Jumping Back To Plank: What's the Big Deal?

All my life in the yoga world, I have heard the instruction that one should never jump back into plank pose. Instead of landing in plank, this core yoga rule goes, we should land directly in chaturanga dandasana - in other words, we should always jump into the bottom of a push-up and never jump into the top of a push-up. The reasons usually cited for this instruction are that jumping back into plank is injurious for any number of body parts including the wrists, shoulders, low back, knees, ankles, and big toes.

I used to believe and teach this yoga rule as well, but in more recent times I have changed my perspective on the issue. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with jumping back into plank pose, and I think the widespread prohibition of this movement mostly serves to create some unnecessary fear and worry about our yoga practice.

Here are my main reasons for this viewpoint - I hope you use them to examine your beliefs and then come to your own conclusion about the "never jump to plank" rule!
 

Reason #1: You can certainly injure yourself jumping into plank, but...

I definitely agree that it's possible to injure oneself while jumping into plank pose. If you lack the ability to engage through your core, press strongly through your arms, and land lightly, some areas of your body may experience a higher-than-optimal level of stress, which could lead to injury. But I fail to see how this is different from so many other movements in yoga that can also be injurious if one lacks proper technique and body awareness - yet we don't make blanket statements about the importance of "never" doing most of these other movements.

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

One yoga transition that stands out to me as especially risky for the body if one lacks the proper strength and control is, ironically, jumping straight into chaturanga. Even though chaturanga is traditionally considered the safer asana to jump into, this pose is actually much more challenging to execute skillfully than plank pose. Chaturanga involves much higher loads to the neck, shoulders, and spine than plank pose does, and these loads are significantly higher if we jump into the pose (especially if we slam down with a lot of velocity like many yogis do) instead of lower slowly into it. In fact, so many yoga students lack the foundational skills to practice chaturanga well that I created a whole online tutorial on how to approach this pose with integrity.

I would suggest that contrary to popular teachings, one is at greater risk of injury from performing a sloppy jump-back into chaturanga than they are from performing a sloppy jump-back into plank pose.

 

Reason #2: Jumping Into Plank Is Commonly Practiced In Other Movement Systems Without Concern Or Widespread Injury

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

If you ever visit a gym or other fitness setting, a common movement used for warming up that you'd likely see is something called a burpee. (Yes, I agree that this is an odd name for an exercise, but a fun trivia note is that the burpee is named after the person who founded it - a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee.)

To perform a burpee, one begins in a standing position, lowers down into a squat, jumps back into plank pose with straight arms, often performs one push-up, jumps forward again into a squat, and then jumps up and lands back in a standing position. A typical "set" of burpees is anywhere from 10-15 done in a row, and people typically perform at least 3 sets (and often many more) in one workout. In addition to this classic exercise, there are many variations, such as the one-leg burpee, in which one jumps back into a one-legged plank instead of a traditional plank, the side burpee, in which one jumps into a variation of side plank, and the one-arm burpee, in which the entire movement is performed with one arm lifted.

In addition, multiple research studies have been done by exercise scientists which include the burpee as a movement alongside other classic fitness exercises. (Examples here and here.)

The fact that the burpee, which involves jumping back into plank pose repetitively, is so prevalent in the fitness world and is also included in research studies suggests to me that it has not been found by fitness professionals or sports scientists to be particularly injurious for the body.

 

Reason #3: Jumping Into Plank Could Actually Have Some Benefits

To be honest, even though I don't believe that jumping into plank pose is inherently dangerous, I don't tend to teach this movement very often in my yoga classes. But I do believe that jumping into plank (and chaturanga for that matter) could have some benefits for the body that we often overlook when we focus on fear and worry about this transition instead.

There is a type of fitness training called plyometrics which utilizes jumping exercises to increase a person's power, or the speed at which they can use their strength during a task. Plyometrics are also known to enhance one's endurance and agility, and several studies have actually shown that they can increase bone density (examples here, here, and here).

There is some debate about whether a burpee (a.k.a. the fitness world's version of "jumping into plank") can technically be considered a plyometric exercise. But I believe there is enough crossover between the two to suggest that they would offer some similar benefits.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

Additionally, we know that movement variability is important for neural learning, tissue health, and overall graceful aging, so the argument could be made that learning how to jump back skillfully into both plank and chaturanga - and not just one or the other - could be beneficial.

