Almost every yoga class features at least one plank, yet very few can honestly say that they know completely what's going on in Plankasana. Most view it as a great core asana, yet few actually access their true core, and many are cheating themselves or hurting their backs by allowing their arms to do all the work.
To help you take full advantage of Plankasana, here's an overview of this widely used, but often misunderstood asana.
1. Pick your variation.
Will you be practicing on your hands or on your forearms? If you're going to be practicing on your palms, set up your hands shoulder distance apart and align the wrists under the shoulders. With your middle fingers pointing forward, press your entire hand into the floor, keeping a bit more weight in the knuckles.
From the shoulder, rotate the folds of the elbows forward, without hyperextending the joint (they look like they're bending in the wrong direction). This is important so that you're able to shift the load down into the core and prevent the shoulders from doing all the work. Without hunching, slide the shoulder blades down your back.
If you prefer planking on your forearms, get out of the habit of clasping the hands together in a triangle shape. This puts an emphasis on the pectorals, rather than the core. By opening up the arms to a shoulder width, you again shift the load to where it belongs. Turn the palms inward or upward when practicing, rather than down into the floor. Shift the weight evenly throughout the entire forearm and you'll notice a significant increase in core power. Use a block between the palms for more core strength!
2. Get your legs in gear.
Your inner thighs are your pelvic floor's favorite neighbor (way more than your butt). Bring your feet together so that they touch, engage your thighs inward toward each other, then press the quadriceps upward without hiking your buttocks. If you pay close enough attention, you should notice some activation in your pelvic floor area. By placing a foam yoga block or mini ball between the lower part of the thigh, you can generate more action in this area.
3. Resist gravity with the core.
Align your pelvis in neutral (ASIS and pubis bone make a triangle shape that runs parallel to the floor), and resist gravity. By resisting gravity, you're turning on your transversus abdominis, the hoop-like muscle at the deepest layer of the core. This is where the stability of plank begins.
Think of plank in thirds: 1/3 arms, 1/3 legs, 1/3 core. When you break down plank this way, you can focus on each section of the body and create better stability. Once you've successfully positioned yourself, check to make sure your head isn't sagging (it puts more pressure on your wrists), and create length from your heels pressing back (not touching the floor) and your crown stretching forward.
Grab a partner and ask your partner to take her first two fingers and open them up like an upside-down V. Take that V and place a finger on each side of the lower spine. As she presses down on your lower back, resist her without pushing your buttocks upward or sagging down towards the floor. What you should feel is a quiver. This is the transversus abdominis earthquake.
Remain in Plankasana for up to 10 breaths, limiting belly breathing and maximizing side body breathing.
In Plank there should be zero back pain and no hip flexor pain. This can take time to perfect, especially if you've used everything but your core to do the core’s job throughout your entire life.
If your shoulder blades look like wings on an airplane, press into your palms and work to lift the rib cage up away from the floor. If you fall into this category, you'll benefit greatly from the scapula push-up.
If you're the opposite and you overly round your upper back (still avoiding your core), you're probably overexerting your arm and chest muscles. Try sinking your chest a bit; as a teacher I often rub my hand on the upper back to help smooth out this area.
The next time you practice plank, take a few extra moments to explain it thoroughly to your students or run through the tweaks yourself. Your core will thank you later.