The Plank - Effective Core Training
The core in it's simplest form is designed to stabilise the spine through movement. Although the spine can flex (e.g. sit ups) and slightly extend (e.g. dorsal raises), it's not a desired movement within sport and physical activity. Generally speaking...
Why? Because this increases stress on the spine if we are entering poor positions, especially while moving or taking impacts.
When performing core exercises, we want to make them tough in order to create an adaptation (a.k.a get stronger!), but they must be done in good positions. For example when performing a plank, is the spine in a neutral position? Are the glutes and abdominals braced to create a strong stable position?
In my experiences the majority of people perform the plank exercise incorrectly and end up overloading the lower back. So how we do correct this and perform the plank effectively? The following images will break down the plank exercise and explain how to do it correctly.
Plank Image 1 – Lordotic Plank
Image 1 above shows a common fault within the plank. The hips are too low, causing the spine to move into extension. Therefore the abdominal muscles can't be contracting fully, this is also likely to overload the lower back and could cause injury over time.
Plank Image 2 – Flexed Plank
This image shows another fault which is regularly seen when performing the plank. This time the hips are too high, although less hazardous than the previous image, the abdominals are once again not contracting effectively. This is due to the hips being flexed and their limbs being closer to their centre of mass.
Plank Image 3 – Neutral Plank
This is the correct way to perform the plank exercise. The hips should remain stable throughout the exercise, abdominals and glutes should be activated to create the correct position of the pelvis and stress the appropriate muscles. This is even more important when the exercise is progressed, for example in the video below we show 3 progressions from the standard plank exercise shown above.
There is only so long you can hold a plank for before 1) you start getting very bored and 2) it's taking a long time to reach the stage where the muscle is getting fatigued and therefore damaged in order to create an adaptation. We can speed this process up by increasing the difficulty and reducing the time needed to complete the exercise.
The above video includes 3 plank variations, each variation is increasing in difficulty. The first exercise is called a plank leg raise, followed by straight arm plank shoulder taps, and finally the plank and reach exercise.
Planks are great for challenging the core muscles, however they are primarily challenging the abdominals isometrically (this means the muscles are not shortening or lengthening, and therefore remaining the same length). We also believe that the lower back plays a large role in keeping the bridge position due to the exercise being in a prone position.
Alternative exercises which challenge the core in different ways are displayed in the video below. Deadbugs and aleknas primarily challenge the lower abdominals during hip flexion and extension. These exercises are great for stressing the core muscles through movement while keeping the spine in a neutral position. This means the lower back shouldn't be arching as the legs extend. Plate woodchops are also a great rotational based exercise to challenge the core, however mainly focusing on the obliques.
This video includes 3 alternative core exercises to the plank. Personally these are some of my favourite core exercises. The first one is the deadbug mentioned above, followed by aleknas which are a progression, and finally the plate woodchop exercise for core rotation.