 

Reason #4: There Are No Inherently Bad Movements

You might recall a controversial blog post I wrote earlier this year called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (also re-published in Yoga International with a far more angry comment thread here.) In this post, I argued that instead of looking at a movement as inherently bad and damaging for the body, we should reverse our reasoning and instead look at an individual body and ask if it is adapted and prepared to handle the loads of that particular movement.

For example, a beginning yoga student with an office-working, sedentary lifestyle who has never borne weight on her arms might be prone to injury if she tries jumping into plank (and even more so if she tries jumping into chaturanga - yikes!) But because the biological reality of our bodies is that they adapt to become stronger to the loads they experience on a regular basis, most practiced yogis who have a good sense of body control and core stabilization should be able to jump lightly into plank pose without causing injury.

 

CONCLUSION

To be clear, I'm certainly not suggesting that all yoga teachers run out and start teaching everyone to jump into plank during every vinyasa. I'm simply questioning the reasoning behind the ubiquitous "never jump into plank" warning that nearly every yoga teacher learns in their yoga teacher training. Is this transition necessarily dangerous for everyone, and is jumping into chaturanga somehow innately safer? Where do these beliefs stem from? I believe that questioning our biases about these transitions can help us to become more critically-thinking yoga teachers who can serve our individual students better.

100,000 Chaturangas Later: Less Chaturanga is More

**Update, August 2015: Since writing this article, I have learned about research that suggests that strengthening a muscle does not cause it to physically become shorter, thereby pulling on our bones and altering our posture. So although the section of this piece titled "Computer/Sitting Posture" is well-intentioned and seemed like common sense when I wrote it, I now feel that it is a bit of an outdated perspective. I STILL strongly believe that there are many issues with how chaturanga is commonly taught and practiced, and I have two recently-created online workshops on this subject - The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa and Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas. So chaturanga is still far from off the hook, but the one argument I made in this article about "Computer/Sitting Posture" is a bit outdated. Just for the record! ///

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Have you ever calculated your chaturanga “number” - the total number of times you’ve ever done this pose?  (Chaturanga dandasana is yoga’s “push-up” pose, part of the ubiquitous vinyasa sequence found in flow styles like Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, and Ashtanga.)  I don’t know about you, but I have done a LOT of chaturanga in my life.  Earlier on in my yoga path I practiced Ashtanga dedicatedly for about 8 years.  (Ashtanga is a vigorous, traditional yoga style which dates back to the earlier part of last century and has strongly influenced all other flow yoga styles practiced today.)

There are more than 50 chaturangas included in a typical Ashtanga class, and I practiced about 5 times a week. 50 chaturangas x 5 times a week x 52 weeks in a year x 8 years = 104,000 chaturangas during those 8 years alone.  When I first did the math on this I was absolutely shocked.  Who does 100,000 of anything?  I’ve of course done many more chaturangas since that time to add to that already supremely high total, but at a more toned-down rate.  (A typical vinyasa flow class might include 20-30 chaturangas from start to finish.)

Are you excited to calculate your own chaturanga “number” now out of yoga curiosity? :)  If you do, let me know what it was!

 

Why do we practice chaturanga?


Chaturanga is a great way to build core and upper body strength.  It also tends to appear numerous times throughout a practice to help yogis sustain a feeling of “working” or “exerting” (or sthira in Sanskrit).  Chaturanga is also admittedly an integral part of yoga because that’s simply the way flow yoga is done.  It’s only natural to teach what we’ve learned from our own teachers without questioning the reasoning behind it.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing?


We are grateful to the teachers who helped bring the transformative practice of yoga to the West in the earlier part of the 20th century.  However, we know a lot more about movement, biomechanics, and health today than we did at that time.  Today’s research makes it increasingly clear that variety of movement is a key to whole body health.  Writes somatic movement educator Sue Hitzmann in her book The MELT Method (2013), “the primary cause of chronic and sudden chronic pain is repetitive movements and postures, not aging or muscle tension, as many people believe.”

As I mentioned in my intro to fascia blog post, keeping our body-wide web of fascia supple and hydrated is required for maintaining mobility and ease in our body as we age (and for overall optimal health in general). But repetitive movements have the unfortunate effect of dehydrating our fascia due to friction and compression, resulting in dry, brittle tissue which leaves us vulnerable to injury in our muscles and joints.

 

Biomechanically Cool or Not?

