Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana):
Would you like to tone and strengthen the muscles in your shoulders, core, chest, thighs, and low back all at the same time? It might sound too good to be true but it is possible with plank pose—the ultimate shoulder strengthener, spine stretcher, leg lifter, and core tightener. It’s normal for even the most disciplined of yogis to have a love-hate relationship with plank pose. After all, most folks don’t actually enjoy holding themselves up in a push-up position for an extended period of time. With regular practice, however, you may find that the health benefits of this pose far outweigh its physical challenges.
Your shoulders are a naturally mobile joint, connecting many of your torso’s muscles and ligaments. Because of their interconnectivity, the shoulders are more prone to injury than some of the other joints in your body. This is why it’s so important to build strength in your shoulders. Not only can it relieve tension and improve your posture, it can also increase stability in your upper body, helping to prevent painful injuries, such as rotary cuff tears.
In Sanskrit, plank pose is called Kumbhakasana (koom-bahk-AHS-un-nuh). It is the combination of two words—kumbhak, meaning “breath retention” and asana, meaning “posture,” “pose,” or “seat.” Given its Sanskrit name, you might be wondering if you need to hold your breath in this pose. Well, the answer is both yes and no. In the traditional practice of Kumbhakasana, most yoga followers hold their breath for just a moment before lowering their upper body into a push-up position.
However, when you flow into plank as part of a sequence like Sun Salutation (10 poses performed consecutively with specific breathing patterns), do not hold your breath. In Indian culture, people traditionally incorporate Sun Salutation into their everyday routine. It is regarded as a practice that leads to good health, efficiency, and longevity. And it is known for strengthening nearly every part of the human body. Plank pose is step 4 in Sun Salutation so it is an important pose to familiarize yourself with—it is incorporated into most Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga classes.
How to Do Plank Pose
Follow these six steps to gradually master plank pose:
Start off on your hands and knees (table pose). Then draw your torso forward until your shoulders are over your wrists and your whole body is in one straight line (like a push-up). Next, extend your legs behind you, lifting your knees off the ground and activating your core muscles.
Support yourself by pressing firmly into the floor with your forearms and hands. It can be helpful to spread your fingers apart to better distribute your weight.
Look down between your hands to lengthen the back of your neck, taking extra care to keep your face and throat muscles soft.
Draw your shoulder blades toward your lower back. Then broaden your shoulders by spreading them away from your spine.
Keep your thighs and chest lifted as you maintain a straight line. If your bottom starts to stick into the air, realign your body so that your shoulders are stacked above your wrists.
Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds—longer if you can—then gently drop your knees and move back into table pose. You may also choose to tuck your toes underneath of you and push back into downward-facing dog.
Variations of Plank Pose
As you progress in yoga, you will find that you can modify poses to your skill and flexibility level. For most people, it takes time and plenty of practice to hold plank pose for more than a few breaths. If this sounds like you, follow these instructions to reduce the level of difficulty of the plank pose:
Follow steps one through six above, but do not extend your legs behind you or lift your knees off the ground. Instead, focus on keeping your head and spine in a straight line as you support your upper body with your forearms and hands. This variation is known as half plank pose, and is commonly practiced by beginning and intermediate yogis.
Begin in table pose. Now draw your torso forward and lower your forearms to the ground. Next, extend your legs behind you, lifting your knees off the ground and activating your core muscles. Support yourself by pressing your forearms firmly into the floor. Then follow steps three through six above. This variation is called dolphin plank pose. In this variation, you put less strain on your hands and wrists. It is the ideal position for beginner’s, older adults, individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome, and those who suffer from chronic pain in their hands or wrists.
Keep in mind that the most effective plank pose for your body is the one in which you can maintain correct alignment for the full duration of the posture. In maintaining correct alignment, you ensure that you are reaping the full benefits of this pose—from your shoulders all the way down to your toes.
Benefits of Plank Pose
The three keys of back health are mobility, flexibility, and strength. It can be difficult to find exercises that target the small muscles of the lower back region, but plank pose does exactly that. To increase the mobility and stability of the back muscles, fitness experts often recommend strengthening the core muscles. Plank pose allows you to strengthen your core and back muscles at the same time, making both sides of your torso work together to support your weight.
In addition to toning and strengthening your back and core, plank pose can help increase the range of motion in your shoulders and build strength in your upper extremities. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, researchers found that “Hatha yoga exercise improve flexibility, muscle tone and strength, balance, and joint function.” They go on to say that their “findings indicate that regular and continuous yoga exercise effectively improved body composition […] in female patients with shoulder pain.”
A separate study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular practice of the Sun Salutation sequence, which incorporates plank pose, leads to significant improvements in strength and endurance in both male and female participants.
In this study, 79 men and women participated in a one-hour yoga session six times a week for 24 weeks. At the end of the study, researchers noted that participants were able to lift more weight in both bench press and shoulder press exercises than they were able to lift at the beginning of the study.
