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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?

plank

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.

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Coaches think helping people to have better shoulder mobility and strength means tons of stretching, mobility, and correctives. However the real point of #functionaltraining is to connect the chains of the body to produce better movement and strength. But what are we trying to connect? —————— 💡 The diagram shows how our feet and core have a great influence over our upper body. In fact, one of the main jobs of the core is to connect the lower body to the upper body. So, how can we use the core better (as spine expert Dr. McGill calls the core for the shoulders, a platform). Using a half kneeling position and both feet driving into the ground helps our core and #glutes stabilize our pelvis. ————— 💡 We also know grip connects to our shoulder as well as the lats, not shoulders or chest, are responsible for pressing. That’s why these 3 #DVRT drills aren’t about shoulders but grip, lats, and core! They are about pressing down NOT pushing out or up! You can create stronger and healthier shoulders in literally minutes if we learn how to train the body as it is designed to function. Each tool here does something different. From @perform_better Lever Bells, Ultimate #Sandbags , and #kettlebells to actually teach the body how to move better!

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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…

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Rotational training never gets the same attention as other movement patterns (like pushing, lunging, pulling, squatting, hip hinging, etc.) That is because even though those patterns are used, people still think of individual muscles like quads, pecs, lats, glutes, hamstrings, you get the picture. So, when it comes to rotational training, people MIGHT know they are using their core, but that is about it. There is SO much more happening and if people pay attention to how our body is designed for rotation. ______________ Why is rotational training so important? Our body is actually connected in opposites and this is used to create efficient movement in actions like walking and running, but also in power in many actions like punching, throwing, kicking, etc. When we create rotation that basically means we are using muscles from our foot, lower leg, entire thigh, glutes, up into our core, and even into our upper body. In other words, if you want to train muscles, rotation is a powerful way to do so. However, we have to understand HOW! _____________ Rotation always starts with a proper foot pivot because that creates a chain reaction up our body where we use our legs and hips for strength and our core for control and ability to transmit force up to our upper body. So, proper footwork is essential. We also work from controlling the movement like #DVRT master @corymcripe shows, to more hip hinging as @thestrongdna and @thesandmaven shows, to more reactive work like @dvrtfitness_uk demonstrates. ____________ So many people think that the Around the World that Greg shows is using his shoulders. No! His shoulders are following the movement that his hips and core create. This is why such a drill HELPS the shoulders because it creates better mobility and stability below the platform for the shoulders giving us more out of our workouts like all these great coaches show rotation can do!

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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!

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Oh how things can go wrong so fast! I’m talking about how many popular exercises become problems because we don’t actually take the time to progress people through the levels they need to be successful at higher level movements. Makes sense until I tell you that loaded carries tend to be one of those higher level exercises! ____________ “But Jessica, EVERYONE walks, how can it be advanced?” Just because people have to do it every day doesn’t mean they do it well. There is a reason we see issues of knee and low back issues going up and up every year. Yes, there are many reasons, but not moving correctly is one of them and you would be shocked to hear that many times people don’t even walk well. ____________ Walking is far more complex than people think. During walking 60-70% of the time the person is single leg, meaning they not only have to stabilize to not fall over but they are at the same time moving themselves forward. In other words, they have to resist many forces trying to push their body over while having great strength to decelerate and accelerate at the same time. This takes a great amount of pelvic and core strength that most people do not have. When we now layer load on top of the movement, we are asking for issues at the hips, knees, and low back! _____________ How can we get people more successful and prepared for not only a good gym exercise but more importantly every day life? These marching drills I use are a good place to see if people are ready for more complex carries. Using the different loading patterns I look to see if we can control our pelvis/core while having movement at the thoracic spine which is essential in locomotion. Additionally, marching takes away the forward acceleration and deceleration so get to see just how well people do in single leg stance. The question isn’t if loaded carries are good, but are they good for the person we are working with?

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