Plank Modifications (or Assists) for Messed Up Feet, Inflexible Wrists, and Grumpy Knees

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    Plank Modifications (or Assists) for Messed Up Feet, Inflexible Wrists, and Grumpy Knees

    As some of you know, I have been using DAREBEE workouts to work out with my 79-year-old mother every day for almost a year now (since Covid-19 forced the seniors' centre where my mother had been doing regular group exercise classes to close its doors last March). We started our journey with Vitality, which DAREBEE had just released at that time. Vitality was the perfect place for my mother to begin her DAREBEE journey. But that level of workout is far too easy for her now.

    As one would expect, after 325 days of working out every day with a personal trainer who consistently pushed her to do her best, my mother's fitness levels have improved considerably. She is significantly stronger now than she was a year ago, her endurance has improved markedly, as has her balance and her mental focus. We recently completed Fireheart together, completing every workout on Level III. Fireheart was challenging for my mother, and she required some modifications. But she got the job done. This would not have been even close to possible a year ago.

    These days our workouts are typically 45-60 minutes long and consist of doing a Level 3 Program on Level III (currently Full Circuit), plus a collection of supplementary workouts we do regularly on a 2-day alternating schedule. Currently our supplementary workouts are:

    Day 1

    Posture x 3
    Knee Saver (with dragon adds + mods)
    Sore Feet x 2
    Wrist Pain
    Hand Tendons x 2

    Day 2

    Journey Before Destination x 3 (dragon protocol)
    Back Pain Relief x 2
    Ankle Recovery x 2
    Talk to the Hand
    Hand Tendons x 2

    While it has been great to witness my mother's progress over the past 11 months, the journey has not been without its challenges. In the beginning these challenges were mostly related to my mother's lack of faith in her own abilities. She was used to doing group exercises geared towards senior citizens, which I soon discovered were considerably less challenging even than Vitality. And she was resistant to doing anything else. "I can't do that," and "That's not how we do it at the seniors' centre," where phrases I heard a lot. Now my mother recognizes that there are things she can do today which she could not do a year ago--because she put in the effort and worked consistently every day to improve. She recognizes that there are things she cannot do today which she may very well be able to do a year from now if she continues to put in the time and the effort to get there. And she wants to continue to workout with me, even once the Seniors' Centre is able to reopen its doors, because she recognizes that her old group exercise classes would be too easy for her now. On the other hand, there are some things my mother still cannot do. There are some things she will never again be able to do. And these things have presented a greater need for modifications as we have progressed from doing Level ½ DAREBEE workouts to Level 3 workouts.

    The biggest issue is that my mother's feet are messed up. She has had multiple surgeries on them. She was told as a child that she had hammered toes and that nothing could be done for them. Her family just accepted this diagnosis. So my mother never had any kind of treatment to correct the problem until, as an adult, things got so bad that podiatrists started recommending surgeries involving shaving down bones and removing toe joints. As you can see from my lists of supplementary workouts above, I do foot and ankle strengthening and mobility work with my mother every day. I think the ankle strengthening work is important. But my mother has not seen any gains in foot mobility and to a large extent she cannot gain foot mobility because she doesn't have the joints anymore which might otherwise have allowed for it.

    My mother also has issues with wrist mobility. She's not had any surgeries or traumatic injuries there. But she does have some arthritis. So she has limited wrist flexion. We do hand and wrist strengthening and mobility work every day too, but my mother has not seen much gain in this area.

    Picture now the plank. And every exercise based on the plank. Front planks require bearing weight on toes which are in dorsiflexion. Side planks require bearing weight on the sides of one's feet. Both of these positions are problematic for my mother. Kneeling planks take the feet out of the equation, but my mother says they hurt her knees. She also hates having any weight at all on the tops of her feet (including the weight of her own feet in a prone or kneeling position). Planks are also a problem for my mother's wrists because of the wrist extension required in a high plank. For most static planks, a forearm option is available which eliminates the wrist flexion issue. Dumbbells can be used to reduce wrist issues with push-ups and other exercises which require maintaining the wrists in a high plank position. But when an exercise is dynamic and involves moving in and out of the high plank position (plank rotations, shoulder taps, plank up-downs, etc.) my mother finds it too difficult to constantly release and re-grip the dumbbell handles.

    Last March when my mother was weak, I let her do wall planks and wall push-ups all the time. These she could handle. But I don't think she got much core strengthening benefit out of doing them. These days I am trying to get her to do her planks inclined on a chair. (She prefers to use the dining room table. But she's five-foot-nothing tall, so the table is not significantly different from a wall.) I think my mother's core strength is now at a level where the chair seat is at a good height for her. But because of the issue with dorsiflexing her toes, she stands too close to the chair and ends up in a piked position instead of a plank. Which pretty much eliminates the core work. She also tends to keep her shoulders well back from her wrists, because of her issue with wrist extension. Sometimes she can make gripping the sides of the chair work for her--but in a dynamic exercise which involves shifting weight side-to-side (shoulder taps, rotations, etc.), this is too unstable.

    Recently we encountered the Full Circuit Day 7 workout. I tried to get my mother to do the work kneeling. But with the difficulties in finding a kneeling position that her knees and feet can tolerate and the need to transition dynamically between front and side plank positions throughout the workout, this was just not possible. Finally we decided she would substitute Crescent Moon for the side planks, a simple halfway forward fold but with arms extended overhead for the front planks, and Warrior III for the leg-lifted front planks. I realize Warrior III and the halfway-fold-with-reach positions are more posterior chain work than the abdominal work of a plank. But the abs should be engaged too, at least as stabilizers. (My abs are certainly engaged when I do those poses.) This was the best sequence I could come up with to enable my mother to follow the flow of the workout and more-or-less work the same muscle groups.

