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 Post subject: Back Pain From Planks
PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 4:25 pm 
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First, great website. I've been visiting it for years. About me, I'm an advanced lifter with about 25 years experience. I, unfortunately also have a history of back problems. I severely injured my back in '04. Before that I had off and on back pain and problems. I struggled with major sciatica for a year and then it resolved itself as I changed my program--from a heavy bodybuilding program to a more "fitness" program. I've had no problems for all these years since I made those changes--I also greatly improved my overall condition-- except lately I've been having a reoccurrance of sciatica for about 6-8 weeks. It's the not the major knife stab in the side of leg and numb foot stuff I had in 04-05, it's more of an annoying level of pain. It's enough to get my attention and want to keep it from progressing.

The variable seems to be front planks on the stability ball--"stir the pot" and mountain climbers primarily. After a few weeks of doing these, sciatica kicked in. Before that I had been doing a lot of push ups and variations thereof for about a year, so the plank position was not new to me, however I would admit that the push ups did not fully exhaust my abs/core like the stability ball planks do. Ironically, I was performing stability ball front planks in lieu of flexion exercises for the purpose of saving my disks. It took me a while to correlate the stability ball planks with the sciatica partly because planks are all the rage right now and I had to think past the zeitgeist bias that I found myself applying, but the correlation is apprent to me now. Luckily, the pain (and back stiffness) seems to subside quickly when I don't do the exercise for a few days. I plan on ommitting it from my routine.

In thinking about the exercise it seems to me that the iliopsoas would be heavily engaged in this exercise much like it would be in a straight leg sit up--only isometrically. It seems like this could cause hyperextension of the back--if not, it seems like the pressure just blows my back up. It may be that the exercise is not per se flawed--it could just be me and my unique injury and physiology. However, I heard a woman at the gym the other day complain to her trainer that the front plank she was having her do was immediately causing low back pain.

So, do you have any other ab/core recommendations? I'm kind of at a loss on how to train my abs. I've tried the McGill curl up, but it's so easy that I'm just not getting much work out of it. Do you think I'm just way off that this exercise puts strain on the back? Any thoughts or comments are appreciated. It could just be the old dog learning new tricks thing.

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 4:54 pm 
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When you do your planks, do you consciously lock your knees and tighten your glutes? It completely changes the exercise and transfers the effort from your lower back to your abs. Bret Contreras wrote about it a while ago.

http://bretcontreras.com/2011/09/the-rkc-plank/

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 4:59 pm 
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I strongly contract the glutes. I definitely feel it in my entire abdominal region. I maintain a straight body with no sagging (hyperextension) or flexion.


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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 5:18 pm 
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The woman in the gym may want to check that. In your case it's likely something else. Have you tried ab rollouts? I can think of lots of exercises that will work but it's hard to know what would affect your back or not. You could try make the curl up harder by holding a dumbbell or a cable.

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 5:32 pm 
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stuward wrote:
The woman in the gym may want to check that. In your case it's likely something else. Have you tried ab rollouts? I can think of lots of exercises that will work but it's hard to know what would affect your back or not. You could try make the curl up harder by holding a dumbbell or a cable.


That's a good idea. The curl up form involves keeping the hands under the lumbar spine. I've read that the hands are merely placed there so you can feel if the spine is flexing. I suppose I can put the hands behind my head and just make sure that I'm not going up so far that my spine flexes--ie. maintain the intended form. The resistance and stimulation is on par with crunches when I put my hands in that traditional position. I might try that.

I'm still struggling with giving up flexion. It's such a limited range of motion and it was always so effective at developing muscle. I think of the benefits of building all that core musculature vs. the harm of flexing for a few minutes twice a week and kind of stratch my head and wonder if in a few years another group of experts will be saying something else about the planks vs. crunch debate.

Anyway, that's a bit off topic. Thanks for the recommendation.

