Back pain is often caused by a weak core, as many people who have gone to physical therapy after a back injury have discovered. If you haven't watched the video, "How to Get Tall and Tight," you should start there. This post, which focuses on planks, is the first in a series on protecting your spine. By increasing core stability, planks promote spinal health. Though planks are a relatively basic move, they can be challenging if you’re new to them or if you’re still developing your core strength. Elevating your arms can make any plank easier, including those listed below. As with push ups, the higher your arms are elevated, the easier your plank will be.
Note: These exercises are meant to be preventative. If you are currently experiencing back pain, ask your doctor before trying any of these movements.
Spinal extension happens when you arch your back like Ariel on a rock in the Little Mermaid or a gymnast in a backbend. You want to be able to control spinal extension for two reasons: 1. You only want to load your spine in a neutral position — so if you were doing a set of back squats, you would want to be in your tall and tight position, not in extension. 2. A lot of people confuse spinal extension with good posture. They are misguided. Spending all your time in spinal extension can make your back feel tight because, well, it is tight. Hanging out in extension can cause discomfort in your low-, mid-, or upper-back.
Get into a tall and tight position on the floor with your elbows bent under your shoulders, your legs together, and your hands in fists on the floor, palms facing each other. Create tension in your entire body by pulling your elbows toward your feet and your feet toward your elbows. Brace your abs, glutes, and quads. Breathe deeply into and from your abdomen. It's okay if you're shaking. If you're creating enough tension, you probably will.
Lateral flexion of the spine occurs when you side bend from your torso. Imagine you’re in middle school and you've slung your backpack of heavy books over one shoulder, causing you to constantly lean to the side. That’s lateral flexion. Walking around with your spine looking like a question mark causes one side of your spine to be tight and one side of your spine to be loose, which can cause pain or discomfort. Learning to control lateral flexion can help you to keep your back straight and reduce discomfort.
Lie down on your side with your elbow directly under your shoulder, your knees slightly bent, and your feet stacked. Without moving, pull your elbow toward your feet and your abs in, then drive your bottom hip off the ground. Reach your top arm toward the ceiling. For a slightly easier version, you can place one foot in front of the other. No matter the foot position, make sure your shoulders and hips stay stacked. Remember, this exercise can be made easier by elevating your arm.
Plank with Chest Taps
Anti-Extension & Anti-Rotation
Spinal rotation is when your spine twists, as it would if you were reaching into the back seat to keep your cat from escaping the cardboard carrier your vet gave you, not realizing that your cat is the Incredible Hulk. (You wouldn't like her when she's angry....) Though you want your spine to be able to rotate (and extend and flex in all directions), you also want to be able to control when your spine rotates and when it doesn’t and you want to be able to support that rotation. For example, bending and twisting puts people with sacroiliac joint issues (the joint that connects your sacrum to your hip bones) at risk of pulling that joint out of alignment. Learning to support spinal rotation when doing something simple, like bending down to grab a bottle of shampoo or reaching into the back of the fridge for some leftovers, can help people with SIJ issues move safely.
Get into a tall and tight plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your feet hip to shoulder width apart. Without swaying from side to side, lift one hand off the ground and tap your opposite shoulder. Replace that hand to the floor under the same-side shoulder and repeat with the opposite hand to complete one rep. If you're having trouble keeping your body from swaying, try widening your feet, or think about pressing the same-side hip down as you're about to lift your hand (ie. press your right hip toward the ground just as you lift your right hand).
Plank to Side Plank
Anti-Extension, Anti-Lateral Flexion, & Anti-Rotation
This advanced plank (make sure you’re ready for it!) teaches you to control your spine in a dynamic movement, as you might have to if your were getting up off the ground, or getting out of a car, or any number of regular movements that humans engage in daily. Concentrate on keeping your hips and ribs parallel to each other throughout the movement.
Start in a plank on your elbows with your feet about hip width apart. Internally rotate your right arm 90 degrees and rotate your body to the right, landing in a side plank with your feet touching heel to toe. Externally rotate your right arm and rotate your body to the left, landing back in your plank. Repeat on the left side. For an added challenge, start your plank with your feet together and land in your side plank with them stacked.
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