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How Planks Can Help Support Your Spine and Prevent Back Pain

It’s estimated that 70% of all adults will experience significant back pain at some point in their life. Want to be one of the 3 in 10 who don’t? One of the best ways to keep your spine healthy is by strengthening your core, and few exercises can do this more effectively than the plank.

“The plank position activates your entire core,” explains Matthew Crooks, MD, interventional pain management doctor and founder of Pinnacle Pain and Spine Consultants, “which takes pressure off of the spine. The more you build up these muscles, the healthier you are.”

To understand the benefits of planks more clearly, it helps to know where the core is and what function it serves.

Core Anatomy

As the name implies, the core is at the center of our body. It contains all the muscles surrounding your torso. These muscles work together to stabilize your body during movement, prevent injury when you exercise, and support your spine.

We can separate the core into two distinct groups of muscles: The inner core and the outer core.

Inner Core

Outer Core

Dr. Crooks says these muscles function to shield the spine from damage. “The bones of your spine take the most amount of torsion force to keep you walking and active. A strong core can reduce the impact this force has.”

So how can we build up these muscles? There are many ways to strengthen the core, but most require workout equipment. However, there is one exercise that you can do at home with nothing but your body weight and a solid floor: the plank.

The Plank: Back Pain Prevention Through Core Strengthening

Studies suggest that the plank is highly effective at activating the muscles responsible for spine stabilization. The exercise targets the entirety of your core, as well as strengthens your shoulders and glutes. Like the core, these muscles help improve posture, which can also help alleviate back pain.

So how does a weak core cause back pain? When the core isn’t trained, your spine and back muscles must overcompensate to keep you standing correctly. Dr. Crooks says this overcompensation strains the back, and the pain only gets worse as time goes on.

“As you age, time and physical activity cause wear and tear,” he explains, “ and the plank is good for prevention and maintenance of strength.

Can Plank Exercises Hurt Your Back?

While it has many positive qualities, you’ll want to talk to a doctor before performing a plank if you already have back pain. If done incorrectly, planks could have the opposite of their intended effect.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” explains Dr. Crooks, “it’s a great exercise because it works all the parts of your core, but if you already have back pain or perform it improperly, the plank can actually aggravate your back.”

If you feel any strain at all, it’s best to play it safe. Full planks can be a very intense workout, and Dr. Crooks says they shouldn’t be performed by someone with a back injury or an untrained core. If you do intend to do the plank, make sure you perform it correctly.

How to Do a Plank Properly

You’ll want to choose an area clear of furniture where you can stretch out to your entire body length. Once you’ve found a suitable space, follow these steps to perform a full plank.

  1. Start on your hands and knees.
  2. Extend your legs back while keeping your elbows directly below your shoulders and your wrists below your elbows.
  3. Keep your head down and lookat the space just above your hands. Engage your abs and keep your body rigid. Imagine a perfectly straight line drawn from your neck to your toes.
  4. Hold your position for 10 to 60 seconds, depending on your fitness level.
  5. Lower yourself gently to the floor.

Make sure not to curve your back or look straight ahead during the plank position. Curving your back means you aren’t engaging your abdominal muscles, and tilting your head up can put a strain on your neck. Both of these mistakes can lead to injury, so it’s important to maintain solid form.

Plank Variations

There are many variations of this exercise for different levels of physical fitness. For those with back issues or a weaker core, Dr. Crooks recommends starting easy.

“People experiencing back pain shouldn’t plank, at least initially,” Dr. Crooks explains, “You’ll want to start with basic yoga, then move to the modified plank.”

A modified plank is much like a full plank, but you’ll keep your knees or arms on the ground. Doing so allows you to maintain good form and build the strength to perform more advanced variations over time.

More Advanced Plank Exercises

Once you’ve mastered both the modified and full plank, you may want to target different areas of your body. Here is a list of plank variations for further core strength:

Planks Can Be a Great Tool When Used Correctly

Back pain can be worrisome, but you can prevent it by maintaining a healthy spine. Dr. Crooks says that the plank can help you with this maintenance, even as you get older.

“Anyone can work up to a plank at any age,” says Dr. Crooks, “It just takes time. But, once you do, it’s a great way to keep your core strong.”

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