Yoga Practice

Planks & elbow creases

Part of the My Peak Challenge workouts, I’ve been doing a LOT of planks – regular planks and side planks. I just started Month 3 of the program and can make it through 4 minutes of forward plank in 3 rounds, so that’s an average of 1:20 per round. I am noticing a big difference in my core and also in my arms, shoulders and back when I practice yoga.

There are a few adjustments that I’ve made in my own practice and that I offer to my students to make their planks stronger, which then improves their downward facing dog, chaturanga and arm balances.

Let’s first take a look at some common problem spots (with arrows!).

  1. Elbows are locked out and the elbow creases are pointing toward each other.  There’s very little upward lift through the arms this way, and as you lose strength and the elbows bend, they end up going side to side (no good for building strength for chaturanga and arm balances).
  2. Saggy shoulders. As the elbows lock out, everything dumps down, especially in the shoulders. I’m “hanging” here in my shoulder girdle, rather than pressing up. When the shoulder girdle sags, that causes low back pain, which can snowball into all sorts of other unpleasant sensations.
  3. Head tucked and hanging. I probably did this for all of my early planks as a way to hide from the discomfort of doing a plank and not feeling yet strong enough to hold for very long. It adds strain through the neck, which starts to round and crunch the back.

Now let’s take a look at plank that builds strength in the right places and is more stable.

  1. Elbow creases spin forward, micro bend in the elbow joint. Without moving my hands, I used the muscles in my arms to spin the elbow creases forward (see how my tattoo is more visible now?). This immediately causes the chest to broaden so your collarbones get a little more space. That little action also activates the core. The micro bend in the elbow joint keeps the muscles drawing energy up, instead of relying solely on lining bones up. My shoulders are also stacked directly over my wrists, not behind or in front.
  2. Puff up between the shoulder blades, draw them toward your heels. Action 1 broadened the chest, but you also need to keep the shoulders from collapsing. I’ll put a finger right between my students’ shoulder blades and ask them to push up against my finger. Belly stays tight. Then, lengthen through the spine by drawing the shoulder blades toward your heels.
  3. Drishti is under your face, not behind. Lengthening through the spine means all the way up to the top of your head. Keep the sides of the neck long and find a spot under your face to look (this focal gazing point is your drishti), rather than tucking the chin to see what’s happening at your feet (nothing interesting there).

    * All this upper body action works for plank from the knees as well.
    ** In the case of plank on the forearms, stack the shoulders directly over the elbows. Everything else applies.

Here are the two side-by-side for comparison.

Practicing plank with the right structure makes almost everything with weight in the arms become more accessible and a little lighter.

  • Chaturanga dandasana (4-limbed staff pose)
  • Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)
  • Bakasana (crow pose) and pretty much every arm balance
  • Pincha mayurasana (forearm stand)
  • Handstands
  • Even cat/cow pose

Give it a try, and come back to tell me how it went.

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