I never thought it possible. That an exercise could knock off such a familiar and staple of generations of fitness, like planks have done against sit-ups. It is something that I am really happy to see because it means the more we are learning about the body (we learn more every year), we are willing to make changes to how we train to do things smarter and help get superior results.
Oh yes, there will be those that scream, “Josh, you can and SHOULD still do sit-ups, just do planks too!” Let’s address the contrarians that like to go against science to get attention, just for a second at least. Part of the reason we still have people saying “sit-ups are still great” is because we don’t really understand what we are trying to accomplish through core training, the considerations and risks of different core exercises, and how the core is suppose to function.
Many fitness pros will say not to do sit-ups because we already sit all day and we are in more rounded positions than ever. That may be true to a degree, but it isn’t part of the BIGGER reasons to focus on more planks than sit-ups (don’t worry, I’ll get to where people go wrong with planks too).
Of all the reasons is that scientist like renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill points to that all our discs in our spine have a certain number of repetitions to them. Some may have a lot (which is why some people can do thousands of sit-ups and have no issues and others do some and get lit up) and others have little. Here is the issue, unless we go and put people through MRIs and look at their spines and try to make some educated guesses on which end of the spectrum, we don’t know which end people lay on. The first rule of a fitness pro should also apply to anyone even just training themselves, do no harm! That rule from the world of medicine means doing things have much more risk than benefit.
Two very high levels of spinal loading is happening during rounded sitting positions which many are doing every day, so do we need a lot MORE of rounding even if controlled and purposeful?
That takes us to another reason planks should be a foundation to more core based programs. If you look at our core (yes, all 35 muscles that make up our core) it appears that our core is more based upon resisting than producing movement. If you think about it makes sense that where one of our most important structures of the body lies, we are trying to avoid unwanted movement. That is different than producing no movement as I will explain.
Our body really wants to protect our head and our spine because from an evolutionary perspective, if these areas got injured, we would be in a lot of trouble! If I wanted to keep something from moving I would use a lot of diagonal structures to reinforce a few linear lines to make something super strong. Sound familiar? Look at the design of many bridges.
Listen, I’m not expert in bridges (probably going to be apparent after this analogy), but I found this quote from an engineer helpful or this discussion….“One way to extend the reach of a basic beam bridge is to reinforce it—and engineers have found the best way to do that is with a system of diagonal, triangular bars on the sides, which are called trusses.” Taking a vertical structure (like a spine even though it does have some curve) and reinforce it like obliques, lats, glutes, which are some of the biggest muscles in the body are all diagonals seems like a good way to “reinforce” the spine.
Then you do have actual experts like renown physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann say, “During most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk… A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level.”
Does that mean our core produces no movement? No, of course we do. However, what it does mean is that our core when working correctly does a very strong job of controlling how much and where our movement is coming from. That doesn’t happen for a lot of people as they don’t know how to control their core so they end up with injury or at least discomfort.
As Dr. McGill points out, “Flexion movement of the spine strains the layers of collagen in the spinal discs. When loads on the spine are small, movement is healthy. We often recommend the cat‐camel motion exercise taking the spine through an unloaded range of motion. Thus, there is a time and place for flexion motion. When the spine loads are high in magnitude with repeated flexion motion, the collagen fibres delaminate in a cumulative fashion. Slowly the nucleus of the disc will work through the delaminations and create a disc bulge. The greater the load, and the greater the repetitions, the faster this will occur (Tampier et al, 2007, Veres et al, 2009). Several other events occur depending on the amount of stretch on the spine ligaments at the end‐range of flexion. For example, cytokines linked to acute and chronic inflammation accumulate with repeated full‐flexion motion exposure (D’Ambrosia et al, 2010).”
So, a BIG part of what the core does is prevent unwanted movement and keep our upper body connected to our lower body. That is why teaching to plank correctly is key and cues I give during a great moving plank in a push-up are key.
Learning how to use these concepts in more dynamic planks is key. We don’t want to sit there and plank for minutes on end. That’s hanging out, not making your core stronger. How do we make planks smarter? We introduce the need to resist that unwanted movement while still trying to use these ideas. DVRT Master, Greg Perlaki shows some great progressions….
You notice how in the true plank position Greg doesn’t commit the greatest mistake of planks which is actually flex his hips. In fact, his hips are so extended that his glutes are holding him in place because of the tension he creates in his feet! Don’t cheat your planks!
Now, where people often go with planks to make them more dynamic is crawling. That’s great, but most people throw, toss, or heave the Ultimate Sandbag as they are using these drills. Why isn’t that good? Well, it really doesn’t do anything!!!
The whole point of the drags is to increase the connection of the chains of the body to keep our planks in place. How do we do it and teach it? Check out the ideas Jessica helps me with and we will share some more ideas in an upcoming blog to make your planks smarter, not just harder!
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