I Got 99 Problems, But a Plank Ain’t One
I feel like core training has become as overused a term as functional training.
Just say that something is “functional” and “blasts your core” and boom, you have some silly fitness gizmo that makes bank.
It wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but as with the functional training craze, core training has been taken to the extremes.
It’s pretty much commonplace to see some poor soul attempt to do a standing mountain climber on a stability ball (if you can’t picture that, don’t try to, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen…behind The Ring, of course) or some ridiculous crunch off a pullup bar.
As with anything in America, it’s all about what’s bigger and better and more innovative.
“Forget safety, I need to be beach-ready NOW!”
Core training has become less about training the core and more about what looks the coolest and the hardest, because that surely means it’s a great exercise.
Well, if there is one thing that wasn’t meant to be taken to extremes, it’s the muscles that protect your lumbar spine.
Core training needs to be dialed back down to the basics, in order to actually give you a training effect and keep you safe.
So I wanted to use today’s post to talk about an exercise that has actually made some headway in mainstream media and that you may have done yourself a time or two;
To put it bluntly, the plank is a basic stabilization exercise for the core that, when mastered, has a strong carryover to more compound lifts, such as deadlifts, pushups, and kettlebell swings. It also does wonders for your posture and for giving you that washboard look.
And I believe these things are absolutely true…when they are done correctly.
Plus, you can do planks anywhere! I did a plank on the top of my car last week…while it was in motion!*
As with any exercise, you have to do it RIGHT to actually get the benefits of the move.
I like strength coach Dan John’s story of the guy who came to him saying that squats hurt his knees. When Coach John had the guy show him how he squatted, he remarked,
“Squats don’t hurt your knees, whatever you are doing there is hurting your knees.”
With the advent of planking in gyms around the world, I see a lot of planks that are doing a lot of low-back ouching and not so much core stabilizing.
It must be stopped!
I’m passionate about seeing planks done right because many trainees bypass this amazing exercise and go beyond what their body (namely, their low back) is capable of handling.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s time to reel things back in to the basics and re-discover an exercise that can do you a lot of aesthetic and performance good.
*totally didn’t happen, but wouldn’t that be sweet?
How to Do Planks Right
You know you are doing a plank correctly when you actually feel your core muscles working.
Actually, I will take that a step further…you will feel your WHOLE body working.
Below is a photo of a plank done right;
The good news is that perfecting your plank is not rocket-science. It just takes a few twerks, I mean tweaks, here and there.
#1: Get Your Low-Back Right
The above photo is the biggest error that I see.
In that photo, the lady is hanging on her lumbar spine and hip flexors and her core is doing a whole lot of nothing.
Not a great look (well, at least she is smiling).
This lumbar hanging happens for a number of reasons, but it’s mainly due to someone’s pre-existing postural/pelvic alignment, in addition to a lack of core stability.
For example, as I have mentioned in several posts up to now, I have a pretty wicked anterior tilt. When I do planks, I really have to focus on not letting my low-back drop, because that’s where my spine naturally likes to be.
Anyway, the best solution I have found for getting the back flattened out and the pelvis more posteriorly tilted is squeezing the heck out of the glutes.
Whenever I have a client do this, I can see the shift in their lower-back and I also see a change in their facial expression…because now they are feeling it!
I like the cue of squeezing a quarter between your cheeks. Focus on not letting the change drop!
If you have a training partner with you, have them place a stick lengthwise through your spine and focus on making contact with the back of your head, upper back, and lower back/glutes. The stick gives you an external cue that can make for very quick improvement’s in one’s technique. I use a stick quite a bit with newer clients to create that awareness.
#2: Relieve the Tension in Your Upper Back and Neck
While doing a plank correctly will generate a good amount of whole-body tension, that tension needs to be displayed pretty evenly through the body.
A big thing that I see are the planks where it looks like a baby bear is getting ready to break out the back collar of the shirt.
Have you ever seen an elite sprinter in the middle of a race look like they aren’t even working hard?
Of course, they are working their fanny off, but they have learned how to keep their bodies relaxed at peak capacity.
The easiest way to do this with a plank is to BREATHE!
I have lost count of the bright-red faces I’ve seen in the middle of a plank. If only not getting oxygen was the key to holding planks longer!
Aside from just breathing though, you need to breathe the right way. In other words, no more breathing through your chest and upper back! This is a stressful pattern for the body and resembles the breathing pattern you probably use at the desk (hence, those achy shoulders and trap tightness).
Instead, focus on breathing through your belly. This will take the stress out of your upper body and allow you to maintain a better stabilization pattern.
When you breathe through your belly, focus on expanding it out in all directions (I know, we all love to expand our stomachs, but trust me, it works).
#3: Focus on the quality of your effort, rather than the length of the set
I referenced earlier how the plank should be considered a total-body exercise.
When you are bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, flexing your quads, and driving your fists through the floor, there is no way you are going to be able to hold that sucker for very long.
And that’s ok!
Being able to do a plank for 5 minutes is really not that cool. In fact, it’s kind of boring.
It’s more fun to do absolute WORK for 10-25 seconds for multiple sets.
Think of it like a deadlift;
You probably wouldn’t do 20 straight repetitions of a deadlift, because after a certain point, it’s tough to keep good form.
To maintain quality form, you would break that 20 reps up across 4-5 sets of 5-6 reps.
Core work, in this case a plank, is no different.
To sum up;
-Brace your core like someone is going to sock you in the stomach
-Flex your quads like you’re in the middle of a heavy set of squats
-Squeeze your glutes like you have a wad of change between your cheeks
-Drive your fists through the floor…well, like you need to drive your fists through the floor.
Hold a plank like that for 2-3 sets of 10-25 seconds and you will view planks with a whole new-level of respect.
The plank is an exercise that you should be able to do very well if you hope to get the most out of your training program, whether you want to lose fat, gain muscle, increase your strength, or just be awesome.
When you master the basics, everything else seems to fall into place. Ditch the low-ab twister crunch 3000 that you read about online last week and do some planks.
It will make the world a better place.
Take the Leap,
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