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If done in alignment, chaturanga is a perfectly fine way to build core and upper body strength. (As a surprising side note, though, most yogis aren’t actually strong enough to do this pose “in alignment”. Chaturanga places a huge load on the shoulders and spine and most people’s bodies are simply not yet ready to handle that load. Instead, many people will destabilize their joints in an effort to lower down, losing muscular control and transferring the load to their vulnerable fascia instead. Most people would be better served staying in plank pose and maaaybe lowering one inch (and that’s it!) toward chaturanga. If you’re one of my students and would like a little assessment on this for your own body, just ask me and I would love to help!)

But messy chaturangas aside, even if we all did this pose in perfect alignment, the 20-30 (or 50+!) times we are asked to move into this shape in every practice just isn’t biomechanically cool.  Aside from the problem that any repetitive activity poses to our fascia, chaturanga actually reinforces a muscular imbalance that most of us already have as a result of life in our modern era.

 

Computer/Sitting Posture

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When we computer/text/drive/bike/run/sit a lot, our arms are out in front us, which shortens and tightens the front of our chests and shoulders.  This seemingly no-big-deal shift in alignment results in rounded-forward shoulders, a condition that almost all of us share, but most people hide without realizing it by “pulling their shoulders back” all day long.  This front chest tightness has all sorts of uncool effects like compressing our heart and lungs which reduces our breath capacity, forward head posture (think turtle head :) ), and ultimately that majorly rounded upper back curve that you often see in older people that is sometimes referred to as dowager’s hump, but is more technically called hyperkyphosis of the thoracic spine.  And to re-emphasize, as products of our sitting and computering ways, we all already have this structural imbalance before we even step onto a yoga mat for the first time.

What does this have to do with chaturanga?  Chaturanga strengthens these exact chest and shoulder muscles which are already short and pulling us out of alignment (specifically our pectoralis major and front deltoids), further contributing to a structural problem that we already have.  On top of that, there are very few poses in yoga which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets (which would include the rhomboids and rear deltoids), so we don’t even have a path toward some sense of balance within the asanas themselves.

 

So Why, Really, Do We Practice Chaturanga in Yoga?


If I had to make an informed guess, I would postulate that the main reason most people practice and teach lots of chaturangas is to feel like they’re “working” in their yoga practice - to keep their heart rate up, their sweat flowing, and their body feeling exerted. I was absolutely one of those people too, before I learned more about anatomy and biomechanics and the direct affect that movement has on our health.

In fact, I can remember being in yoga class and feeling disappointed when the teacher would skip a perfectly good moment to offer us a vinyasa.  I was really married to the idea of the vinyasa as a core part of my practice, and if I wasn’t offered as many as I wanted, I would feel kind of unsatisfied and grumbly inside - like I had “missed out” on something.  I’m sure that lots of yogis can relate to this feeling.  It’s not uncommon to see people taking extra chaturangas in class or even doing a round of several plank-to-chaturanga reps on their own, and I believe this is largely related to our cultural bias toward push-ups and what we think they offer us.

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But based on what I understand now, in addition to the nagging shoulder pain that I used to have in my left shoulder and my unquestionably tight pecs which I now work to stretch daily, I do very few chaturangas in my practice.  I do include a small amount of them, but I also do many other movements which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets.

And my teaching style has shifted as well.  It has taken serious effort, but I have whittled down the number of vinyasas that I offer in my class from between 20-30 to around 10-12, and I also include a fair amount of movements which do work the opposite muscles that chaturanga does (they’re not always traditional yoga movements, but I love them and think they’re cool!)  I feel like my class is still quite strong and challenging - and feel free to let me know if you agree if you’re a student of mine! :) - but I also feel that it’s more biomechanically sound.

 

The Goal of Yoga


One of the main reasons people practice yoga is to create more balance in the body.  Chaturanga is a pose, however, that when done repetitively, actually moves us away from balance and toward imbalance.  I hope that with the biomechanical perspective I’ve shared in this post, you now have eyes to see that.  It’s important that we respect and honor the tradition of yoga.  But a tradition that doesn’t update with the new insights and knowledge of today is not a living tradition.  My goal as a progressive yoga teacher is to incorporate the best of our current biomechanical knowledge with the existing powerful tradition of yoga.  I hope you stand by me in that goal!

 

 

P.S. For further reading, check out this excellent article by my anatomy teacher Jason Ray Brown! I first learned about the chaturanga imbalance issue by studying with him, and then learned even more through my biomechanics studies with Katy Bowman. I feel so thankful to have such wise teachers!

 

Related Online Workshop: The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas