Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
Targets: Total Body
The inchworm exercise offers a little bit of everything—it helps strengthen the muscles of your anterior chain (the front half of your body), while stretching the muscles of your posterior chain (the back half of your body). And because it targets your entire body in some capacity, it gets the blood flowing. This makes it an excellent move to incorporate into an active warm-up before a strength training or high-intensity interval training routine.
The movement itself ends up looking exactly like its name—an inchworm. You start standing, reach your arms down toward the ground, walk your hands away from your feet, entering a plank-like position, before stepping your feet forward toward your hands and finally returning to a standing position. You then continue the worm-like crawl for time or repetitions.
The inchworm exercise is a solid movement to add to just about any routine. Because it has the ability to strengthen and stretch different muscle groups at the same time, it’s ideally positioned to be included as part of an active warm-up, or as part of a high-intensity interval training routine.
The strengthening part of the movement comes when you’re entering, exiting, and holding the plank portion of the movement. As you step your hands forward, away from your feet, your shoulders, triceps, chest, and eventually your abdominals, the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders and hips, your glutes, and your quadriceps all engage to support your body’s weight as you enter the plank.
If you have a good baseline level of strength through these muscle groups, you’re unlikely to experience major strength gains from performing the inchworm. But because it fires up all these muscles, the exercise is perfect as a warm-up before a more taxing strength training workout.
Likewise, if you’re doing a high-intensity interval training routine, you can use the inchworm as part of your “rest” intervals to keep your heart rate up while giving your cardiovascular system a bit of a break.
The stretching part of the movement is particularly apparent as you reach your hands toward the floor and start walking them forward, and again as you walk your feet forward toward your hands. You’ll feel the stretch through your hamstrings and calves, in particular, and might also feel a slight stretch through your glutes and low back.
Also, if you perform the more challenging version of the exercise (detailed below), you may experience a slight stretch through your shoulders and chest as you walk your hands forward past the full-plank position into an extended plank. Again, incorporating the inchworm into an active warm-up is a great way to fluidly stretch the muscle groups you plan to target during your workout without performing static stretching.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of an active warm-up, and why it’s beneficial, the idea is to mentally and physically prepare your body for whatever workout you’re about to take on. So, for instance, if you’re planning on doing a lower-body strength training routine, an active warm-up would include exercises that hit the same muscle groups in the same general way as the exercises you’re going to perform during your workout, but without using added resistance.
Active warm-ups are also designed to stretch the muscle groups you’re going to target without holding a stretch for a set period of time. This type of warm-up greases the wheels for your workout and helps prevent injuries. An exercise like the inchworm is ideal because it uses only your bodyweight to target just about every major muscle group. Try incorporating it with air squats, lunges, high knees, and lateral slides before your next strength training routine.
There are two ways to do the inchworm—one involves traveling across a distance, requiring you to have at least 15 to 20 feet of space to move, and the other simply has you stay in place, requiring no more space than roughly the length of your own body.
While neither version is better or worse, the traveling version requires more engagement of your lower body, and is considered the typical version of the exercise. If you have the space available, plan on using it, and follow these step-by-step instructions. If you don’t have the space available, follow the modified version of the exercise, detailed below.
1. Stand tall, your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Check your posture—your ears should be aligned over your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles, your abdominals engaged.
2. Take a breath in, then as you exhale, look down at the ground and start reaching your hands toward the floor in front of your feet, allowing your back to bend forward, rolling down one vertebra at a time. Allow your knees to bend slightly, as needed, to enable your hands to reach the ground.
3. Place your hands on the floor in front of your feet. Inhale and walk your hands forward, one at a time, allowing your heels to lift off the floor as your body begins to straighten. When your hands are directly under your shoulders, check your form—you should be in a full plank position with your core, chest, quads, triceps, and shoulders engaged, your body forming a straight line from heels to head.
4. Keep your legs relatively straight and begin walking your feet forward, one at a time, toward your hands. This should provide a nice stretch through your hamstrings, calves, and glutes as your hips start lifting toward the ceiling. Exhale as you step forward.
5. Stop when your feet are as close to your hands as you can comfortably bring them. Remember, you can bend your knees slightly to ease the stretch on your hamstrings, but try to keep them as straight as possible.
6. Return to standing by slowly rolling your back up from the hips, straightening one vertebra at a time. Inhale as you go. When you’re back in the starting position, you’ve completed one repetition. Continue for time or repetitions, depending on your workout.