    What do you think, oh wise bees of the Hive? Do you have other suggestions for exercise modifications we could try that would enable my mother to continue to progress with her training in a body whose joints (or lack thereof) simply cannot keep up with the gains in strength her muscles are making? Have you encountered any products which could make kneeling more accessible to my mother? (I'm wondering if yoga knee pads could work for her. She can handle kneeling in pointer position since we got her a 2" thick tumbling mat. But kneeling with her weight forward in a plank position is still a no-go, even on the thick mat.) What about push-up handles? Are they substantially easier to use than dumbbells? Are they stable enough to use on a chair? Any other suggestions?

    The only thing that I can think of is maybe to do the plank partially on a sofa, or some other soft surface. I understand that you are trying to build your mom's core strength, so I think small amount of strain is going to be all that is needed. Just try taking the cushions off of a sofa and have her do the planks off the side of them?


      Your mum is fookin awesome.
      I would bin all planks and go with crunches.
      Sitting up straight is a core exercise, as is standing and walking.
      I would focus on what exactly will improve her quality of life. Have fun and move more.

      done any Tai chi or qi gong? Good gentle flow movement systems.

      You and you're mum are awesome. X


        There's whats called a reverse plank.


          you could go to home depot (or something like it) and either purchase knee-pads (like for laying tile or carpet) or buy the closed cell foam pads they call them kneeling pads or sitting pads.
          I keep two in my work truck. I think the closed cell foam pads are also sold at walmart in the camping/folding chair area for the outdoors section.
          They might feel better on your moms knees or the tops of her feet.
          I think you and your mom are real impressive, keep up the work.
          My mom turns 90 this year and she still does her jack-LaLane morning work outs but she has some mobility issues as well.
          I am going to pass along some of your ideas from darebee and see if she likes them.


            The best variation I see is to raise the support point of the elbows/hands. You already know: on a table or bench, against the wall, etc, to decrease the weight over all weak points.

            Congrats both of you. Really impressed.


              Thank you CaptainCanuck Rathgar thinman Evil Elvis Cabriel for your suggestions.

              CaptainCanuck the cushions don't come off our sofas. And the sofas are on felt pads so they can be pushed around easily on our hardwood floors. Which means they're not that good for planking against because they will shift easily. It is a good idea to consider other furniture options, however. I have an ottoman storage box that is stable and certainly will not slide around if I place it partially on the end of my mother's yoga mat. It won't solve the problems with my mother's feet, but it would make plank rotations, etc., more accessible, because the ottoman won't tip.

              Rathgar thank you. I am pretty impressed with my mother myself for sticking with our workouts all this time. I'm impressed with myself too for sticking with training her.
              I'm not looking to eliminate planks from our workouts. The musculature that supports our trunks is complex, and different exercises utilize that musculature in different ways. I think it is helpful, therefore, to practice a wide range of exercises, in order to produce the greatest benefits to functional fitness. Also: my mother would get bored with just doing the same few exercises all the time, as would I.

              My mother was practising Tai Chi with a group of her senior friends pre-pandemic. Over the summer she got together with them a few times to practice outside in a park. That's not a viable option where we live in January, so her Tai Chi group is off the table again, at least for now. She does have a video of the forms she practices somewhere. Every now and then she talks about getting it out and doing some Tai Chi at home. But this has not happened yet. My mother needs some kind of external motivating force to get her out of her La-z-boy and moving. This is the whole reason why I started working out with her in the first place. The whole point is to improve her quality of life by getting her to move more!

              thinman we've not encountered reverse planks in our workouts together yet. That forearm version would be a good option for my mother though, at some point down the road. (I'm pretty sure her wrists would not tolerate a straight-armed reverse plank, which is how I would normally do the exercise.) For now, if a workout did call for reverse planks, I would have my mother do bridges. She's not strong enough for a full reverse plank yet.

              Evil Elvis cheers to your Mom! That is great that she is still working out!
              It's a good idea to check out camping and home improvement supplies for knee padding. The yoga knee pads look quite comfy, but also are small. Something designed for gardening or camping would be larger and probably more useful for the more dynamic work.

              Cabriel thank you.


                I was thinking about this last night some more, but I'm not sure I have a practical solution.
                I was thinking that if your mom could support her legs just above the feet with something like a yoga block so that her feet don't have to take the weight.
                Maybe a small box with a foam pad, etc
                I'm not sure this would really work, but it could take the pressure off her feet, but might cause more pain on her ankle or shin.
                Just a weird thought that I had and just wanted to pass along for consideration.


                  That is a good idea, Evil Elvis . I think it would have to be something smaller and/or softer than a yoga block, and it would affect the pressure on her knees too, so I may need to combine it with extra padding there. We have used a cushion under her ankles for prone work. She's been okay without one for pointer positions, since we got her the thick tumbling mat. For kneeling plank positions, perhaps extra padding under her knees that also extended under her shins and ankles would be helpful. (Then there'd be less pressure on the tops of her toes because they'd be elevated.) Somewhere out there is the right tool for this job. I just need to figure out what it is. I still think camping/outdoor leisure departments could be a good place to look.