The plank is often seen as being the boring core exercise. And, honestly, it’s true. If it looks like this.
The problem is that most people don’t:
- understand the need for full body tension in a plank, and
- don’t have the prerequisite strength tho be able to do it.
But I’m going to take you through the progressions to help you go from plank zero to plank hero easily.
What’s so special about a plank anyways??
Planks train your ability to resist excessive extension at your low back. In normal speak, they keep your ribs and hips close together so you don’t end up like this.
This is kind of a big deal. Since your body is designed to be most stable when your ribcage is stacked and centred on your hips, being able to maintain this position while resisting stressors from different directions is key. And one of the big players in this is anti-extension. I.e. the ability to resist extension at the low back. This is a good thing, not only for the health and happiness of your back, but also to allow you to lift heavy things up and down.
Most people, me included when I began coaching, look at planks and think that just hammering away at a plank will get you up to speed. And most of the time, given enough time, that’s the case. Most people can get up to a decent plank with enough practice. but there is a smarter way.
The biggest issue with doing planks properly is gravity. You heard me right.
In a plank, you are holding your whole body up against the force of gravity on just your elbows and toes. If you don’t have the necessary strength in your shoulder girdle, abs, hips and legs (see, full body), then you are going to sag under your own load. This will inevitably result in sore shoulders and a cranky low back.
So options 1-3 of your progression are to simply reduce the effect of gravity…
Hollow body variations
If we think of anti-extension exercises as being those that resist our ribs and hips away from each other, then the hollow body is a great entry point, albeit with a couple of modifications.
Because your back is on the ground, the effect of your bodyweight on the exercise is reduced to only your limbs and the weight of your head and top of your upper back.
In option 1, You use a wall to give a better position at your hips, rolling your hips back towards your belly button while you raise your head and shoulders a little off the ground.
Option 2 still has your feet against the wall to aid your hip position, but extending your arms effectively increase the load acting on your abs.
Progression 3 takes the wall away, so now your abs are having to resist the load of your legs trying to rotate your hips away from your belly button. You may need to start with your legs ina more upright position to limit the length of the lever acting on your hips, but you will more easily be able to progress this option.
All three of the above progressions have you back on the floor, giving you better feedback on position and limiting the load to just your extremities. Once you have built up to 3-4 sets of 30+ seconds, you flip over to let gravity work its magic…
The short lever plank allows you to find a good position through your hips, slightly rolled back, practice pushing the ground away and engaging your lats. Abs, glutes, lats and serratus anterior all get a lot of work done, but with a reduced lever (knees to elbows) than a full plank.
The full plank takes the option above and increases the level of difficulty by increasing the lever length. You’re now working from your toes and elbows, increasing the load acting on your low back, and requiring greater strength to resist.
You can take it a step further by moving your arms out in front of you, further lengthening the lever.
All three of these require you to develop full body tension. Your abs, glutes, lats, quads and more should be working stupidly hard to make you as stiff and tight as possible. The plank isn’t a passive movement, you have to work for it!
Up till now, we have focussed on static positions, but we can progress further by adding in movement and/or instability to the mix.
I’ve chosen rollouts for these examples, simply because I have an ab wheel at home, but no TRX or similar tool to use.
But whichever way you choose to do it, adding movement or instability to your plank makes you have to work even harder to maintain good position at your hips and low back. With a rollout you are basically going from a short or standard plank to an extended plank and back again.
Once again we can manipulate the lever lengths to make it harder or easier. Going form your knees:
Or from your toes:
Shortly after this point on the full rollouts, I fell flat on my face.
The final progressions I’ve shown here are a great option, but you could use a TRX to move your feet further away and keep your elbows static. Just put your toes through the soft loops, lift your self into a plank and push your self backwards into a body saw movement, maintianing great position at your hips and low back.
Or you could use a swiss ball to do rollouts on, which may be a useful stepping stone between extended planks and the ab wheel.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of plank options, there is a great option for you to try and work up to.