Generally speaking, any mistakes you make with the inchworm exercise are unlikely to cause major harm. The harm comes not as much in the potential for injury (although as with any physical movement, there’s always some potential for injury), but in denying yourself the full benefit of the exercise. This usually happens when you move quickly or without thought, making the exercise sloppy. Slow down, focus on engaging your entire body from head to toe, and keep each step smooth and controlled.
Moving Too Fast
Inchworms aren’t exactly known for their breakneck speed, so keep that in mind when performing the movement. Collapsing your torso quickly toward the ground as your hands reach for the floor, sprinting your hands or feet forward, or jerking your back up to stand are all good ways to potentially pull a muscle, or (more likely) miss out on the full strengthening and stretching benefits of the exercise.
Each phase of the movement should take at least a few seconds to complete. Try inhaling and exhaling to a count of six with each phase to keep the exercise slow and steady. So, exhale to a count of six as you reach your hands toward the floor. Inhale to a count of six as you step your hands forward into plank. Exhale to a count of six as you walk your feet forward toward your hands, then inhale to a count of six as you roll your torso back to standing.
Not Engaging the Core
It’s easy to forget your core when doing the inchworm, relying more on your arms and legs to support your body through each phase of the exercise. This is especially true if you’re moving too fast. The problem is you need your core to help protect your back from potential injury by preventing unwanted movement of the spine. Telltale signs that you’re not engaging your core include:
- Collapsing your back from the hips to reach your hands to the floor
- Sagging hips when you’re in the full plank position
- Yanking your torso back up to standing, primarily using the momentum from your lower body
That said, sagging hips are the most obvious of these signs if you’re doing a self-assessment. Simply watch yourself in a mirror, and if your body isn’t forming a straight line from heels to head when you enter the plank position, with your hips sagging toward the floor, then reengage your abs, drawing your belly button toward your spine to help lift the hips back to neutral alignment. Then, slow everything down, focusing on keeping your core engaged throughout the exercise.
Craning the Neck Forward
It’s common practice to want to look forward to where you’re going. So as you reach your hands to the ground, as you enter the plank position, as you start walking your feet forward, and as you rise to stand, you may be tempted to crane your neck to look ahead. Unfortunately, this throws your spine’s alignment out of whack. For most people, it’s unlikely to cause major problems, but it could lead to neck strain if you’re not careful. This is especially true if you’re moving through the movement too quickly and without control. Simply pay attention to where you’re looking throughout the exercise. If you catch yourself looking up or forward in a way that causes you to crane your neck, simply return your head to a neutral position.
Modifications and Variations
Need a Modification?
If you’re short on space or if you’re just looking for a slightly less taxing version of the inchworm, the best modification is to skip the traveling version of the exercise and simply stay in place. Your hamstrings and calves won’t get quite the same stretch as they get when you travel, and you also won’t experience quite as much of a cardiovascular impact, making it just slightly easier than the more traditional version.
To perform the modification, stand tall and start the exercise just as you normally would—roll your back and torso forward as you reach your hands to the ground. Step your hands forward until you enter a high plank position, checking to make sure your core remains engaged. When you enter the full plank, instead of stepping your feet forward toward your hands, simply reverse the movement and walk your hands backward toward your feet. When you’ve walked them back as far as you comfortably can, use your core and roll your back carefully up to standing. Continue the exercise for time or repetitions.
Up for a Challenge?
To give your upper body and core an even greater challenge, the key is to extend the plank, flattening out your body even farther than in the standard plank. The rest of the exercise remains the same. The trick here is that you have to have a strong core and shoulders to perform the movement safely, so work up to this gradually.
When you reach the plank phase of the inchworm, with your hands positioned under your shoulders, double-check that your core is engaged and your hips are aligned between your knees and shoulders. From here, step your hands farther forward, one at a time, making sure you keep your core strong and straight. Start by just taking one step forward with each hand. If that feels comfortable, keep walking your hands forward (you may need to work up to this over time), until your torso is almost touching the ground. Whenever you feel like your shoulders or core may not be able to support the exercise safely or without compromising form, stop walking your hands forward and enter the next phase of the inchworm by stepping your feet toward your hands.
Safety and Precautions
Generally speaking, the inchworm is a safe exercise for most people, especially when performed in a controlled, steady manner. That said, anyone with tight hamstrings, wrist pain, or shoulder pain, may find the exercise uncomfortable to perform. If you try the movement and it causes pain, stop the exercise and opt instead for other active warm-up exercises like walking lunges, air squats, or steadily moving between a plank and downward dog.
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