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 bio-mechanical 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. But how do you stretch the hip flexors? There’s an app for that. Actually, I'll show you a great technique in the video below. But first, let me ask you...
How are your six-pack abs? You certainly don’t need washboard definition, but bear in mind that having a weak rectus abdominis (R.A.) is like breaking the legs off a table—no support from below for what’s above. When Plank orients your lumbar vertebrae over your R.A., those bones, the spongy discs they surround and the delicate adjacent tissues should all have a firm foundation. I invite you to watch the accompanying YouTube video to this article. I offer an unusual variation of the YogaTuneUp® Coregeous Lifts that tones and stretches the iliopsoas while reinforcing the R.A.’s role as a spinal stabilizer. You’ll also get your hip extensors and deeper abdominal muscles involved. Once you get this area in the groove, your lower back will be most appreciative in Plank.
It might also be helpful to focus on deep breathing in Plank. You won’t be able to breathe as fully as you would in a more restful pose because the activated core muscles will slightly inhibit the diaphragm’s movement. But breathing to the fullest extent possible in this pose will soften that toughened crossroads of the psoas major and diaphragm on your first two lumbar bones.
If you do your level best to find that friendlier alignment in your lower back but just aren’t able to access it the first ten or one hundred attempts, I suggest lifting the hips to slightly higher-than-shoulders level until you are sufficiently strong to carry your own load (this would appear to be halfway between Downward-Facing Dog and Plank). Have a look at this video for some additional visual guidance and a great way to stretch and strengthen your hip flexors.
As an accompaniment to this blog, I also direct you to the words of my Yoga Tune Up® colleague Maura Barclay, who wrote an insightful primer on keeping the shoulders safe in transitioning from Plank to Yogic Push-Up, possibly the most ubiquitous movement in yoga.
Before he was a yoga practitioner, Claiborne was a tennis player who was developing strength imbalances. “Racquet sports tend to overdevelop muscles on one side of the body, so I realized it was important not to neglect my left half!” A friend convinced him to attend his first yoga class. “After that one session, I was hooked. I had the idea that yoga was passive, but soon realized it’s actually an active and precise way of tuning the body, both physically and mentally. It’s done wonders for my tennis game and for my life in general.”
Claiborne is honored to represent Yoga Tune Up® in New Orleans. He completed the Level 1 training with Jill Miller and Lillee Chandra in New York City. He earned his first yoga certification through Wild Lotus Yoga’s Soul School teacher training program.
Claiborne created a “Yoga For Athletes” course based on Yoga Tune Up® and has previously taught yoga to Tulane University’s baseball team.
He worked a number of years in the television news business and credits yoga with maintaining his sanity throughout odd work hours and ever-present deadlines.