Getting Serious With Planks
by Dean Somerset T-Natiobn
Here's what you need to know...
A plank should be a very intense, full body contraction that lasts only 8-10 seconds, not some bastardized version of a yoga pose you sustain for 10 minutes.
Lifters and athletes who do planks tend to be a lot stronger and move better, plus they have better abs.
Some exercises are direct representations of a plank position, so hitting up a plank beforehand is very helpful, such as planks before push-ups and side planks before lunges.
Planks are special. The more you do them, the more they seem to make everything else you do in the gym better. Whether you're trying to smash a PR in a big lift, recover from a back injury, get faster on the field, or simply get better abs, planks can help.
Unfortunately, planks get a bad rap for being a wussy exercise. All you do is hang out there, motionless, until you get bored. No big weights, no mind-numbing intensity, no big sex appeal for any hotties looking your way.
If this sums up your feelings on the exercise, odds are your planking skills are in need of a serious overhaul. Let's break down how to do a plank for maximum benefits; how planks can be used to increase your total weight lifted with compound movements; and how planks can be used to increase flexibility through the hips and shoulders.
Like I said, they do everything.
What a Plank Isn't
Poor plank position stems from poor spinal positioning through the movement, where the individual either excessively sticks his butt out or excessively rounds his back.
When the butt is sticking up, the main stabilizers are the lumbar erector spinae and hip flexor complex, not necessarily the entire core. When the upper back is rounded, the main focus of the movement is on the neck and shoulders versus the abs.
A 2010 study by Tse and colleagues showed that rounding of the back can increase abdominal activity and prolong the ability to do a plank without increasing the activity of the muscles. That, of course, makes perfect sense.
Most people treat the plank more as a marathon, seeing how long they can hold a position, most of the time topping out at a minute or three, all while exhibiting the same amount of intensity needed to casually flip through a magazine conveniently placed under their nose during the exercise.
If you can do anything other than focus on not blacking out while performing a plank, you're doing them wrong.
What a Plank Is
A plank is a perfect example of total body tension and co-contractive forces. It's a battle of near-maximal contractile strength from all areas (shoulders, abs, glutes, low back and quads) to produce a steel beam in human form, able to withstand any external forces.
About a year ago, I did a guest seminar in New York at Peak Performance, in which I had fellow T Nation contributor Dan Trink volunteer to demonstrate a plank. After altering his position slightly to get the most stable alignment possible, I had another trainer stand on his back to show how rigid he was, all while he breathed in a relatively comfortable yet tensed manner as instructed.
How did he do this? Is he some sort of Cirque du Soleil freak? Nah. A study by Maeo and his colleagues in 2013 showed that the bracing action of planking preferentially activated the internal obliques over the other core muscles, which is different from most other core-directed exercises that seem to preferentially activate the rectus abdominis. This utilization of deep core muscles thus helps to prevent the spine from deforming in the presence of external loads, as Dan can attest to.
To do a solid plank, lie down on the ground on your stomach and support your upper body with your elbows. Squeeze your shoulders in a kind of reverse shrug, pulling them tight to your ribs. Then, flex your glutes and straighten your knees as hard as possible, and lever up into a position where you feel you have balanced tension everywhere.
Now try to contract everything harder without changing position and focus on forceful inhalation and exhalation for the duration of the plank. Keep your neck neutral (no looking up or letting your head drop below your chest) and keep as tight as humanly possible.
This is a standard RKC plank, which shows the best example of maximal co-contraction of all elements that feed into core strength and spinal stability.
One underutilized aspect of the plank is breathing. Deep, forceful breathing plays as big of a role in total core activation as anything else. Martial artists use this principle to their advantage, with forceful grunts, yells, or Bruce Lee like noises during striking. This increases core activation and provides a stronger spine from which to produce power, which allows for stronger strikes.
This was confirmed in (2013) by Ha, et al., when they showed diaphragmatic deep breathing increases transverse activity and internal oblique activity during a plank. Likewise MacDonald et al., showed significant increases in muscle activity in the transverse and internal oblique during powerful singing in trained singers, proving an increased activation during forceful exhalation.
Planks for Lifting Big Weights
This increased utilization of core muscles to produce stability is awesome as a parlor trick to allow people to stand on your back, but it can also translate into increased strength and power development.
Using a front plank before heavy deadlifts or back squats as a part of an active warm-up can help increase core muscle activation and activity overall, which can help translate into bigger lifts.
