challenges. I Often que the saggy planker to imagine a little cactus growing right under their belly button and to draw their BB up and even perhaps engage a slight posterior pelvic tilt. This usually aleviates the lordosis . Sometimes it is necessary to have the come down to their knees to get the right posture.