Bodyweight Essential : The Plank

The pull-up & push-up exercises are without question two of the premiere movements in fitness. They remain a staple in building lean muscle and strengthening the upper body. Although not definite but if a third exercise were to follow the aforementioned movements, it’ll be the plank. Arguably the most universally preferred choice for developing the core and abdominals, the plank has been around for years and is as ancient as the squat. Planking requires virtually no equipment and can literally be performed anywhere thus making it a favorite for working the abs amongst many fineness enthusiasts.

The simplest way to get into a plank position is by first getting into a push-up position. From there, bend your elbows to 90-degrees and ensure that your shoulders are directly above your elbows. With your weight resting on your forearms and your legs fully extended, the exercise commences by holding that position for as long as possible. Ensure that there’s alignment from your head through your shoulder blades, butt and feet. The plank is an anti-extension exercise which means the lumbar spine will naturally want to ‘sag’ or go into lumbar extension and you have to resist it for the movement to be effective.

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When performed correctly, the plank develops the rectus abdominis, anterior core stabilizers, lumbar spine, quadriceps, glutes and shoulders. It requires major involvement of the shoulder girdle thereby making it difficult for those with preexisting shoulder pain. Individuals with chronic shoulder pain should seek out regressed versions of this movement (more on that later). Different metric standards exist for the plank making it difficult to determine what hold time is considered ideal. Some older individuals may not be able to hold a 1-minute plank while a 25-year old female could easily hold a 2-minute plank. As a rule of thumb, hold your plank for as long as possible and until your abs and shoulder start to burn.

For those interested in some challenge and competition, the world record for the longest plank belongs to Mao Weidong of China with a time of 4 hours 26 minutes and was set in September 2014.

If you enjoy doing the plank and would like to add some new challenges, here are a few progressions:

1. Body Saw Plank: This progression of the plank requires a TRX, stability ball or gliders. Set up the way you would for a regular plank but with your feet and legs placed on top or attached to either of the aforementioned accessories. From that position, glide your entire body back as far as possible while keeping your forearms stationary and then glide it forward as far possible again. If using a stability ball, the forearms should be mounted on a bench with legs extended on the ball. The advantage of the body saw plank is that it’s quick and it eliminates what could potentially be a long hold time. This is ideal for individuals pressed for time.

2. Plank on a Stability Ball: The unstable surface of a stability ball presents a unique challenge. Going from planking on the floor to planking on an unstable surface proprioceptively forces the body to adapt to new demands. Balance and motor control are enhanced thus forcing the abdominal muscles to react in a way it never did with the conventional plank. Variations include legs on ball/hands fully extended on the floor, forearms on ball/feet on the ground, hands fully extended on ball/feet on the ground and forearms on bench/legs extended on ball. Due to the advanced nature of this exercise, many people will have a hard time mastering it initially. Take your time in perfecting the old-fashioned plank before adding this progression to your routine.

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3. Lifting One Leg/One Arm Up: This is a very challenging progression of the plank so it must be carefully performed. This progression is performed by either lifting one leg up or one arm so you’re planking on only 3 of your 4 limbs. To plank on leg, simply lift either your left or right leg just a few inches off the ground. A higher lift will result in more gluteal activation. To plank on one arm, take one hand off the ground and extend it in front of your or place it on your opposite shoulder. The latter requires the hands to be fully extended. With either progression, the body will naturally want to rotate and you must resist falling to one side. The anti-rotation component coupled with anti-extension makes this progression ideal for strengthening the entire abdominal region.

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4. Plank Push-Up: This creative plank progression combines a traditional plank and a push up making it a great bang-for-your-buck choice for effectively targeting the abdominals, chest, triceps  and anterior deltoid. To perform this exercise, assume a plank position. From there, extend both your elbows one at a time until you’re in a full push-up position. Reverse the actions by bending both of your elbows and return to a plank. You can alternate hands or continually push off the same hand, though the former is more effective because both arms will be put to work. Intensity can be measured in reps (from plank position to push-up is 1 rep) or timed.

For those dealing with chronic shoulder pain, planking on a bench can be just as effective as planking on the floor. While holding until the abs begin to get a good burn is always recommended, the exercise should be discontinued if the shoulder region begins to flare up. Individuals with torn shoulder labrums and rotator cuff injuries should be especially conscious of this. This regression is also ideal for beginners who lack adequate core strength.

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If you routinely perform planks and have never done any of the progressions, trying adding some of them to your workouts. Most plank variations can be done anywhere which means you can do them in the office on a quick break or at home during a TV commercial break of your favorite shows. Exercises like Deadlift, Squat and Overhead Press can improve plank strength and hold time because of the recruitment of the lumbar muscles in the aforementioned exercises. It’s no surprise that individuals who are great at planking also perform compound movements.

I’ll talk about the side plank (the sister exercise to the traditional plank) on another post.

