Last updated on January 18th, 2023 at 04:30 pm
Planks are undoubtedly one of the most popular core exercises.
And with good cause, they definitely work.
However, if your form is ever so slightly out it’s likely that you feel planks potentially where you shouldn’t.
In fact, one of the most common complaints about planks is feeling them in your shoulders.
One of the biggest mistakes with planks is to shrug your shoulders up towards your ears. This takes the shoulders out of correct alignment, which puts them in a more vulnerable position. Furthermore, allowing your hips to sag, typically due to weak abs and core, will place more stress on the shoulders. You should also be wary of the position of your arms, elbows, and hands, as this can lead to internal rotation of the shoulder blades.
Table of Contents
You’re Shrugging Your Shoulders
If you’re feeling planks in your shoulders you need to check your starting position.
Admittedly, this isn’t something that many of us do.
I mean, you get down to the floor, place either your forearms or hands on the floor, get onto your toes, and you’re good to go.
However, in truth, there’s so much more to planking than this.
Something that I often see is trainees get into plank position and then just as they’re about to take the strain they shrug their shoulders up towards their ears.
It’s almost as though this shoulder shrug is part of the process of tensing and contracting your muscles while you plank.
But, doing so takes them out of their correct plank alignment and therefore places more stress on the shoulders.
Plus, when your shoulders are shrugged up towards your ears you’ll generally notice that your midsection droops, which causes an arch in the lower back.
And this positioning then also forces your chest to drop towards the floor.
Essentially, your shoulders now have to take up more of the strain, as you’ve stopped using your core to “support” your weight.
So, you’ll need to fix this immediately, thus ensuring it’s your core muscles doing the work and not your shoulders.
You should always pull your shoulders back when you plank, almost as though you’re aiming your shoulder blades towards your feet.
Make sure to push your chest out and push your elbows back, once more, as though you’re aiming your elbows towards your feet.
This will immediately take the pressure off your shoulders and place it firmly onto the target muscles.
Don’t Allow Your Hips to Sag
I’ve already mentioned allowing your midsection to sag, which is fundamentally the same as allowing your hips to sag.
And this hip sag can occur even if you have adhered to all the form issues I’ve already spoken about.
Realistically, the main reason that your hips sag during planks is because your core muscles are weak.
Granted, planks are for strengthening your core, but just because you regularly perform them doesn’t mean you’re doing them correctly.
And, of course, this will simply mean that you’re not actually strengthening your core.
Personally, I’m always very wary of my hip position during planks.
I know as I start to fatigue during a set that my hips will start to drop, so I make a concerted effort to get them back into the correct position.
Then again, I’m not adverse to “overdoing it” because I’m far too focused on not allowing my hips to sag.
This will entail my butt pointing into the air and almost forming a V-shape with my body.
Neither type of plank is correct.
One of the best ways to ensure that you don’t allow your hips to sag is to contract your glutes and your quads.
That being said, when you contract your quads make sure you don’t hyperextend your knees.
Doing so is likely to cause knee pain during (and after) planks.
Although planks are mainly viewed as an ab and core exercise, I personally prefer to view them as a full-body exercise.
Therefore, I bring as many muscles into play as possible, but you should definitely be tensing your quads and glutes hard.
In fact, for those of you who can typically hold a plank for an extended period this is usually because you’re not fully contracting all your muscles.
Essentially, you’re cheating on the exercise and making it easier.
So, always make sure that you tense as many muscles in the body as possible, and be wary of your hip position throughout each set.
The Role of Your Arms/Elbows/Hands During Planks
The way you position your arms, elbows, and hands can also affect your shoulders during planks.
The positioning on your arms will largely depend on how you perform a plank.
The main two versions will either have you propped up on your elbows and forearms or with your hands flat on the floor in a push up position.
Firstly, if you’re resting on your elbows and forearms there is a tendency to clasp your hands together.
This immediately means that your arms are angling inwards.
Unfortunately, by doing this you’ll generally find that your shoulders rotate internally.
And this is a position that you definitely want to avoid during planks, and various other exercises too, e.g. push ups.
Once again, with your shoulders rotated internally you’re placing a huge amount of pressure on the shoulder joint, hence the potential for pain.
You’ll want to ensure that your elbows are directly below your shoulders and your forearms are pointed straight ahead.
In fact, I usually place my hands flat on the floor rather than resting on my fists.
This ensures that I have perfect arm alignment and therefore reduces the stress placed on my shoulders.
I’ve already mentioned that your elbows should be directly below your shoulders.
And this is true for both plank variations, i.e. on elbows or in push up position.
Having your elbows slightly outside the line of your shoulders causes your shoulders to externally rotate.
Whereas, placing your elbows inside the line of your shoulders causes your shoulders to internally rotate.
Basically, you’ll want to avoid any excessive rotation of the shoulders.
Plus, internal or external rotation of the shoulders can also cause both your chest and hips to sag towards the ground.
And as you now know, this places additional pressure on the shoulders, while ensuring that you’re not really testing your core..
So, once more, ensure your elbows are directly below your shoulders, pull your shoulders back towards your feet, puff your chest out, and keep your hips in line with your shoulders.
Okay, I’ve spoken about your hand position for elbow/forearm planks, but this is even more important for the push up position plank.
This again comes down to either turning your hands in ever slightly, which means that your shoulders will internally rotate.
Additionally, having your hands turned in places more stress on the wrists, which can explain why you may also feel planks in your wrists.
In fact, this is actually a major cause of wrist pain during push ups as well.
So, make sure that your hands are facing straight ahead.
Even better is to adopt the same hand positioning that you should with push ups.
My preference is to have my fingers splayed and hands turned out ever so slightly.
And as a bare minimum I want my index fingers pointing straight ahead, but even turned out slightly to the sides is fine.
Modifications When Planks Hurt Your Shoulders
Now, clearly the shoulder pain you feel could be something more untoward.
However, medical advice is beyond my scope as a fitness professional, so if you are in a lot of pain you should make an appointment with your Doctor to discuss this.
That being said, if your shoulder pain simply comes on when performing planks there are a few alternatives for you to try.
Firstly, you can make planks slightly easier by dropping to your knees in much the same way as you would perform a modified push up.
Although this position will remove much of the pressure off your shoulders they are still involved in this modification.
So, if you still find this too much then it makes sense to completely remove shoulder stress altogether.
The easiest way to achieve this is by performing a hollow hold exercise.
In effect, you’re now lying on your back with your feet and shoulders raised from the floor, and both your arms and legs fully extended.
You can check out this video which walks you through these modifications.
Key Learning Points
- Stop shrugging your shoulders towards your ears.
- Pull your shoulders back, puff out your chest, and push your elbows back towards your feet.
- Ensure that your hips don’t sag towards the floor by contracting both your glutes and quads (as well as your abs and core muscles).
- Keep your elbows directly below the line of your shoulders and don’t clasp your hands together.
- Your hands should be pointing straight ahead and not angling inwards when performing the plank from a push up position.
- Avoid allowing your shoulders to internally rotate.
- Try plank modifications – knees resting on floor or the hollow hold exercise.
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.