The plank is an exercise that has been around for some time now. I have used it for years with clients of all ages and abilities. From my 72 year old housewife to my current UFC champion, the versatile plank exercise is a staple in their programs.
What is it?
The Plank, or “hover plank”, is an isometric exercise where you begin face down on the ground. Tuck your toes, engage your torso and line up your elbows directly underneath your shoulders. Next, lift your abs, hips, and legs off the ground so the only points of contact are your toes and your forearms. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise and always breathe.
The plank is a great exercise for developing abdominal, shoulder, and spinal stabilizer strength and stability. More importantly, they are a great exercise for developing muscle endurance. According to research from biomechanics expert Dr. Stuart McGill, improved abdominal muscle endurance leads to decreased risk of low back pain. If you are sitting in a room with 5 people, chances are 4 of them will experience low back pain in their lifetime. I realize other movements and mobility drills are needed, but if this exercise can help rid people of pain, then it’s going to be included in their routine.
How Long Can You Last?
If you can hold a plank for more than 60 seconds with great form, then I have to wonder why we continue to do that same exact exercise? One of my favorite questions when performing any exercise is, “Why”? Ask yourself that question with every movement you do. You should be able to “defend” each exercise and explain how it will help yourself or a client/athlete reach his or her goals.
Research from McGill actually shows holding the plank for 7-10 seconds with brief rest (2-3 sec) for multiple repetitions, as opposed to longer holds of 30 to 60 seconds, is most recommended for higher quality endurance.
You have to wonder; is there a point to staying in a plank position for minutes on end? What benefits are we getting by holding an exercise for the length of a MMA round? According to Guiness, the current world record for is over 1 hour 20 minutes! And he was 54 years old! Impressive feat? Without a doubt…but unless your training goal is to take this record down, I don’t think there’s a point in holding the exercise for that long.
Some may say, “You have a world-class professional athlete perform a plank exercise?!” Absolutely. While the traditional plank is considered an “entry level” exercise, the variations below certainly are not. I can’t stress enough; become great at the foundational movement first. Then, give a few of these variations a try. They say it takes 300 reps to instill a new movement pattern and at least 3,000 reps to break a bad one. Get great at the basics first and foremost.
1. RKC Plank
This version was first introduced to me by Bret Contreras. It’s amazing how simple adjustments can make such a big difference. CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO
2. Limb Changes
These versions refer to moving your arms and legs in various positions during a low or high planks. Examples include shoulder taps, opposite arm & leg lifts, up-up-down-downs, mountain climbers, etc. The attached video clip includes a few of these variations.
3. Unstable Surface
If you have access to some different types of equipment then a number of these options might interest you. Adding unstable surfaces such as the TRX, the Core-tex, a BOSU, a stability ball, etc. will drastically increase the intensity of the exercise. The attached clip includes a number of examples.
4. Weighted Planks
While I didn’t include any weighted variations in the clip, they are often used with my advanced clients. I typically use weight vests or plates on their back to increase difficulty.
5. Next Level
There are a number of options that could fall into this last category. Most of these examples include moving…such as rope pulls or seal walks. Both of these examples are included in the video clip.
Planks should be a staple in your exercise program. The variations listed in this article are advanced and I always recommend safety and becoming competent in the traditional movements before “experimenting” with advanced options. That being said, I would love some feedback on these and, if you have other challenging variations, please send me a clip! Plank away.
Doug Balzarini is currently the strength and conditioning coach for the Alliance MMA Fight Team in Chula Vista, CA. He is also the founder of DBStrength.com, which provides fitness-related articles and education. Previously, Doug worked at Fitness Quest 10 for 6 ½ years as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE).
A Massachusetts native, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from Westfield State University. Since moving to San Diego he has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU, obtained an ACE Personal Trainer certification, the NSCA-CSCS certification, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, LIFT Sandbag Certification, Spinning certification, FMS training, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. He has also appeared in dozens of fitness videos, written numerous fitness articles, completed a MMA Conditioning Coach certification program and has competed in multiple grappling tournaments.
Prior to working at Fitness Quest 10, Doug worked for the American Council on Exercise as the Continuing Education Coordinator where he was responsible for managing over 400 continuing education providers.
For more information please visit www.dbstrength.com.