Additionally, the number of push-ups and sit-ups they were able to do increased after their extended yoga training. The mean number of push-ups increased from 19 to 21.98 while the mean number of sit-ups increased from 24.92 to 29.84—now those are amazing results! So what does this all mean for you? It means that regular practice of yoga strengthening exercises like plank pose garner comparable results to resistance training. In both forms of exercise, the sustained contractions of several muscles groups in your body positively impact your strength and stamina.
Some other body benefits of practicing plank pose regularly include the following:
- Offers similar health benefits as aerobic exercise
- Improves cardio-respiratory fitness
- Raises endurance levels
- Prepares the body for more challenging arm balance poses, such as side plank
- Tones your thigh and calves
- Improves your posture
- Strengthens your wrists
- Works several parts of your body, including your core, chest, low back, forearms, and shoulders
The Do’s and Don’ts of Plank Pose
As with any pose, you should always maintain correct posture for Kumbhakasana and be able to modify it as necessary. Follow this do’s and don’ts list to make the most of plank pose:
- Do modify the pose for your comfort and skill level. You can try dolphin plank pose (forearms to the ground instead of your hands) or half plank pose (knees on the ground) instead.
- Do learn Sun Salutation to better understand how plank pose is incorporated into this popular sequence.
- Do open the space between your shoulder blades to deepen this posture.
- Don’t practice the full extension of this pose if you have carpal tunnel syndrome as it places too much stress on your hands and wrists. Instead, modify the posture by resting your forearms on the floor instead of holding yourself up with your hands.
- Don’t practice plank if you have osteoporosis as it could increase your risk of fractures.
- Don’t allow your chest to collapse to the floor—proper posture is key to strengthening your core and back muscles.
Follow-up Poses for Plank Pose
In yoga, it’s all about the flow. Once you master plank pose, give these related postures a try:
1. Upward-facing dog pose (beginner’s level):
From plank, slowly lower your knees to floor and lie down on your belly. Now stretch your legs back, keeping the tops of your feet on the floor. Then bend your elbows, spread your palms on the floor just beside your waist, and lift yourself up by pushing into the floor and straightening your arms. Take a long inhale and firm your thighs and arms. Next, press your tailbone toward your pelvic region and tighten your glutes. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
2. Side plank pose (intermediate level):
Moving from plank position, shift your weight to the outside edge of your right foot. Then stack your left foot on top of the right. Next, lift your left arm and rest it on your hip or stretch the arm toward the ceiling, keeping it parallel with your shoulders. Now gaze up at your left hand and hold this posture for 15 to 30 seconds—longer if you’d like. Finally, release the pose and repeat on the opposite side to bring balance and harmony to both sides of your body.
3. Four-limbed staff pose (intermediate level):
Following plank pose, firm your shoulder blades and press your tailbone toward your pelvis. Exhaling deeply, gradually lower your torso and legs to floor, keeping your body just a few inches from the ground. Now stabilize your tailbone, activate your leg muscles, and broaden your shoulder blades. For a better grip, it can be helpful to push your index fingers firmly into the floor. Lift the top of your chest and look forward slightly. Hold this pose for 10 to 30 seconds. Now exhale and release.
If you want to be a toned, tight powerhouse and increase your endurance, improve your posture, and strengthen and protect your shoulders, add Kumbhakasana to your regular yoga routine. In addition to the many physical benefits this pose offers, it also challenges you mentally by testing your determination to hold the pose for longer and longer intervals.
1. American Council on Exercise. 5 yoga poses to strengthen the shoulders. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/6073/5-yoga-poses-to-strengthen-the-shoulders. Updated August 2016. Accessed December 21, 2017.
2. American Council on Exercise. 10 yoga poses to alleviate low back pain. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/6564/10-yoga-poses-to-alleviate-low-back-pain. Updated September 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017.
3. American Council on Exercise. Building core strength with yoga. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6338/building-core-strength-with-yoga. Updated March 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017.
4. Mazor M, Lee JQ, Peled, A, Zerzan S, Irwin C, Chesney MA, Serrurier K, Sbitany H, Dhruva A, Sacks D, Smoot B. The effect of yoga on arm volume, strength, and range of motion in women at risk for breast cancer-related lymphedema. J Altern Complement Med. 2017. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0145.
5. Ha MS, Kim DY, Baek YH. Effects of Hatha yoga exercise on plasma malondialdehyde concentration and superoxide dismutase activity in female patients with shoulder pain. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(7):2109-2112. doi: 10.1589/jpts.27.2109.
6. Bhutkar MV, Bhutkar PM, Taware GB, Surdi AD. How effective is sun salutation in improving muscle strength, general body endurance and body composition? Asian J Sports Med. 2011;2(4):259-266.