Overcome Barriers to Plank Pose

Holding the plank position is a good indicator of your core strength. Core strength and endurance are extremely important in maintaining a healthy spine and avoiding low back pain. If you’re unable to hold a good quality plank for the recommended time, this article is for you.

How long should I hold plank based on my age and gender?

Age20-2930-3940-4950-5960+
Males60 seconds50 seconds40 seconds30 seconds10 seconds
Females50 seconds40 seconds30 seconds15 seconds5 seconds

For the times listed in this table, the expectation is that you’re down on your forearms with your knees off the ground with your spine in a neutral alignment. The ability to perform a plank pose for this period of time indicates that you likely have adequate core strength and endurance. Go ahead and give your plank a try.

forearm plank
Forearm plank – this is the position to assume when testing yourself for the times listed in the table above.

Not quite there yet? Let’s explore some common barriers to plank that physical therapists encounter. Additionally, we’ll show you alternate positions and exercises you can do to work up to full forearm plank and eventually increase your endurance so you can meet this wellness benchmark.

Arms too weak

If you can hold a plank position for the recommended time on your hands with arms straight, but can’t do it on your forearms – it’s likely because your shoulder girdles are weak. It’s time to begin to work on your arm and shoulder girdle strength. For starters, go ahead and practice plank on hands with straight arms, but challenge yourself as it becomes easier.

In the meantime, you may need more targeted shoulder girdle strengthening. Do these exercises to strengthen your serratus anterior.

Still too challenging? You can make it even easier by placing hands on a counter top or barre if plank on the floor with straight arms is still too challenging.

standing plank if arms too weak
Standing plank. Move feet back for more challenge.

Core too weak

If you can’t dream of doing a plank, a good approach is to start on all fours. Bring your navel toward your spine and elongate the spine from head to tail. Breathe and hold this position. After you can hold this for the specified time in the table above, go ahead and begin to move your knees back a few inches. Build up your strength there and continue to move them back until you can do plank on knees. Once you’ve built up this endurance, you’re ready to start to lift one knee at a time or both knees as you begin to work toward full plank.

If you have knee pain on all fours, pad them with a foam pad or pillow.

pad knees if pain
Cushion the knees if they are tender.

Wrists hurt

Commonly, there is more than one barrier to plank pose. Are you too weak to be on your forearms AND you have wrist pain when up on your hands? A good solution for this combination of problems is to plank with your hands on a set of weights. This allows your wrists to be in a neutral position while you build up your abdominal strength and endurance. This can be done both with knees lifted or with knees down.

Another idea is to put a wedge or rolled up hand towel under your wrist creases to decrease the angle of the wrists while you weight bear on them.

Neck pain

Usually finding correct alignment (see below) will fix this problem. But, if it doesn’t you may need to work on your deep neck flexor and extensor strength and shoulder girdle strength (see above).

To improve neck strength, lie on your stomach and lift the back of your head straight to the ceiling. Repeat this 10-20 reps daily until you can hold your version of plank without neck pain.

Big toes hurt

This problem is more common than you might think. If you have pain in one or both of the big toes in plank, you could have arthritis in that joint or it might just be stiff from lack of use. If you are otherwise strong, you can balance on the tops of your feet – this is a much more challenging version of plank since it requires more strength from the fronts of the shins and quadricep muscles.

Plank from tops of feet to avoid big toe pain – this one is more challenging though!

However, if you aren’t strong enough to modify that way, try stretching your big toe before doing planks. Or, you can prop a foam roller at your ankles to help unweight the big toe.

foam roll under ankles to unweight toes
Place a foam roller under ankles to unweight the big toes if painful.

Dropping your plank to your knees is another option that can prevent toe pain but only choose this option if you’re too weak to have the knees lifted.

Plank on knees won’t bother the big toes.

Unsure of correct alignment

Now, what is the best alignment of the spine while in plank? First, make sure you’re shifting weight into your heels to activate the legs. Next, make sure your bottom isn’t lifted high in the air and that your belly isn’t sagging down. And finally, make sure your head isn’t dropping toward the floor.

One prop that can help you find this alignment at home is a dowel or a mop handle. Have someone place this lengthwise along your spine from head to tail. The points that should be in contact with the dowel are the back of your head, the upper back, and the sacrum. The dowel should remain stable without falling to either side. Practice this alignment with whichever version of plank you’re currently working on.

Are you grounded, balanced and breathing during plank?

This is a challenging posture that recruits your core, legs and shoulders. Therefore, it’s really common to hold your breath. While in the plank position, try to find ease as you weight bear through your bones, recruit your muscles in a balanced way, and breathe.

We hope you’ll use these tips to increase your time in plank and that you will eventually practice forearm planks for the recommended time for you.

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