MOVEMENT

PLANK VARIATIONS FOR STRENGTH

Ah, planks. There has to be something said about how an exercise can simultaneously be my favorite and my least favorite. Prior to quarantine, one of my favorite hot yoga classes would end with a 2 minute long hold of some sort of plank variation. It was honestly one of the most difficult classes I have ever taken, mostly because throughout the class I had this very fact hanging over my head. But, when we finally finished and I could just lay on my mat and reveal in my achievement, I felt incredibly strong and accomplished.

I really like holding difficult poses in my physical yoga practice because I think it can translate similarly over to my life off the mat and also promotes a level of physical and mental intensity that I can tap into.  If I find myself frustrated or anxious or even just uncomfortable, I can remind myself of that time I held a side plank for an extended amount of time in a hot, sweaty room.

I have compiled my favorite variations of plank pose that I like to incorporate regularly into my practice. These can be sprinkled throughout a yoga or exercise routine or even done consecutively for an intense workout.  Poses can be held for as long or as short as feels accessible in your body. All of the poses work the core predominately and some challenge your balance. I recommend some form of movement prior to performing these poses to warm up the body. I also recommend a yoga mat to practice on.

Full Plank

Full plank with arms extended is a great variation that engages the core and works the upper body.  It is important keep the hips in line between the shoulders and back and engage through your core to protect your lower back.

Plank pose
Full plank pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in a table position with hands stack under shoulders and knees stacked under hips. Tuck the toes and extend both legs behind you, balancing on the balls of the feet.  Reach crown of the head and heels away from each other, keeping hips in line with spine and legs. Gaze can come to your mat. Hold for 5 breaths and then release the knees to the mat.  This variation can also be done on your knees.

Elbow plank

This variation tends to more intensive for the core because the incline of the body is closer to the earth and requires more abdominal strength to stabilize the full body.  I prefer to rest my hands on the mat but you can clasp your fingers in front, if you prefer.

elbow plank
Elbow plank pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in a table position with hands stack under shoulders and knees stacked under hips. Release forearms to the mat with elbows stacked under the shoulders and hands resting on the mat or clasped in front. Forearms are parallel to each other. Tuck the toes and extend both legs behind you, balancing on the balls of the feet.  Reach crown of the head and heels away from each other, keeping hips in line with spine and legs. Gaze can come to your mat. Hold for 5 breaths and then release the knees to the mat.  This variation can also be done on your knees.

One armed plank

The biggest challenge in a one arm plank is maintaining the plank alignment while shifting the weight the balance through one hand.  I find this best supported by keeping my hips aligned and not collapsing the shoulder of the lifted hand forward. Also, the more tension that I hold in my core, the easier it is to balance and keep that alignment.

one arm
One arm extended plank pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in an extended plank. Start to shift weight into the left hand, keeping the core tight and hips level. Begin to float the right hand off the mat. Right hand can stay hovering, find the right hips, or reach in front with fingers extended. Keep hips level and even between the spine and legs. Keep the shoulders level and square to the front of the mat. Gaze can stay at the mat or lift slight in front of you. Hold for 5 breaths then release the right hand and rebalance in extended plank. Repeat on the other side.

Side plank with tree variation

Side plank is another classic plank variation that works your core, specifically your obliques. I like to incorporate side planks as transitions in my personal practice. They’re also great for testing your balancing and lengthening the side of the body, depending on arm placement. I typically incorporate a tree variation to test my balance and open my hips in the pose. There are levels to this variation, starting with just lifting the top leg, then resting the top foot on the lower calf and then, finally, resting the top foot on the extended thigh. In this variation is important to check your alignment and continue reaching evenly through the spine. If you choose to incorporate the tree variation, avoid resting your top foot on your knee as it will throw off your balance and put unnecessary pressure on your knee.

Getting into the pose

Begin in an extended plank with hands stacked under the shoulders and balancing on the balls of the feet.  Walk your right hand to the center of the mat and spin on to the outer edge of the right foot, opening up to the long edge of the mat. Left arm can reach towards to sky or stretch overhead. Hold for 5 breaths then release to extended plank. Repeat on other side.

Tree variation

Begin in a side plank on the right side. Reach left arm towards the sky and begin to lift the left leg. Bend at the left knee and press the left foot into the right calf or right thigh, left knee pointed towards the sky. Hold for 5 breaths then release left leg and re-stack in extended plank. Repeat on the other side.  

Side tree
Side tree

 Bird-Dog Plank

Bird-Dog is one of my favorite balancing core poses because I can feel it in my whole body. It also tends to be one of those poses that continuously humbles me.  My biggest recommendation for balancing in this pose is focusing on where there is tension, meaning muscular flexion, within the body. This can achieved by keeping flexion in the foot on the ground and reaching back through the heel. Keeping your gaze steady and stable also helps with staying balanced.

Plank bird dog
Plank with bird dog

Getting into the pose

Begin in an extended plank with hands stacked under shoulders and balancing on the balls of the feet.  Find a gaze point on your mat or slightly in front of you for your eyes. Inhale and begin shift weight into the ball of the left foot and the right palm. Right toes can begin to lift off the mat. Left hand can reach and extend in front of the body. Hold for 5 breaths then switch sides.

Knee Variation

Begin in a table position with hands stacked under shoulders and knees stacked under hips. Extend right leg behind you, reaching through the right heel. Right toes can stay resting on the mat or begin to float the toes off the mat. Reach left arm in front, left bicep coming to the ear, and reaching through the fingertips. Gaze can stay at the mat. Hold for 5 breaths then release into table position and repeat on the other side

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