Plank pose is pretty much a staple in any yoga class even remotely inspired by vinyasa or power styles. Even so, one sometimes needs an alternative. You may be wondering how you can take your plank up a notch in your next class, or you may just need a gentler option. Luckily, there are plenty of possibilities to work into your next flow, whatever your needs.
If you’re looking to spice it up. . .
For variety and an extra challenge in your regularly scheduled plank programming, try this bird dog variation—in which you’re not on all fours.
Begin in full plank, with your spine long and abdominals engaged. Keeping both of your front hip points facing down toward the floor, lift your left foot off the floor, and reach back through your left inner heel. Lift your leg high enough so that you create a long, spacious line from your left glute to your left heel, but avoid lifting your leg so high that it causes you to arch your low back excessively.
Then, tent your right hand so that you come onto your fingertips, taking some of the weight out of your right hand.
You can either stay here or extend your right arm forward, keeping the right arm strong and long as you relax the top of your right shoulder away from your ear.
Hold for a full breath before lowering both your right hand and left foot, returning to full plank position. Then change sides: Pick up your right leg and extend it behind you, and tent your left hand (with the option of extending the left arm in front of you). Hold for a full breath before lowering both your left hand and right leg. If you’re freestyling and feel like incorporating this into your practice as a strength drill, try going for five rounds on each side. Make sure to keep your belly drawn in and engaged, spine long, and hip points level as you alternate from one side to the other. Avoid swinging your hips from side to side as you alternate lifting your arms and legs.
You can also incorporate a three-legged plank variation into your vinyasa flow. Lower your lifted hand back to its original plank placement, and keep your lifted leg raised as you lower into a one-legged chaturanga (also known as trianga—three-limbed staff pose). Place the top of your raised foot onto your mat, and bring the top of your other foot onto your mat as you move into your urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog).
If you’re looking to build strength for full plank. . .
If you need to build some core and shoulder strength before taking a full plank (because you know that right now, you’d still be sagging your belly or sticking your butt up if you tried it), there’s a modification for that: While keeping the upper body actions of a full plank pose—shoulders directly above your wrists, shoulder blades stabilized on your back, chest broad, gaze slightly forward, low belly engaged, and a long straight line from the crown of your head to your tailbone—keep one knee (or even both knees) on your mat with toes untucked. Untucking the toes in this variation will shift your weight forward and ask more of those arm, shoulder, and core muscles you’re hoping to strengthen! Holding here is often enough to begin building strength and endurance in these key plank muscles. (Note: If you’re practicing with one knee down, be sure to alternate sides.)
If you’re injured or recovering. . .
So, let’s say you’re usually up for plank, but something has happened that makes it inaccessible for the moment. Maybe you’re part of an overactive group text thread that has your wrists feeling ragged. Or maybe you just popped out a baby and your abdominal, pelvic, and low back muscles are still recovering from housing the little turkey! Do you have to skip your regular plank-filled flow? Only if your doctor says so. Otherwise, try one of these modifications:
If you have a wrist injury, try a forearm plank (with forearms parallel and hands flat to keep the chest open and broad; avoid interlaced fingers, which can cause the upper back to round and the chest to cave). Keep your head lifted and your gaze slightly in front of you, with neck long. Aim to maintain your plank shape (that is, avoid sticking your butt way up in the air). A nice bonus to this variation is that you can easily transition from this to dolphin pose rather than down dog (the common follow-up pose in vinyasa classes) so as to continue going easy on those wrists.
If you’re hankering for an extra challenge, attempt a forearm plank version of the bird dog variation above by lifting a leg.
On the other hand, if you’re experiencing or recovering from a core or low back injury, try working the actions of plank in tabletop pose. (Tip: This variation is also a great option for postpartum practitioners!) Be sure to get clearance from your healthcare provider, though, before trying even this gentle alternative to plank.
In tabletop, make sure your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in a neatly stacked line (shoulder width apart), and that your knees are directly under your hips or just slightly behind them (just about hip width apart). Press down firmly into your hands, as if pushing through the floor, as you draw in your low belly (think of engaging all of the muscles between your hip points and between your navel and pubic bone); and then engage the muscles up the length of your torso, all the way to right under the ribs. Then relax completely for one breath, allowing the abdominals to release their contraction, and then engage the full length of the torso once again. Keep your chest broad, gaze slightly forward, and spine long and neutral as you work to isolate these abdominal muscles.
It’s possible the standard backbend to down dog flow that generally follows plank in a vinyasa class may feel physically uncomfortable, or could be unsafe if you have a core or low back injury. In that case, a round of gentle cat/cow may be a good alternative to follow this modified plank.
Happy (not) planking!