We’ve all been there, right?
Firstly, the reason you perform planks is to strengthen your entire core.
However, whenever you perform planks you tend to feel it in your lower back.
Well, as it turns out, this mainly comes down to poor form.
If you’re feeling planks in your lower back this is usually due to allowing your lower back to arch, your hips to sag, or you’re sticking your butt into the air. Unfortunately, all three of these issues will mean that you’re not fully activating your abdominal muscles. Therefore, it is your lower back that takes up the strain.
The 3 Main Reasons You Feel Your Lower Back When Doing Planks
Okay, so the lower back soreness or pain that you’re feeling typically comes down to poor form.
And there are three main form issues for the vast majority of people.
Arched Lower Back
I frequently see people performing planks with an arched lower back.
Their body takes on a type of a curved banana shape and you can clearly see that the lower spine is arched.
However, by doing this your body weight is then supported by the ligaments and vertebrae, therefore the supportive structures of your back.
Essentially, you’ve removed the stress from the abdominal muscles and placed them firmly onto your lower back.
This is actually a form of anterior pelvic tilt, which is a common cause of back pain.
Therefore, you need to correct this by placing yourself into posterior pelvic tilt.
This will involve you tucking your butt in rather than allowing it to stick out into the air.
Furthermore, you should always activate your quads, glutes, and shoulders when performing planks.
And by doing this you can eliminate an arched lower back.
Another issue with planks is when you allow your hips to sag towards the floor.
Plus, sagging hips will once again cause your lower back to arch.
Admittedly, one of the most common causes of your hips sagging during planks is weak abdominal muscles.
So, you could almost say the solution is to perform planks more regularly.
However, you must ensure that you are doing them with correct form, and not allowing your hips to sag towards the floor.
This again can be fixed by activating your quads, glutes, and shoulders.
Something to look out for is that if your hips do sag, not only can this cause lower back pain, but you’re far more likely to feel planks in your shoulders too.
Butt Too High
Once more, this is another planking position I often see people getting themselves into.
Basically, their butt is too high and it’s almost as though their body has formed an inverted V-shape.
Admittedly, this often comes about when you feel your hips are sagging, so there is a tendency to overcompensate by sticking your butt high into the air.
This position will also place a great deal of stress on the neck and shoulders.
Plus, there is a tendency to hyperextend the neck from this position so you can stare straight ahead.
All-in-all, you’ll end up placing a great deal of unwanted stress on your lower spine, neck, and shoulders.
Should You Do Planks With Lower Back Pain?
Planks are a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to your abs and lower back.
What I mean by this is that you typically perform planks to strengthen your abdominal muscles.
Plus, many people are actually told to perform planks in order to alleviate back pain.
However, the source of back pain during planks can often be attributed to weak abs.
So, while planks may be the answer for lower back problems in some cases, they should definitely be avoided if you have the following issues.
If you currently have poor posture, which in turn is causing back pain, then planks should be avoided.
So, if your shoulders are rolled forward and your neck is jutting out, your posture is poor.
Furthermore, your lower back is constantly flat and rounded, your tailbone is tucked in, and your ribcage is collapsed.
Basically, you’re unable to stand up straight and completely naturally.
Doing planks in this situation is not a good idea, as all you’ll be doing is reinforcing this body position through your training, which means that you’ll eventually get stuck deeper into that position.
This being the case, you should be making an appointment with a chiropractor and NOT performing planks.
Asymmetrical Body Position
Another time that you should avoid planks is if you have asymmetry in your body, i.e. you’re leaning to one side.
This will usually mean that you have back pain in one side of your body, hence why you’re leaning over in order to provide some relief.
Once again, you’re past the point of planks solving your lower back issues, and all you’ll do is make matters worse by trying to perform them.
Seek advice from a medical professional.
Poor Hip Mobility
If your hips are weak, stiff, or inflexible then you should avoid planks.
You can typically tell if your hips aren’t up to the job of planking by performing a couple of tests.
Firstly, if you struggle to bend at your hips in order to touch your toes, then your back is going to take the hit while you’re doing planks.
Basically, you’re simply making your back pain worse.
If you have trouble squatting down to the floor, yet again your spine is going to compensate during planks.
Performing planks to strengthen your abs will not solve your hip problems.
Simply because your abs are strong won’t mean that your hips are going to do their job correctly.
And if your hips aren’t doing what they need to, it’s going to be back that will compensate again.
So, you need to work on improving your hip strength and mobility first.
I know many people suffer with stiff shoulders or have a poor range of motion through the shoulder joint.
Unfortunately, when you try to plank with stiff shoulders you’ll generally arch your lower back to compensate.
Therefore, performing planks is simply going to aggravate your lower back and it doesn’t solve the issue of poor range of motion in your shoulders.
You must have full range of motion in your shoulders in order to control your ribcage when you plank.
Modified Plank For Back Pain
You can modify the plank in order to make it easier and take the stress off your lower back.
However, I would only suggest you do this if you only feel your lower back when you plank.
If you already have lower back issues, as described above, you now know that planking isn’t going to solve these.
Realistically, you can make planks easier by changing the angle of your body.
When you perform planks on your elbows your body will typically form a straight line from shoulders to your heels.
This means that downward gravitational force is more at play, thus making the exercise harder.
However, if you can form an incline angle with your body, this changes the gravitational pull and makes the exercise easier.
This also explains why planks on your hands are easier than planks on your elbows.
So, initial try planks in the push up position.
That being said, if you’re still struggling, or if you’re unable to hold a plank for much time, you can place your hands onto an elevated surface.
So, this would be the exact same position from which you’d perform incline push ups, i.e. your hands are elevated while your feet are on the floor.
You can still activate your abs to great effect by following all the usual form cues for planks, especially when it comes to contracting and activating your glutes, quads, abs, and shoulders.
Something else to do, for all plank variations, is to increase ab engagement by thinking of pulling your arms towards your feet and your feet towards your arms.
In effect, you’re really digging your arms and feet into the floor and then trying to create a scissor effect by pulling them towards each other.
And the more you can engage your abs, the less stress you’ll place on the lower back.
Key Learning Points
- Your lower back takes up more of the strain during planks if you allow your lower back to arch, hips to sag, or you stick your butt up into the air.
- You should always activate your abs, quads, glutes, and shoulders when you plank.
- Aim for posterior pelvic tilt when you plank, avoid anterior pelvic tilt.
- You should not be planking if you currently have back pain caused by poor posture, asymmetrical body position, poor hip mobility, poor shoulder range of motion.
- Modified planks can be easier on the lower back, while helping to strengthen the abdominal muscles. This can be achieved by having your body at an incline, e.g. planks on hands, hands on an elevated surface, etc.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.