Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land explains why it may be a good idea to replace some of your planks with side planks and offers seven versatile side plank options that you can incorporate into your practice.
Plank, which is integral to vinyasa practice, is a powerful pose with an array of benefits, but it targets muscles on the front of the body that are often already strong, short, or easy to engage. In contrast, side plank (vasisthasana) helps us to access muscles that tend to be neglected—not just in yoga but also in daily life.
The muscles utilized in plank include the pectoralis majors (chest), anterior deltoids (fronts of the shoulders), recti abdomina (superficial abdominal muscles), and quadriceps. There’s nothing wrong with strengthening these muscles, but for most of us, activities like walking, running, and cycling, and yoga postures like chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose), the warriors, utkatasana (chair), and navasana (boat pose) take care of that.
Side plank, however, activates muscles that tend to be underused in our daily lives, including the following:
• The infraspinatus and teres minor (posterior shoulder) muscles, which externally rotate the upper arm bones, drawing the heads of the shoulders away from the chest.
• The internal and external oblique abdominals, which help us twist and side bend.
• The transverse abdominis (or TVA) muscles, our deepest abdominal muscles, which hug in around the waist to reduce load on the spine.
• The quadratus lumborum (QL), muscles that provide key lateral support for the lumbar spine.
• The glutei medii and minimi, our main hip abductors and crucial lateral stabilizers for the pelvis.
Each of these muscles plays an important role not just in movement but also in joint support and stability. Since we have far fewer opportunities to activate these muscles and thus strengthen them, it’s worth replacing a few of our regular planks with side planks in order to do so.
1. Better Balance
When we shift from plank into side plank, we reduce our contact with the floor, making it more challenging to balance. The extra effort required to balance teaches us to engage deep stabilizing muscles around our spine, hips, and shoulders, a lesson which brings powerful benefits both on and off the mat.
First, the deep and subtle muscular support that we cultivate in side plank has the potential to reduce wear and tear on our key joints. Further, balance work also awakens neuromuscular connections that allow us to move with more grace and control and fosters mental clarity and focus. The more often we challenge our balance, the better it becomes—and the more easily we retain our equanimity when faced with the challenges of life.
2. Healthy Posture
Sitting, standing, walking, running, rowing, biking—most of our daily activities recruit the same front body muscles as plank pose. And as these muscles shorten from repeated use, we are drawn into a postural slump—the head juts forward, the spine and shoulders round, and the chest hollows.
But while plank contracts the same muscles that create our slump, side plank encourages us to use our strength to target important and beneficial muscles like the TVA and QL (both vital supports for the lumbar spine) and glutei medii (key stabilizers for the pelvis). Good alignment in side plank also engages posterior shoulder muscles, including the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles, which draw the heads of the arm bones back to sit centrally in the shoulder socket, opening the chest. Put these actions together, and we find ourselves standing taller and more upright, with muscular support that helps us to maintain neutral positions in the spine and shoulders.
In today’s sedentary world, we rarely stray from facing forward with our arms in front of us: Just think about how much of your waking day is spent sitting at a computer, using your phone, or driving. Yet our soft tissues thrive on variety—diverse positions, movement speeds, and loads. So, any time we can swap out an often repeated position, like plank, for something less familiar, we reap the benefit of stronger and more resilient muscles and fascia.
Every pose in yoga has its benefits, but when it comes to rebalancing the impact of modern life, some poses are more helpful than others. Side plank creates greater stability for the shoulders, hips, and spine, and allows us to opt out of our habitual pattern of rounding forward. That’s why it’s well worth adding more variety into your yoga practice by replacing a few of those regular plank poses with side planks.
Experiment with these side plank options to build deep core and side body strength. If you're using side plank instead of plank in a standard vinyasa, you may only have a breath or two to hold the pose, but it's well worth holding it for a longer period when you have the time. Outside of your vinyasa practice, aim to build up to holding a static side plank option for up to a minute, or to moving through a dynamic version eight to ten times. And be sure to do the pose on both sides!
1. Side Plank on Your Knee Bringing your bottom knee to the mat reduces the balancing challenge and thus the core strength required to hold the pose, allowing you to focus on fine-tuning the alignment in your bottom shoulder and activating the gluteus medius on your bottom hip.
2. Forearm Side Plank Using your bottom forearm as a base eliminates stress on your wrist and gives you a larger surface area for support without sacrificing any of the core or side body activation.
3. Side Plank Push-ups Keeping the head of your supporting arm firmly centered in the shoulder socket, allow your hips to lower toward the mat, bringing your top arm down by your side. Then powerfully contract the side body closest to the floor to lift your hips up toward the ceiling, sweeping your top arm overhead. This is a great way to reinforce shoulder stability while building your obliques, QL, and glutei medii.
4. Side Plank Scoops Try these to pinpoint your obliques. Hug the head of your supporting shoulder back into the center of its socket. Keeping your hips facing the side wall, scoop your top arm under your waist so that your chest turns partway down toward the mat, contracting the side waist that’s closer to the mat. Then contract your top side waist to sweep the top arm back up toward the ceiling and return your chest to face the side wall.
5. Top Leg Lift Lifting your top leg engages the glutei medii of both hips—the side of your bottom leg engages to keep your hips lifted, and the side of your top leg engages to lift the leg against the resistance of gravity.
6. Bottom Leg Lift Like the abducting glutei medii, our adductors (inner thigh muscles that aid pelvic stability), also generally get short shrift in daily life. Removing the support of your lower leg by bending the knee and lifting it toward your chest shifts the workload to the adductors of the top leg, which are now forced to engage to keep your hips lifted.
You'll feel the effort in the adductors and hip flexors of your bottom leg too; try straightening the lifted leg at a 90-degree angle to your hips to add to the challenge.
7. Wild Thing () From side plank, retract your bottom shoulder blade so that your chest starts to turn toward the ceiling. Bend your top leg to set your toes on the floor behind your bottom leg, in line with your knee or lower thigh. This variation reduces the balance aspect of side plank, but adds a juicy chest opener. Sweep your top arm overhead to add to the chest and side body stretch.
You can follow your top arm with your gaze, but when you want to exit the pose, it helps to look at your supporting hand to create stability as you transition back to side plank.