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December 31, 2019

Sustainable Strength for Side Plank + 3 Myths About Side Plank Broken Down

A pose that comes up frequently in yoga classes, yet seems to be quite challenging – even defeating –  for many is side plank, vasisthasana. Many people simply don’t have the strength for side plank, and don’t know where to begin.

This post will break down three myths about side plank, and offer you a road map to build capacity for this powerful yoga pose dedicated to the sage Vasistha.  

Top three myths about side plank:

Myth #1: Your hand must be directly below your shoulder. 

Myth #2: Your body must be in a straight line.

Myth #3: Your feet or legs need to be stacked. 

Your hand must be directly below your shoulder:

Not true. There are various ways to practice side plank. Having the supporting arm directly under the shoulder, arm vertical, is one of the hardest on your wrists. That’s because it brings the wrist into 90 degrees of extension – 20 degrees past where an average wrist likes to go. Placing your hand a few inches in front of your shoulder decreases the angle, thereby decreasing pressure on your wrist. 

Your body must be in a straight line:

Not necessarily true. Finding a straight line in a side plank is a powerful body awareness practice. But you can access MORE obliques, more lateral hip stabilizing, and arguably more shoulder stabilization by lifting your hips higher than the line between your ankles and shoulders. Additionally, a challenging dynamic version of side plank alternately lowers the hips toward the floor then lifts the hips as high as possible. 

Your feet or legs should be stacked:

Not necessarily true. There are so many leg variations for side plank, my head spins thinking about it. For example: 

  • Staggering the legs; 
  • Bottom knee bent, shin supported on the floor; 
  • Top knee bent, foot flat to floor in front of or behind the body; 
  • Both knees bent, outer shin supported on floor
  • … the list goes on. 

In addition, since we established above that your body doesn’t have to be in a straight line, you could lift the hips high so that the soles of one or both feet are able to press into the ground. Inevitably, that means the legs will no longer be stacked, and your top inner thigh will engage powerfully. 

Anatomy: What muscles are used in side plank?

Side plank demands “side body” and shoulder stability and strength. It requires outer hip muscle contraction, obliques engagement and of course massive stability with the shoulder in an abducted (out to the side) position. 

Numerous side plank variations allow slightly different muscle groups to turn on, and offer your shoulders a chance to build up strength and endurance.

To ace a sustainable side plank, start with the following accessible variations and strength “prerequisites”. These could be used for warming up the shoulder girdle and upper body during the course of a side plank-heavy practice, or for building up strength over time.  

Notes

Each of the following can be performed on your forearm(s) rather than your hand, with either the elbow directly beneath the shoulder or slightly forward toward the head.

For anyone with wrist issues, starting on your forearm will warm up the muscles of the shoulder girdle. Pre-engaging the “proximal” (closer to your core) muscles will reduce stress on your wrists when you put the hand down. However, being on your forearm does not make side plank easier. 

Another wrist-relieving option is to use push up bars with these variations. Push up bars are worth the investment, as you build grip strength at the same time as avoid pain. 

More accessible variations

If wrist discomfort is not your main issue, but instead strength or endurance:

Feel free to modify the following by:

  • putting your hand on a wall,
  • hand on the seat of a chair, or
  • hand on a yoga block to put more weight through your lower body and less through the arms.  

Here are 7 side plank variations for strength-building:

3-Legged Table Pose

1. 3-Legged Table / Bear weight (but not all your weight) on one arm

To warm up the wrists and upper body, start off in table pose, and lift one hand off the floor. (This video offers tons of variations). As a warm-up, switch sides with every breath (or practice quick shoulder taps for a bit of cardio). To build endurance, after at least a minute or once wrists are warm, add long holds – up to 60 seconds. 

Side Plank “Appetizer”

2. Side plank “appetizer”

From table position, reach your left leg behind you, toes touching the ground. Bring your left hand to your left hip and pivot your whole body to face the side of your yoga mat. Build endurance here with a hold up to 60 seconds, or switch between the right and left for dynamic conditioning. 

