The Med Gym
Smart Core Training Week 7 - The Plank
In week 7 of Smart Core Training, we go back to an anterior core stability exercise, and one that is quite popular – the plank.
In week 4, we overviewed the side plank, a great lateral core stability exercise. The front plank offers a similar challenge to the core musculature as the side plank, but it serves to challenge the anterior core to engage and resist extension at the lumbar spine.
The front plank, then, is a great progression to some of the earlier anterior core stability exercises we looked at in the curl-up and dead bug. Like those earlier exercises, the goal is to engage the muscles of the anterior core and resist unwanted motion. However, the front plank increases the challenge by moving into a position where you must work against gravity, rather than having the back supported on the ground.
Because it involves the challenge of holding against gravity, the plank is an excellent way to work the muscles of the anterior core, but it also presents a greater opportunity for cheating and compensating away from the very muscles we’re trying to train.
It’s that cheating and compensating away from the proper position that I want to focus in on and attack in today’s article and video! Why? Because if you’re cheating and compensating your way through the plank, then you’re really cheating yourself out of the benefits of the exercise.
Once again, my main focus is to help you develop better core strength and stability, with a primary focus on spine health and optimizing your movement. The focus is not on building a better 6-pack, or testing the limits of what your core can handle.
Unfortunately, when it comes to an exercise like the plank, the majority of what is presented in the world of social media and the mainstream media is how you can use the plank to build that 6-pack, and test the limits of your endurance. The problem in presenting the plank in this way is that it gives everyone the impression that that is how it should be used.
In reality, the quality of your plank is much more important than the quantity when it comes to bettering your core function to protect the spine and ultimately move and perform better.
Now, you’ve probably heard of “5-Minute Plank Challenges” and the “World Record Plank Hold of 8 hours and 15 minutes”, but there’s a problem here that most people don’t recognize.
The problem is one of quality over quantity. In our culture, we tend to be impressed with quantity a lot more than quality in many ways. However, when it comes to training your body, especially core training, I argue that we need to increase the focus on quality over quantity.
The big problem with the media and social media popularity of things like the 5-minute plank challenge, and the world record plank hold time is that we tend to put the length of time you can hold a plank on a pedestal.
Unfortunately, the reality is that most people can really only hold a proper plank using the correct muscles for about 10-15 seconds at a time before needing a rest and reset.
In fact, if you look carefully at anyone attempting any sort of long plank hold, you’ll notice that even if they do set up properly and engage the muscles of the anterior core from the start (and that’s a big if!), after about 10-15 seconds they start to shift a little. Either their hips drop slightly and the arch in their back increases, or they start to pike the hips up a bit higher, or they just start moving back and forth.
Why does this happen? Well, if you are set up properly and engaging the muscles of the anterior core in a near maximal contraction, you only have about 10-15 seconds of stored ATP (that’s Adenosine Triphosphate, which is what we breakdown to supply energy for all muscular contractions) before you have to begin recycling that energy through a couple different pathways of energy recycling.
This means that you have two options. First, you can hold a near maximal effort contraction for one high-quality repetition of about 10-15 seconds, and then take a break. Or second, you can hold a suboptimal muscle contraction for longer.
So, if you’re reading this and thinking, “I can hold a plank for a minute without hardly breaking a sweat!” Then, I challenge you that you’re doing it incorrectly. Rather than just hanging out in the plank position, think about squeezing everything around your core – your glutes, your abs, your lats –as hard as you can. That’s a real plank.
If you do this properly, you won’t be able to hold it for more than about 10-15 seconds.
That’s how to optimize your core training within the plank, and I don’t know about you, but I want to optimize my core training by focusing on shorter, yet more effective plank holds.
When the focus is placed on holding the plank for a certain time, it simply becomes about survival. And, while I’m all for pushing your limits and building both mental and physical toughness, I believe it’s much better to do so while at the same time training your core properly!
That is why I always advocate for training planks for repeated 10-15 second contractions. The better way to build up endurance and strength is to perform multiple high-quality repetitions of 10-15 second planks interspersed with breaks of 2-3 seconds.
With that in mind, the next time you try a 5-minute plank challenge, try thirty 10-second planks with just a brief rest between each one. Each repetition should be focused on quality, not just survival. I can guarantee you’ll get a better core workout that way! (By the way, you probably won’t be able to do thirty high-quality 10-second planks in a row, so just start with whatever you can do!)
So, with that in mind, here’s this week’s Smart Core Training video in which I talk a bit more about these concepts and show you how to set up properly for the plank (by the way, we filmed this video for Facebook back around Christmas time, so that’s why I say “hope you had a Merry Christmas”. I know it’s not Christmas time now:p):
So, to wrap up the plank:
What is it?
The plank is a great anterior core stability exercise. Holding it for a shorter duration while focusing on better quality is the way to go with the plank. Once you have the basic plank hold down, and you can build up a fair amount of reps doing a good plank, there are many variations that you can use to further challenge it.
For example, you can perform various arm and leg lifts to add a rotary stability component to the plank. You can also progress it onto a stability ball by placing forearms on the ball to add the challenge of an unstable surface. Whichever way you progress it; the goal remains to ensure that a quality core contraction is maintained, and you don’t lose that good neutral spine position!
I think I’ve been pretty clear on how I feel about long plank holds, like 5-minute plank challenges, etc. Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to challenge yourself both physically and mentally, but when we’re talking about effective core training, holding a plank for a long time is counterproductive.
A short 10-15 second burst of near maximal engagement of the abs, glutes, and lat muscles is much more effective at training the core for strength and stability against outside forces. I would much rather have short but effective planks than long, half-effort planks with poor core control.
So, with that in mind, my general approach is to program planks into repeated short-duration reps of 10-15 seconds. It might look something like this: 3 sets of 3 or 4 reps, with each “rep” consisting of a 10-15 second hold. After the first set of 3 or 4, 10-15 second planks, we move to a different exercise, and then come back for set two.
This serves to train the core in a more effective and functional manner, as I discussed in the video.
Planks can be trained as often as desired, but I typically like to work planks into the exercise routine about once or twice per week. Of course, they can be interchanged with other anterior core exercises, so that we’re getting a good mix of challenge to the core.
In fact, the best way to program your core training is to mix higher intensity core challenges – like a max effort plank hold – with lower intensity core exercises, like a dead bug.
Evenly mixing these anterior core challenges with different posterior, lateral, and rotary core stability exercises, as we’ve been discussing throughout this series, will set you up for core training success!
That’s it for the plank today, but I’ll be back next week with week 8 of Smart Core Training!