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Plank Pose - Issues and solutions

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Plank Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Upper Trunk and Neck

            · Wrists and Arms

            · Lower Trunk and Hips

            · Legs

            · Ankles and Feet

            Pregnancy




Upper Trunk and Neck

There is relatively little strain in this pose on either the neck or the thoracic spine as they are in neutral alignment.

However, many of the muscles that move (or in this case hold steady) the shoulders or move the arms are located in the chest or back and some attach to the spine. Depending on how one enters the pose, and whether one is just holding the pose or moving in and out of it, many of these muscles need to be strong for the exercise to be feasible. Where one lacks sufficient upper body strength for the full pose to be doable, ½ plank (that is with knees resting on the floor) or entering and exiting the pose via leg movement rather than arm movement usually make the pose accessible.


Wrists and Arms

In this pose, the wrists are, for most people, close to the most extreme position of extension, and also take a lot of the body weight – hence this pose is unusually demanding of the wrists. Even for those with usually healthy wrists, this can feel uncomfortable (if held for long), particularly if the position is unfamiliar – but, in this case, practice will usually lead to the position becoming more comfortable. For those who already have wrist problems (usually of the arthritis type) there is a range of options to try.

One thing to try is actively pressing down through the hands (rather than slumping down through the arms / hands) – think in terms of trying actively to press the heels and the pad of the forefingers and little fingers into the ground. This feels as if it has the effect of encouraging space in the wrist, elbows and shoulder joints, and thus the joints feel less compressed and more comfortable. (Indeed, this approach is a good idea even for those with health wrist joints).

An adaptation that is usually helpful is to reduce the angle of the wrist – this makes the degree of extension at the wrist less extreme. One approach is to put some padding (e.g. yoga block or a couple of folds of a towel) under the heel of the hands but still have the whole of the fingers resting on the mat / floor – indeed, if one’s finger joints are up to it, the same position can be adopted without the use of padding. If that does not help sufficiently, try making a fist with your hands and then place the knuckles and the first part of the fingers on the mat so that the wrists are close to straight in a neutral position for the wrist joints.

If these adaptations are not sufficient to make the position comfortable for one’s wrists then one can place one’s elbows on the floor where one’s hands would be and have the forearms pointing forwards away from the feet. This removes the load-bearing aspect of the pose for the wrists but also removes the possibility of moving between this pose and stick (lying prone) - which can be very good for developing upper body strength.

Simply holding Plank pose is usually not too difficult, even for those with fairly weak arms. But moving between plank and stick (lying prone) and to a lesser extent downwards and upward facing dog pose does require some upper arm strength (e.g. in the triceps and anconeus). Those who want to move between plank and stick (e.g. press-ups) to develop upper body strength may find at first that they need to use ½ plank (i.e. knees resting on floor) instead of full plank until their upper body strength is sufficiently developed. Another approach is to practise with an inclined plank – that is with feet on floor and hands on a raised (but secure) surface (or even a wall) – the greater the incline of the trunk, the less strength the exercise requires.


Lower Trunk and Hips

Ideally, in this pose, the lumbar spine and hips are in a neutral position – but for this to be the case a lot of muscles have to be quite strongly engaged to hold this area stable and steady.

The tendency is either to allow the lower back to sag (i.e. to be in back bend) and /or for the bottom to be lifted upwards (i.e. hips in flexion). Strong and strongly engaged buttock muscles (gluteus maximus) and abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus and the internal and external oblique muscles) are key to this. The engagement of both hamstrings and quadriceps femoris (i.e. upper leg muscles working together to hold hips and knees steady) may help bring further stability. Simply holding the pose will help to test and develop the relevant strength in this area of the pose – if one finds this difficult, then one can try holding the pose for just a couple of breaths and slowly hold for longer as one’s stamina and strength increase. If this is not possible, then other exercises for developing abdominal and buttock strength are a good idea.


Legs

In the full pose, the legs are held straight and there is unlikely to be any problems with this.

In the ½ plank, the knees rest on the floor / mat. Some will find this uncomfortable for the knees (especially if they already have knee problems) if there is not enough padding for the knees to rest on.


Ankles and Feet

In the ½ plank, the ankles are in either plantarflexion (tops of feet against floor) or dorsiflexion (with toes curled under) – but as there is little load-bearing at the feet, this is usually comfortable. If this is uncomfortable, then one can have feet in plantarflexion with a rolled-up towel under the ankles to reduce the degree of plantarflexion.

The ankles are in dorsiflexion in the full pose and the toes are in fairly extreme extension, which can mean that the long flexors of the toes and calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) receive significant stretch. Another approach is to have toes on padding and the toes pointing backwards (i.e. toes in flexion) but with the ankles still lifted in dorsiflexion. Because both these positions can be demanding (the latter one more so), preparing the toes and giving the calf muscles gentle stretching can be helpful.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

The usual care should be taken to avoid holding the pose statically for too long. The other issue is that the abdominal area is strongly engaged in this pose – and this is likely to become increasingly uncomfortable / undesirable in the later stages of pregnancy as one needs more space for the growing fetus.

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