Plank You Very Much

The plank has become a staple exercise to any conditioning program that aims to build core strength. While we agree that the plank is a great choice for a very certain type of core strength, most people are not performing the exercise optimally. If you want to improve your strength, avoid causing pain, and actually get benefit out of the exercise, you should make a few changes. We call this version the high hollow plank.

First, let’s discuss core strength. Core strength is a catch all term that most people relate to abdominal strength. When people hear “core”, they often think of planks, sit-ups, and crunches. These can definitely be part of a core strength program but we should realize that our core strength program should not only challenge the muscles in the front of the body (as the aforementioned exercises do) but the sides and back too. We like to think of core strength in terms of our spine’s ability to resist or create forces in certain directions.

Our spine can flex (bend forward), extend (arch backwards), rotate and laterally flexion (side bend). With those movements in mind, our spine can try to be static (resist a force trying to move me) or dynamic (create a force in a certain direction). So, a plank would be a static, anti-extension exercise, and a crunch would be a dynamic flexion exercise. A glute bridge would therefor be a dynamic extension exercise and a Pallof press would be a static anti-rotation challenge. Make sense? When looking at the selection of exercises you partake in during a given week or month, you should incorporate of variety of dynamic and static core exercises in a multiple planes.

The plank could be the most common core exercise. It is performed daily by millions around the world. We think just about everyone should change their form to make this exercise much more effect.

Most people resemble a suspension bridge when in their plank position. Their head hangs down, they sag between their shoulder blades and the low back and hips slump towards the ground. People can often hold this position for minutes on end without great effort.

This is a the typical position most people do a front plank in. This position can be improved upon to be more effective.

Instead of hanging like a suspension bridge on your connective tissue and end ranges of your lower back joints, actively create an arched bridge by using the muscles responsible for resisting extension forces. The front plank is an static, anti-extension challenge so we want the muscles responsible resisting extension to do the work. We want this movement to be hard, not painful. There is a difference. This is especially important if you are hypermobile, with a dramatic curve to your lower back and very flexible in your hamstrings. You may even suffer from lower back pain and hip impingement type discomfort.

How to perform a more beneficial front plank.

To perform a more beneficial plank, make a few important changes:

  • Push through your hands, not your elbows: We are wired to activate better by pushing with our hands. This will better recruit the muscle of your shoulders and shoulder blades (serratus anterior muscles) preventing that dreaded sagging.
    • Not only should you push through the hands but actively push your chest away from the ground. This will be an important self cue “push your chest away from the ground”.
  • As you pull your belly button in towards your spine, tuck your tail by forcefully squeezing your glutes (gluteus maximus muscles).
    • This is the bread and butter of the improved plank position. I want you to tuck your tail (tilt your pelvis backwards) and flatten out your spine. Your lower abs and glutes can work as a team to accomplish this, however, sustaining your glute contractions (squeeze) will ultimately be the hardest part of this position for most people. It’s amazing that most people really struggle to maintain any type of forceful contraction in this position but when they can stand and do it there is no problem. You must learn how to use your glutes to protect from extension forces at your spine. This is your next self cue “belly button in, glutes squeezed tight).
  • Finally, as you tuck your tail you should also move up onto your toes so that the soles of your feet are vertical.
    • This will make your plank much more challenging by moving your weight distribution from mostly in your feet to more in your hands. You will immediately feel the difficulty of your plank rise as the core and upper body must work substantially harder. The final self cue “up on my toes”.
Try changing your front plank to the more active version up on your hands, tail tucked, glutes on and feet vertical.

Using the new self cues listed above of: 1. Push chest away 2. Pull belly in and squeeze glutes and 3. Move up onto the toes, you can start turning the front plank into an exercise that reaps incredible rewards. You’ll immediately realize that the old way of performing the plank is mostly a waste of time. Try working up towards 30 seconds per rep and do 3-5 reps during a session.

Need 1 more visual to drive this home? Check out this comparison image. Most trainers and coaches would say the top picture is good form…but now you know otherwise.

A clear contrast in plank strategy.
Tired of reading? Check out this video explanation. Turn your sound up.

Kyle Sela, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, CSCS

Kyle is a physical therapist who is a board certified specialist in sports and orthopedics. He completed a sports medicine fellowship at Duke University in the Management of Division I Athletes and served as a physical therapist on active duty in the US Army where he cared for a Brigade Combat Team during a deployment to Iraq. His passion is in movement efficiency and maximizing every patient's potential to live life to the highest quality. The SquatGuideâ„¢ reflects years of experience teaching people to squat with great form and efficiency so that they may benefit from this great exercise.

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