Rollouts: Yes, I have tried them. I feel like those put as much pressure on my back, if not more. I think I'm going to avoid all planks performed for the sake of training the core. I seem to be ok in the plank position doing push ups, which I like to incorporate into my routine, so I'm getting some anti-movement isometric work that way, it's just that my chest fails before my core.


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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2012 10:15 pm 
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Pallofs are good for obliques, not so much for rectus, but they are a good exercise.

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 1:52 am 
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funny thing, I pair planks with deadlifts precisely because it helps my lower back. Seems to simultaneously relieve and prepare the lowe back for more heavy lifting


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 5:16 am 
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I would still question your form. I've never came across anyone who I wasn't able to have perform a plank of some kind pain free, regardless of back condition. However, I see it butchered all the time and basically turned into a lower back exercise. It's very easy to do wrong especially if you have a lot of the common issues going on like anterior pelvic tilt.

I wouldn't advise attempting rollouts etc if you can't do a pain free plank because roll outs are like a more advanced progression.

Planks are the foundation to most exercises. Just about everything you do is a moving plank. I would make it a priority to workout why you experience pain with these. I imagine you will be doing them in a less than optimal position and also have an extremely low tolerance for extension (which is why sit ups will feel fine - for a lot of people it's the opposite, it's flexion that hurts). Also because something "feels" fine, doesn't mean it's actually any good i.e. feeling fine is poor reasoning in itself to do something.

I love the following video with Dan John coaching the Swing because, as well as just being typical Dan John quality, he really explains why the "plank" is so important in practical terms. If someone can't plank pain free, I would personally be very hesitant to load them up in any exercise that involves standing up.

He starts to talk about the plank 1-2 mins into it but it's worth watching the whole thing.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVEReOq5Jgs

Also, if it helps any, I typically teach the plank like this,

Lay down on your front (prone). Bring your elbows under your shoulders (your hips legs and abs will still be on the ground).

Lock your legs and get ready to get up on your toes but, don't yet.

Tense your abs and glutes like your life depends on it.

THEN lift your hips up.

Also, face the ground, not forward. If you extend your neck your lower back will try and follow.

Lastly - do the planks hurt instantly or only after a certain amount of time?

KPj

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 8:48 am 
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Also just to add to that as I just had another thought about it, consider doing these for a while

Reverse Crunch
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkafd6Gk ... r_embedded

If you can tolerate flexion they'll be fine. More so, you want to learn to posteriorly tilt your pelvis, as described in the video. Think of "curling" your pelvis.

With the plank, you may need to consciously posteriorly tilt your pelvis to in order to get your lower back in the optimal position to then allow your abs to do what they're supposed to. A little bout of reverse crunches could sort that out or at least allow it to make sense.

KPj

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 9:34 am 
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Lastly - do the planks hurt instantly or only after a certain amount of time?

KPj[/quote]

Thanks to everyone for your comments. The planks do not hurt at all when I perform them. The stiffness in the lower back and sciatica follow it in the evening (I train in the early morning -- 6ish) and the following day or two. I'm convinced that it is causing a localized inflamation that takes a few hours to swell--maybe some leftover from my injury. The time delay is partly why it was hard for me to figure out what was causing it. Luckily this seems to be the only exercise I do that causes any immediate pain. I get some plank work during my suspension push ups, but it's just not to exhaustion of the my core like the stability ball affords.

I am really tempted to just add in some minimal flexion exercise following my leg workout--like 2 sets of reverse crunches or stability ball crunches or bicycles maybe a set of side bridges and a set of back extensions. I'm just hesitant to do any flexion now because of this idea that you break down your disks.

As a side, I do some yoga, and whenever I do a yoga practice that involves a great deal of extensions (e.g. bridges, wheel, lots of up dog etc..) my lower back feels stiff and squished later that day and the day or two after. So maybe I am extension sensitive. It could be a leftover from my back injury in 04 when I suffered a lateral herniation at L4-L5. Or maybe that's what led to my injury in the first place.