Here’s the forearm version: 

Side Plank “Appetizer” on Forearm
Side Table / Prep for Side Plank Pose

3. Side Table 

From position 2, lift your top leg to approximately hip height and bring your top arm by your ear. This will increase the amount of your bodyweight in the arm still on the floor. Build endurance with a long hold, or practice a dynamic “crunch” version. For the crunch, bring your elbow and knee toward one another, then apart, repeatedly, timing the moves with breath. 

Side Plank on your Knees

4. Side Plank on your knees 

Side plank on your knees is a phenomenal way to build up your capacity for side plank itself. This variation places 50-70% less weight (compared to full side plank) through your arm, like learning to lift 40 pounds by starting with 20. 

If side plank on your knees feels like too much weight through the arms, return to “side table”, “side plank appetizer”, or “3 legged table”. You could also place a yoga block under your hand to reduce the weight in your upper body. 

Here’s the forearm version:

Knee Down Side Plank on Forearm
Side Plank with a Kickstand (Front foot flat)

5. Side Plank with a Kickstand

From a straight arm plank, roll to one side and step your top foot in front of you. You may wish to play with bringing the foot behind you instead. Either way, this position will help you to learn to lift strongly through the hips, engaging your obliques, glutes medius and minimus. These actions are more accessible here than in a “regular” stacked side plank.

Side Plank with Sass (Obliques and Gluteus medius working extra hard)

6. Side plank with some sass. 

Once your body forms an arc, push your supporting arm toward the top of your mat, and stack your legs. It is very helpful to position as much of the sole of your bottom foot on the floor as possible. Feel free to look at the floor as you do this to help maintain balance. 

Here’s the forearm version:

Forearm Side Plank

The spirit of this post is to offer you a road map for sustainable side plank strength. If you made it this far and stacked your legs, you are there! 

Continue building strength over time by exploring longer holds, or more frequent repetitions of side plank during your yoga practice. “Over time” is a key phrase because muscle growth and repair occurs mostly during sleep. 

Once you’ve grown confident in side plank, many delightful variations will become available for you to explore, such as…

Side Plank Tree / Vasisthasana with Vrksasana Legs

7. Side Tree Plank

One of my favorite, most accessible, advanced variations is side tree plank. Once your legs are stacked, draw your top foot to the inner thigh of your bottom leg, into tree pose. The top foot can press down, which encourages a buoyancy in this shape, as you press back into it. 

True strength builds up over time and requires some dedication. Find a starting point on this side plank roadmap, and play with the variations offered here at least 2-3x/week.

Want MORE ideas for shoulder stabilization? Check out this video:

For more real talk about poses, pose accessibility, and sustainable strength-building in yoga, consider joining our Yoga Anatomy Mentorship. 

2 Comments on “Sustainable Strength for Side Plank + 3 Myths About Side Plank Broken Down

Fulvia
January 5, 2020 at 8:43 pm

Hi Ariele,

I so enjoyed and appreciated this article! Thank you, as always, for your teaching and advice ❤️

Forearm side plank came up in an online class I took yesterday (how about that for timing 🙂 and a cue left me a little uneasy…
The instruction was to have the forearm parallel to the long edge of the mat (vs parallel to the short edge or somewhere in between). I gave it a very tentative go but my shoulder wasn’t very happy with that amount of abduction. What are your thoughts on that forearm/shoulder position?

Best always,
Fulvia

Reply
DrFoster
January 6, 2020 at 11:31 am

Hi Fulvia! One of the undercurrents of this blog post is the idea that poses do not have to have strict alignment. (Also: alignment doesn’t “save” us – i.e. doesn’t prevent us from injury, nor does it help us to creatively think about progressive loading etc). If you think of yoga instructions as “suggestions”, that gives you literal wiggle room — to move your arm further out, to try a different rotation or orientation of the forearm, etc. I say allow your body to position itself how it feels good.

Know that forearm side plank, because your body is more horizontal, will put more of your body weight through your shoulder than a regular side plank. That could be a loading thing (something to build up to). You could also try propping the upper body on a block or the seat of a chair to shift more weight to your feet.

Be well!

Reply

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