 

5 Nontraditional Ways To Workout With Minimal Gym Equipment

By now we know that in order to lose weight, build lean muscle and get strong, resistance training has to be routinely performed. For many of us who resistance train, barbell and dumbbell exercises form the foundation of our workouts and rightfully so. However, there are some of us who may not always have access to a gym to perform a barbell squat or deadlift. Furthermore, there are also people who have to travel for work so much that they end up spending more time in hotels than at their homes.

Not having access to a gym can be discouraging for fitness enthusiasts and while a hotel gym is encouraging for those who travel a lot, many of them lack the basic equipment. The good news is that resistance training can be performed and even made challenging without the use of barbells, cable machines and dumbbells.

Here are 5 nontraditional ways to resistance train:

1. BODYWEIGHT TRAINING : This is unquestionably the easiest and simplest way to workout the body because all you need is your bodyweight and decent amount of room. The human body is designed to move in a plethora of directions and planes so multi-planar movements are made available. Keep in mind that in order to illicit a good physiological response from bodyweight exercises (Here’s my top 10 list), a structured program which allows for supersets, progressions and a short amount of rest is recommended. For example, if you can easily do 20 push-ups with minimal effort, try progressing to both feet elevated on a bench or lift one leg up.

Sample Bodyweight Training Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Bodyweight Squat

A2) Push-Up

A3) Plank

B1) Reverse Lunge

B2)  Pull/Chin Up (If no access to a bar, then substitute for Scapular Wall Slide)

B3) Side Bridge

C1) Burpees

C2) Jumping Jacks

2) TRX SUSPENSION TRAINING : TRX training has become a mainstream phenomenon and it’s here to stay. Just like bodyweight training, TRX training can be done virtually anywhere, however it allows for more progressions and challenges than bodyweight training. What I like about the TRX is that nearly all the exercises force the core musculature to work a little harder than in a traditional setting because the body will always try to resist movement in every plane.

Sample TRX Workout: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) TRX Squat OR Single Leg Squat OR Overhead Squat

A2) TRX Push Up

B1) TRX Bulgarian Split Squat

B2) TRX Inverted Row

C1) TRX Roll-Out

C2) TRX Mountain Climbers

3) KETTLEBELL TRAINING : Although Kettlebells have been around for quite some time and a bit popular than the TRX, it appears that the only exercise I see most Kettlebell users do is the Kettlebell Swing. The Swing is by far the most popular KB exercise and a great one too. But there are  a multitude of exercises that can be performed with the KB. It’s important to know that handling of a KB requires thorough practice and possibly  coaching so if you’re unfamiliar with some movements, take time in learning the nuances first.

Sample Kettlebell Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) KB Front Squat (Unilateral or Bilateral; If Unilateral, perform the same number of reps on other side)

A2) KB Row (45-degree trunk hinge. Unilateral or Bilateral; If Unilateral, perform the same number of reps on other side)

B1) KB Single-Leg RDL (Contralateral)

B2) KB Push Press (Unilateral)

C1) KB Clean

C2) KB Swings

4) RESISTANCE BANDS :  Another inexpensive way to workout from a nontraditional perspective is the use of bands. Although the resistance bands with handles are the most popular, other versions like the thera-band and monster bands also exists. The resistance and monster bands allow for the most variety. Bands have the biomechanical advantage of constantly keeping tension in the muscles due to the elastic nature of them. This tension inevitably puts more emphasis on the concentric portion on the lift because it discourages you from relaxing or resting too long during the eccentric phase.

Sample Resistance Band Workout: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Band-Resisted Squat

A2) Band-Resisted Push-Up

B1)  X-Band Walk

B2) 1-Arm Band Row

C1)  Band-Resisted Trunk Twist

C2) Band-Resisted Plank

5) GLIDERS: If you’re unfamiliar with this accessory, it looks just like one of those plastic plates you eat from at barbecues and cookouts. In fact, glider training can be successfully substituted with paper plates and they work on just about any floor surface. However smooth, bumpy-free concrete floors allow for the most rhythm and variety. The unique challenge with glider training is that you’re forced to work a little harder during the concentric phase because your feet and hands must drag or move the glider each time.

Sample Glider Training Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Glider Alternating Reverse Lunge

A2) Glider Push-Up Fly (Modified or Regular)

B1) Glider Supine Hamstring Curl (Unilateral or Bilateral)

B2) Glider Prone Crunch

C1) Glider Bodysaw

C2) Glider Mountain Climbers

 

  • Make sure you warm-up the body dynamically and via some soft-tissue work to promote the flow of blood and oxygen to working muscles.
  • Notice I did not include specific number of reps because I want you to use good  judgement in determining that for yourself. If you perform 15 bodyweight squats on your first set and feel little to no challenge, perhaps you should perform 20 on your next set.
  • Because you won’t be doing any max effort work, keep your rest time between exercises and sets as minimal as possible. I recommend no longer than 90 seconds.
  • Another great way to make nontraditional training challenging is by documenting your workouts. This allows you to set new challenges and prevent you from regressing. For example if you rested 75 seconds between your TRX sets in week 1, increase the challenge by resting for 60 seconds in week 2.