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 9:47 am 
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Maybe when you're doing the planks to exhaustion, your back is sagging, leading you into extention. End your sets before that happens. Once your abs fail to hold the position, they've failed and some other muscle (poas?) is taking the load. Get someone to watch you. You might think you're not sagging but maybe you are.

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Strength is the adaptation that leads to all other adaptations that you really care about - Charles Staley
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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 9:57 am 
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Apologies in advance but, I'm still going to flag up technique/form. If you can do suspension push ups and not experience this, then you should be able to do planks - even on a ball, in my experience. Maybe on the ball is too much just now, and you need to get better on the floor first?

A push up and particularly a suspension push up is like an advanced plank with your arms moving. If you can do a set up of push ups with good form and not experience pain, you must be able to do a set of planks with good form and pain free, because you need to "plank" for the duration of the set. Therefore, I can't see passed a technique error here.

It's like saying you can do OH squats with an empty bar just fine but, back squats with an empty bar hurt - I would always say it was technique.

Of course, I could be wrong, and nothing surprises me, this is just my opinion based on the information given.

As for Yoga - it can be good or bad depending on the instructor. Some yoga poses are just a recipe for disc problems - namely, any that involve extreme extension or flexion in the lower back, and some look like a nightmare for your neck, too. However, if those same principles are applied to areas of the body where more ROM is needed (i.e the hips) then it could be good.

My thoughts on Yoga are pretty much - Great for peace of mind, not necessarily great for anything else, but could be if applied appropriately. I see yoga more as a form of meditation than anything else, which it seems to be excellent for. When someone takes up yoga to get "fit", "more flexible", or "tone up", I worry/secretly shake my head in disgust.

KPj

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:08 am 
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KPj wrote:
My thoughts on Yoga are pretty much - Great for peace of mind, not necessarily great for anything else, but could be if applied appropriately. KPj


I'm sidetracking this thread but only very briefly. Here's a post from Tony Gentilcore's blog about his first trip to a yoga class. It's an interesting read with a great quote -

“If Dan John can take yoga classes, I can too.”

http://www.tonygentilcore.com/blog/tony ... s-part-ii/

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:10 am 
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Stuward wrote:
"Maybe when you're doing the planks to exhaustion, your back is sagging, leading you into extention. End your sets before that happens. Once your abs fail to hold the position, they've failed and some other muscle (poas?) is taking the load. Get someone to watch you. You might think you're not sagging but maybe you are."

Stuward, this is something that occurred to me too. When I do suspension push ups my core contracts awesomely but it does not reach failure like I do on the stability ball since my pushing muscles fail before the core. Maybe my form starts to crumble at the end of the stability ball planks since that's just a no holds barred core set. I have noted that at the end of ball planks I start to shake and feel like my body is going to give out. Maybe I am sagging and just generally taking it too far. That could explain why push ups don't aggrevate my back but the ball does. Maybe KPj has a point that the ball is too much for me right now or maybe I just hold it too long--applying that extreme meathead mentality to the stability ball.

Do you guys think that push up variations (spidermans, suspension push ups, etc..--the advanced push up stuff) would be enough front planking without having to actually do dedicated sets of planks? I could just rely on the push ups, or do you think some static planks that cause more fatigue are required for a training effect on the core? See what I'm getting at--basically just eliminate static hold planks and let push ups work the magic.

KPj--I tend to agree with your comments on yoga. I really got into it for a time and quit going to classes when instructors were having people doing extreme spinal twists and head stands etc... Yoga can be very dangerous to the spine, knees, well everything actually. I will do it sometimes for a light workout to basically heat up my body a little. I pretty much stick to the basic vinyasas and sun salutations for that purpose. I"ve largely eliminated it though.


Last edited by Drake Van Steed on Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:19 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:16 am 
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yeh, I seen that. Quite interesting. However, to me it seems I could get the same benefits from taking a course in meditation (which i'm actually quite interested in) plus, another case for long duration static stretching for stubborn muscles/joints.

Here's another,

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magaz ... wanted=all

KPj

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