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Smart Core Training Week 4 - The Side Plank

I’m back today with week 4 of my Smart Core Training series! In the first three weeks, I went over some details on the efficacy of using exercises like the Pallof press, the curl-up, and the bird dog to enhance core stability while at the same time sparing the spine.

If you recall, there are four categories of core training that should be in your exercise program, and they must be balanced in order to have a good core training program – rotational stability exercises, anterior core exercises, posterior core exercises, and lateral core exercises.

We’ve hit on some good core exercises for the first three categories in weeks 1-3, and now in week 4 it’s time to look at one of the best exercises for training the fourth category – the lateral core.

When talking about the lateral core, we’re really focusing in on the quadratus lumborum (QL), the lateral obliques (internal and external obliques), the latissimus dorsi and the transverse abdominis. All of these muscles play crucial roles as spine stabilizers.

Now, if you’ve never heard of some of these muscles, or you’re not sure where they are located, here’s a couple pictures to give you a better idea.

As you can see, the quadratus lumborum and the transverse (or transversus) abdominis (more commonly referred to as the TA) are deeper muscles that really serve as spinal stabilizers.

The internal and external obliques are muscles on the side of the core which run in a diagonal fashion and more or less perpendicular to each other, with the external obliques overlying the internal obliques. The obliques not only serve to create lateral and rotational movement at the core, but even more importantly, they resist excessive lateral movement and rotation by kicking in to stabilize and prevent unwanted motion.

Finally, the latissimus dorsi – more commonly referred to as the lat – gets a lot of love when it comes to shoulder exercises like lat pulldowns or pull-ups/chin-ups. However, the lat doesn’t just work to pull things down or pull the body up. It’s also a very important stabilizing muscle on the lateral and posterior aspect of the core.

Unfortunately, many people try to hit these muscles in a strength training program by performing different variations of twisting crunches and sit-ups, as well as various side bending exercises against gravity or against external resistance. As you hopefully know full well by now, any exercise that incorporates repeated bending and twisting of the torso is not a good option for spine health.

So, how do we effectively train these muscles while also sparing the spine? The side plank.

The side plank allows us to round out our complete core training program by getting good activation of the lateral core muscles while still sparing the spine from excessive load, just like the other exercises we’ve covered.

Side planks may not be all that flashy, but they serve as an excellent way to activate some key core muscles to stabilize the spine, while not overloading the spine. Again, our focus with core training should not be on flexing and extending the lateral core muscles by twisting or side bending, but instead our focus should be on creating a good isometric contraction in the side plank which trains the core muscles to stabilize around the spine.

There are a few variations to the side plank, and ways that we can make it either easier or more challenging. I give you a few options for progressing or regressing the side plank to your level in the following video:

To summarize the side plank:

What is it?

The side plank is a good option for training the muscles of the lateral core for stability. These muscles – including the quadratus lumborum, the internal and external obliques, the latissimus dorsi, and the transverse abdominis – play a crucial role in stabilizing the spine, particularly when it comes to lateral forces and rotational forces.

How much?

As with many of the other exercises we’ve gone over so far, the side plank should be done in short isometric holds. I like to start with sets of three 10-sec holds per side and progress from there. The way to build challenge and endurance isn’t to hold it for as long as possible, but rather to perform more sets of 10-sec holds. We can potentially progress the amount of sets and reps as much as needed to continue challenging the core, within reason.

How often?

Training lateral core stability should be part of a weekly routine, so at least once a week. The side plank could be done more often, but the pressure on the shoulders from holding the body up on a single arm can prove problematic if overdone.

I typically prefer to work the side plank and other lateral core stability exercises into a routine once a week. Paired with the other three categories of core stability exercises throughout the training week, this makes for a complete core training routine.

That's it for the side plank, but stay tuned for the next article in which I dive into some core exercise progressions to increase the level of challenge in each of the four categories of core training!

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