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.

 

The truth and science behind abdominal training

Abdominal training is just as polarizing and controversial a topic as abortion is in our country. Almost everyone has a different opinion and it always tend to spark big debates (I had one yesterday with a buddy of mine). Our abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique) are designed to assist us in trunk flexion, rotation and side bending. They also provide stability to our trunk and keep it rigid.

We engage our abs unknowingly most of the time when running most of our daily errands so our gym ab work shouldn’t have to be too long. Walk into any gym in your neighborhood and chances are half the people in there are training their abs via endless sets and repetitions. They are arguably the most obsessively trained muscle group in commercial gyms and health clubs today. But according to research and practical theory, we only should be training our abs with a select few exercises.

The following 4 categories of abdominal training will make your ab work at the gym more efficient and effective:

1. ANTI-EXTENSION EXERCISES: These are exercises in which you try to resist the trunk from going into lumbar extensions. The Plank, Pike and Roll-Out are some examples. In all 3 exercises,  the lumbar spine naturally wants to ‘sink low’ but you have to make sure your don’t arch’ your back or let your hips dip to low into lumbar extension. This resistance from you makes anti-extension exercises a staple in abdominal training.

2. ANTI-LATERAL FLEXION EXERCISES: These exercises cause the resistance against tilting, side-bending or lateral flexion of the trunk. Barbell Rainbows, Suitcase Deadlift and Waiter’s Walk are some of the popular ones. In all exercises, you have to keep your trunk stabilized and rigid to avoid tilting laterally. The resistance provided by you causes contraction in the abdominals and oblique muscles.

3. ANTI-ROTATION EXERCISES: The Pallof Press (all variations), renegade rows and 1-arm plank variations are best choices in this category. The Pallof Press may be the most effective, as it also activates the shoulder girdle and hip abductors. Again, naturally the trunk and hip want to rotate and you have to resist against those rotational forces. The Barbell Rainbow is also an anti-rotation exercise.

4. HIP FLEXION EXERCISES: Hanging leg raises, reverse crunch and prone jackknife are the ideal choices here. Unlike the first 3, where stability is the challenge, these exercises traditionally contract the abs eccentrically and concentrically. The hip flexors, the muscles responsible for bringing the knees and trunk together (psoas and iliacus), are the primary movers of these exercises. These exercises usually create a much more quicker ‘burn effect’ on the abs than the above 3 so people tend to perform them more often.

WARNING: Too much hip flexion exercises can tighten the hip flexors thereby leading to chronic pains and even injuries. This is even riskier for those with desk jobs who sit for an extended period of time. Because we already use our hip flexors when we walk, climb stairs and bend over, the objective here should be to try and limit their involvement as much as possible when we train our abs.

Keep in mind, abdominal training should not be confused with core training. Although both of their training modalities overlap, one can have a sculpted set of abdominals but also have a weak core. Having washboard abs is a result and testament of genetic potential, diet and lifestyle management. Development of a strong core is based on the ability to resist forces against the lumbar spine and hip complex. Powerlifters with pot and beer bellies and athletes possess some of the strongest core musculature. Powerlifters have to resist stability forces in complex movements like the squat, clean and jerk, deadlift and overhead press while athletes are constantly resisting lateral and rotational stability forces in their sports.

I hope I was able to shed some light on abdominal training. You don’t need to be spending endless amounts of time training your abs. Depending on your training schedule, select 1 or 2 exercises from each category listed above and perform them at a challenging effort level. 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps will suffice. Remember, a clean and solid diet will ultimately determine how sculpted your abs will get.

Here’s a sample ab routine for a person who trains 4 days a week:

DAY 1: Anti-Extension (Plank : 3 sets of a challenging hold time)

DAY 2: Anti-Rotation (Pallof Press: 3 sets x 15-25 seconds hold per side)

DAY 3: Hip Flexion (Reverse Crunches: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)

DAY 4: Anti-Lateral Flexion (Suitcase Deadlift: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)