“Woah! Why was that so much harder than when I’ve done planks before?!” Thirty of her fellow session attendees were expressing similar sentiments as they relaxed on to their mat, having just gone through the torso strength component of the session.
I didn’t have them put weights on their backs, or lift one leg, or hold for an extended amount of time.
I’d simply taught them how to use their torso muscles in a more stacked and connected way, and in doing so, planks had become much more of a ‘oh…I feel that!’ type of exercise for them.
Taking the path of least resistance
In movement and sports, you want to find the easiest and most efficient way to get something done. The problem with that is if you’re “efficiently” moving by using compensations, or sub-optimal movement patterns.
Which actually isn’t more efficient at all.
To be a good mover, you want to conserve resources while still generating a solid power output, and maintain joint alignment as you move. This will look different from one group of movers to another.
While there are some truisms that generally hold up across the board – extreme torque (twisting) on the knee joint isn’t a great idea – it won’t look exactly the same for everyone. A ballerina will look to achieve a different joint alignment than a rock climber, for example.
Think of it like a board game. You want to take the Path of Least Resistance, while also avoiding the Cauldron of Compensation. You also need to collect gold coins for Joint Alignment success, and you need to save Princess Moves Well.
In the case of the plank, if your torso isn’t strong enough for the rep or weighted-plank goal you’ve chosen, your path of least resistance is through a big rounding in your back and shoulders, or a large dip in your low back and hips. This takes you directly into the Cauldron of Compensation.
And the cue to correct this issue doesn’t work too well for most folks. “Lift your hips!” “Flatten your back!” often turns into overly compensating in the other direction from the original compensation.
In this instance, it’s as if the spine is one moving piece instead of having thirty-three pieces that allow movement.
Segmented yet connected
Think of a roller coaster going up that first big hill before the exciting big drop down the other side.
As the first car is already starting to head down the big drop, the second and third car are on top of the hill, ready for that exhilarating drop, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth cars are still climbing up the hill, not yet at the top.
Your spine is capable of articulating in this way, as well.
And when it does so, it becomes easier to:
– distribute load throughout the spine
– organize movement so that the right areas are bracing while other areas are moving
-rotate well, access rotation, flexion, or extension from the correct areas
To move well, your body needs to be able to control some parts of itself while it moves other parts.
Your spine never stays in one position. Which is why I often remind you that ‘good posture’ is something that moves, not something that’s frozen. And it’s up to you to build pathways for your brain to access muscles and movement patterns.
How to connect with your body position
So why did the session attendees buzz with excitement after I took them through a better plank drill?
Because they were connecting to better joint alignment, which took them away from their old compensatory patterns, which caused them to feel their torso muscles in ways they weren’t used to but that were much more effective for the task at-hand of ‘make the torso stronger’.
There are dozens of ways to improve a plank position, depending on what you’re doing or not doing as you do the plank.
Instead, I want to give you one simple tip I use with my coaching clients to help them understand if they’ve maintained or lost their body position for the plank (this works for other movements, too).
Even if you’re not a great kinesthetic learner and you feel like you’ve always been clumsy with your body, this can help you improve.
Do this exercise with me as I walk you through it (don’t worry, you won’t need to get sweaty or even get on the ground if you’re reading this at the office).
First, a bit of setup to get you as close to a great starting point as you can without me coming into wherever you are and guiding you in-person.
- Sit up off the back of your chair, stand up, or take a kneeling position if you want to get on the ground to try the plank right after this.
- First, your ribcage; on your next exhale, stretch out the exhale, taking a nice, slow, long exhale and as you do so relax your ribcage down into your torso. As you relax your ribcage, the bottom of it – should aim at the floor.
- Leave the ribcage as is, and move your attention to your pelvis. If your pelvis was a bowl of soup, move your pelvis so that you tip the soup out of the front of your pelvis-soup bowl. Then switch the tip and move your pelvis so that the soup tips out of the back. Rock your pelvis forward and backward in that fashion a few times, then find the ‘happy medium’ between the two.
Setup is complete. For the hyper-mobile and previously-injured reading this, the setup above is a great drill to start to bring your awareness and understanding to your torso and how it can move.
Now that you’re setup better, here is the simple tip to make you more aware of compensations you may be making as you perform a plank. (Again, this works for other movements too but let’s keep it focused to the plank for now)
Imagine a string is attached to the bottom of your sternum, the center part of your ribcage. Tie the string to your pubic bone, the bony part of the front bottom part of your pelvis.
Once your string is attached in both locations it is taut, like a guitar string.
If you round your spine from where you’re positioned currently, the string will get loose. If you arch your spine, the string will break from pulling too tight. See if you can imagine how altering from this stacked position will change your imaginary string.
If you start with good, stacked, posture, but go into your plank and turn into a turtle with a rounded back – your string will change its tension.
If you start with good, stacked, posture, but go into your plank letting your hips hang toward the floor with an arched back – your string will change its tension.
In addition, if you’re in your plank and trying to correct your compensation, moving the entire spine and pelvis as one unit won’t change your imaginary string.
The next time you do planks, try to find the segmented yet connected articulations your body can make. Use your imaginary string to guide your body awareness.
Can you bring your hips up from being too low while simultaneously avoiding bringing up your mid-back?
Can you lower your overly rounded upper back while simultaneously avoiding lowering your hips as you lower your back?
This was the jumping off point I gave those session attendees, but as for the specifics of what I did with them? You’ll need to be at one of my workshops to experience that.