Anecdotally, using this approach with my athletes has resulted in a noticeable increase in weight lifted from one set to the next in a fairly consistent manner. This could be from an increased neural firing rate into the core muscles to help hit higher thresholds during max lifts, increasing awareness of core firing, or simply warming the area up like warming up a car on a cold morning.
To use planks effectively to increase lifting capacity, use the following system:
Do your normal warm-up, whether that means cardio, foam rolling, etc.
Do progressive warm-ups with the main exercise, where you gradually increase the weight used over multiple sets before getting to your working weight.
Between each of these warm-up sets, hit up 3 "reps" of an 8-10 second max effort plank, spending some focus on getting deep forceful inhalation and exhalations.
Rest for about 5 seconds between reps and go into the next one.
Start your workout.
Can you hold a plank for longer? Sure. You can also run farther than a 100-meter sprint, but probably not at the same intensity, and the results will be somewhat different depending on how long you decide to do it. For strength, stability, and force production, keep them short, hard, and repeated.
Planks for Improving Mobility
An area that's unstable will steal stability from other areas to prevent damage. For example, if the low back is unstable, the hips will tense up to provide some level of stability through fascial interconnections with the tissues of the low back. The hip will have limited mobility until the stability is restored to the lumbar spine.
Here's a video of the process in action. The main complaint of the trainee shown was chronic low-level low-back pain and hip flexor tension with pretty much everything.
From working with a few hundred clients in similar situations, I've found that reductions in hip external rotation tends to correlate to anterior core instability, while reductions in internal rotation tends to correlate to lateral core instability. Front and side planks, when used appropriately, seem to provide fairly immediate results in these situations.
So how do you know if you have a restriction in either direction? Think about your deadlift position, specifically during a sumo stance setup. If you stand with your toes under the rings on the knurling and you can't get your knees to form a straight line without your hips and feet versus caving into a valgus position, you may be restricted through external rotation.
Another way to check is to see if you can do a Cossack squat to any real depth, with the leg extended and both toes and knee pointing to the sky.
If this is the case, try some additional sets of front planks and see if your mobility improves. Some people will show very dramatic and immediate improvements while others will show just minor improvements, depending on what the cause of the restriction is and if there are any structural alterations from injury or degeneration.
For internal rotation, you could use a simple squat mobility drill I use with my clients, focusing on dropping one knee to the ground while in a squat position.
You can pair this with external rotation (as shown) as well.
If the internal rotation is limited, try hitting a few sets of side plank before re-testing to see if it improved anything. Focus on alignment so that your feet, knees, hips, chest, and head are all in a straight line not rotating back or forward and so that you can breathe deeply and forcefully.
Planks for Accessory Movements
Some movements are direct representations of a plank position, and therefore hitting up a plank beforehand is very helpful. A push-up is essentially a moving plank. One major downfall a lot of people have during their push-up is a lack of lumbar stability (often seen in a sick low back arch), or an upper back rounding that would make Quasimodo feel a bit better about his condition.
A plank can help learn the positioning required to correct both of these issues, which will then allow you to feel the push-up where you should: the triceps, pecs, and delts. If you do a set of push-ups and feel your neck or low back doing all the work, you're doing something wrong.
Lunges are another accessory movement that benefit from side plank work before your set. Since most people tend to have stability issues in the frontal plane during a set of lunges, throwing in a set of 3 (10 seconds per side) can have a big impact on how well the core fires up during the point of contact with the floor after the step, which then keeps you from having to explain to everyone in the gym why you just fell down and can't get up.
Get Your Plank On
Strength training is all about increasing your ability to generate force. Using an exercise like a plank before high force exercises can help to warm up the muscles, nervous system, and stabilization system to help you produce more power through your extremities.
Use this system of planking hard, forceful contractions paired with forceful inhalation and exhalation for reps of 8-10 seconds and see what happens with your main lifts. It may make all the difference in the world.
Ha et al (2013). "A Normal Breathing Pattern is Important for an Effective Abdominal Hollowing Maneuver in Healthy People: An Experimental Study." J Sport Rehabil. 2013 Aug 12.
MacDonald et al (2012). "An investigation of abdominal muscle recruitment for sustained phonation in 25 healthy singers." J Voice. 2012 Nov;26(6):815.e9-16.
Tse et al (2010). "Trunk Muscle Endurance Tests: Effect of Trunk Posture on Test Outcome" JSCR: December 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 12 - pp 3464-3470.