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Are Plank Exercises Functional?

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If you are fortunate enough to stay around the fitness industry like I have (for 25 years) you see the industry become very cyclical. What is “uncool” or “the worst” one minute becomes “the best ever” the next. The reality is like most things in life, the truth about training and exercises are somewhere in the middle. A great example is the plank and is it a superhero or villain exercise?

For some of you it may be no question that it is an important core exercise, but why? What does it teach that is so valuable and makes you believe it is important? On the other side, I hear people say things like “planks” aren’t functional, or “when do you ever plank in real life?” Is it possible that both can be right but to varying degrees?


In order to answer the question, we first have to know why we use a plank. The whole point of the plank is to create full body tension and the “brace” that world renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill explains is foundational to core stability, “True spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, ilioicostalis and multifidus. Focusing on a single muscle generally does not enhance stability but creates patterns that when quantified result in less stability. It is impossible to train muscles such as transverse abdominis or multifidus in isolation – people cannot activate just these muscles.”

So bracing is ideally what our body does reflexively when we move and the degree depends on the demands on the body. However, many times whether it is lack of physical activity, injury, or poor training, our bodies do not know HOW to brace correctly. The plank is simply a way of teaching people this concept and how to build up some foundational strength and awareness of how to use their core correctly.

Megan Berner from Fitness Lying Down establishes our intent in the plank which can be applied to our forearms as well by trying to drive them into the ground if we can’t be on our hands. 

The key to remember about the plank is that we don’t need to hold it longer than 10 seconds (based on the research by Dr. McGill). So, those ten minute plank holds might be tough, but they aren’t all that productive. Does that mean the plank is functional then? Those that say no because we don’t plank in real life is missing that in order for our legs and arms to move optimally and produce the strength that we want, the core has to be stable and know how and when to brace. Starting off by doing exercises like complex stepping patterns and often times even loaded carries are far too complex and unstable for people to learn to use their core correctly. The reality though is that many people don’t have the strength to plank well with their bodyweight, that is why we often start people with drills like our tall kneeling press out as DVRT Master, Cory Cripe explains.

Rather than saying the plank is not functional, it is more important to understand how to progress the movement. The big key in progressing the plank is to NOT lose the foundations that Megan established for us, but now learn how to resist other forces that are trying to alter our plank position. A bird dog is a great way to accomplish adding more reactive core training to our plank, but also can help us build up to supporting ourselves fully in the plank. However, just like we laid out the foundation to bracing, the intent bending the bird dog needs to be understood before we lay any type of progressions.

Progression is the “p word” I want you to focus on more than the plank itself. That is because the plank is just a concept and one form of the bracing we want to teach. For example, crawling or push-up rows are more advanced plank training, but often people can’t do these drills well. Unfortunately, because most coaches don’t have good systems of progressions they are stuck just having their clients perform lower quality work in such exercises. Below I break down how we can think smarter about our plank progressions and stay true to the concepts of functional fitness we are trying to share with our clients.

It is so important to realize that the plank just doesn’t matter with what we do on the ground, but once we build foundational strength and skills in the ideas of the plank, we do want to progress to more challenging environments. However, going right to locomotion is still a huge jump for most and instead, we are so much better off utilizing the half kneeling position to build our plank strength in more functional positions.

The point is that what we build on the ground in our plank is not just strength, but should be awareness of how to use our core properly in more dynamic situations over time. We should use the plank (as well as any regressions of it) to teach people proper core training, but also know how we are going to reinforce those concepts as we move to more functional and complex movements. We should be able to see the plank in more challenging drills like rotation below…

And progressions leading up to loaded carries like you see physical therapist, Jessica Bento demonstrate. The lessons I hope you walk away with are…

-What is the purpose of the plank?

-How do we teach proper core concepts in plank?

-Where do we go with our plank training to keep true to the core concepts we built and keep building success?

If we can answer those questions, the discussions we have about training can be elevated and the solutions we can offer are so much greater! Check out more in our DVRT Online Education HERE. When you invest in our DVRT education, workouts, or best selling Ultimate Sandbags, you can save 20% with code “save20” HERE in order to help you train with greater success and feel confident you are building a healthier and stronger body!