Monday, 29 March 2021

Don't be a plank - Are plank exercises the be all end all?

One of the most common core exercises you see people doing, most often encouraged by PT's, is the plank, also commonly called the bridge. It is a challenging isometric exercise and a true battle of will and determination as you fight the burn and try to hold it for as long as possible. Yet, do you really need to be doing this exercise? Is it really that effective? Honestly? Once you can easily hit the 60 second mark, it isn't. Now don't get me wrong, your bog standard plank has a place but only for beginners. Why you may ask? Well let's see...

Table of contents

Efficiency

The only real measuring stick of a plank is how long you can hold it for. Whether it's 60 seconds or 5 minutes, what exactly are you training? Endurance more than anything else. The longer you hold it may add up to impressive numbers and a sense of achievement however holding planks for a long time is more of a waste of time than anything else. The reason why is because there are far more efficient and effective ismometric core exercises that take only a fraction of time to do but provide many more benefits.

The plank. A battle of will. Also highly boring after a while. Photo from UnSplash.

Sure you could have someone add a weight plate on to your back to add more resistance to elicit more strength, however it quickly becomes an endurance exercise again and you can only add so much before it becomes unsafe to do so. Indeed, if you suffer lower back issues then adding weight can exacerbate them. Others may focus on moving an object from one side to the other in front of them creating a small degree of instability, however again it quickly becomes endurance.

At the end of the day whilst the plank is challenging for most at the start, once you can do multiple sets of 60 seconds no sweat then it is no longer challenging. Rather you should move onto something more productive.

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Carry over

The plank when done correctly strenghtens your inner core muscles, allowing you to create a stiff, rigid spinal position. There is no doubt about that. The problem is that this is only in one static position with only gravity working against you. This is a position that we as dynamically moving creatures rarely do or find ourselves in, unless of course you are doing planks. We move in various planes of motion and axis and face resistance from different directions, thus the standard plank offers little carry-over.

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Problems it can cause

The plank is often cited as effective and easy to do, suitable for all kinds of people. In reality it is not,

One common issue with planks especially when done with poor form is lower back pain. Holding planks for extensive periods of time eventually ends in form degradation, which can contribute again to lower back pain. The plank also works the muscles at the front of your body whether it is the shoulders, chest, abs or quads. Over time this, with the propensity for people to work out their "mirror muscles" more than their posterior chain coupled with our typical long sitting habits only reinforce poor posture and lower back pain. If you're looking to help your posture through planks then back bridges/reverse planks are what you should be doing.

The pipe plank, the best way to tell if your doing it right. If not your spine won't thank you. Photo from Stack.

Another issue is that the plank is as already mentioned an isometric exercise. Isometric exercises are proven to increase blood pressure. If you suffer from hypertension or pre-hypertension then you should avoid them, or at the very least hold them for less than 60 seconds.

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Plank variations

There are a whole load of alternatives to the standard plank that make it more challenging, providing a more effective and efficient workout. Firstly, below is a list of some of the other forms of the plank that can be done. You will notice that each involves a greater degree of instability than the standard plank. This means your core has to work harder to maintain your position.

  • Side-planks: Creates a greater element of instability, especially if only using your hand rather than forearm as the contact point. Can be easily made harder by raising your arm up or/and top-side leg upwards. Can be made easier by having your knees on the floor. (YouTube clip)
  • Yoga side-plank variations: This video from Yoga With Adrienne shows other side-plank variations that add an extra challenge.
  • Bird-dog: A yoga/Pilates exercise, this involves raising one leg off the ground whilst raising the opposite arm until both are parallel with the floor. Can be done on knees for beginners or on your foot to make it harder. Hands can be made wider to make it easier or narrower or even overlapping to increase difficulty. (YouTube clip)
  • Swiss ball/wobble board/Bosu ball planks: Placing your hands or your feet on a Swiss ball, wobble board or Bosu ball creates a far greater degree of instability requiring greater core control. Can be easily scaled for difficulty as well. (YouTube clips of Swiss ball plank and Bosu ball plank)

The first three can also be done like the fourth one once you build up the balance and core stability for it. If you performed these exercises with the same degree of instability then you'd eventually end up with the same issues as the standard plank. The beauty is however that you can easily adjust the instability of them to continue progressing them.

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Other static isometrics

Other isometric exercises that can be done instead for greater effect:

  • Hollow hold: Also known as the banana, this involves a greater contraction than a plank and with arms above head off the ground and legs up makes it far harder than a plank. (YouTube clip)
  • Boat pose: A yoga pose where your butt is the only contact point with the ground as you keep your torso and legs rigid in a V-shape with your arms out in front of you. (YouTube clip)
  • Hanging hollow hold: As the name suggests, this is the same as a hollow hold but you are performing a dead-hang from a bar. (YouTube clip)

These three exercises all suffer the same problem as the standard plank in that after a while they become less challenging and more endurance focused as you get better at them. Though you'll definitely be feeling and seeing the difference compared to standard planks if you are doing multiple sets of 60 seconds of these ones.

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Isometrics with additional dynamics

So far all the exercises we have looked at involve gravity as the resistance. We can however add a whole new dimension to core isometric exercises by adding additional frontal and transverse plane dynamics for greater development:

  • Arms out resistance band side step: Also known as the Oak Tree Step Out, this exercise works you in the transverse plane. The side step creates tension in the resistance band, which requires you to tighten your core to prevent it twisting you round. (YouTube clip) Can be made harder by taking a greater step or using a heavier band. You can also use a cable-pulley machine allowing you to make the weight heavier as needed. (YouTube clip)
  • Suitcase carry: Basically a 1-handed Farmer's Wark, you hold a weight in one hand by your side, rather than one in each hand. This exercise works you in the frontal plane. You contract your opposite side to prevent the weight pulling you to the other. Perform with a walk to create more instability due to hip movement tugging at your core muscles. (YouTube clip)
  • Dynamic bird-dog: The same as the bird-dog listed above, however instead of keeping your leg and arm parallel to the floor you bring one or both in and out for a specific number of repetitions. (YouTube clip)
  • Dynamic side-planks: This video shows twenty variations of the side-plank, most of which involve movement to add greater dynamics to the exercise.
  • Resistance band dynamic bird-dog: Same as above however with a resistance band. The pull of the band makes the bird-dog more unstable meaning greater core control is required to maintain it.(YouTube clip)
  • Dumbbell tight step-overs: A hard one to remember what the name is, however this essentially where you hold two dumbbells at shoulder height and perform tight side-steps where you alternatively move your foot above or behind your other foot. With the added weight you can feel each little movement your hip movement causes to your core and the tightening required. Obviously adding heavier weight increases the difficulty.
  • Chest/back/shoulders/biceps exercises: Yep, these exercises all work your core isometrically when you brace your core properly or focus on making it stiffer. As you progress to heavier weights, you core also needs to adapt to the increased load. Standing versions should be done rather than seated ones to help focus your mind on bracing your core.

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Sum up

Hopefully the above has given you some fresh insight and ideas on how to move on from bog standard planks to better and more effective exercises that are also more challenging. Your lumber and thoracic spine will also be happier for not having to go through tediously long holds in which form inevitably degrades. The above alternatives are only the tip of the iceberg and there are many other exercises that can work your core isometrically in a way that provides real world benefit. If you have any questions then feel free to ask away in the comments or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Unlock Your Potential

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