Does your plank need an upgrade?

Since the mid 1990s, the plank has been the quintessential core exercise that dominates gyms the world over. Before this time, it was the good ol’ sit-ups and back extensions (dorsal raises) that were the exercises of choice to bolster and train core stability and strength.

The sit-ups and back extensions began to be phased out by the introduction of the plank and due to their possible negative side effects. These side effects were mainly isolated flexion in the sit-ups and extension in the dorsal raises in positions where gravity is heavily loading the spine. In standing, where gravity is perpendicular to the spine, the joints are stacked and the spine is sharing gravitational load as all the other segments/muscles of the body are integrated.

The plank was introduced as a sufficient means to increase segmental stability of the lumbar spine during activity, in order to protect the intervertebral discs during static and dynamic activity. A strong contributing factor to the birth of this exercise was the finding that a group of muscles acting as a collective cylinder (deep to the core) was actually ‘wired together’ (connected directly via myofascial connections) and ‘fired together’ (when one muscle was recruited, all other muscles in the ‘cylinder’ contracted also). This was a huge finding, as all muscles acted as a three-dimensional ‘brace’ to the lumbar segments that were paramount to spinal/core stability.

The muscles in the spotlight were the diaphragm at the top of the cylinder, the pelvic floor at the bottom, the internal obliques coming from left to right, the transversus abdominus at the front and the multifidus at the back. All contract and ‘pull’ the spine from their respective angles/planes to protect unwanted motion occurring that may cause back pain or trauma (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The deep core muscles

Due to the above anatomical finding, the plank was a sure-fire way to stimulate all these muscles to strengthen, stabilise and tone the core and quickly became the best thing since sliced bread.

Marketed by many for years – to this day even – as the best defence against back pain, chiselling out six-packs and increasing core strength for optimal performance in any/all activity, the plank is seemingly untouchable. Is it undeniably the greatest core exercise that ever was?

Well, actually – no, it isn’t! It seems the evidence against it often goes under the radar and isn’t made available to mainstream trainers/clients the world over. So, here goes – let’s unleash the pros vs cons of the static plank.

Pros

1. The correct use of the active plank (created by Dr Stuart McGill) contracts ALL the muscles of the core and the entire body’s musculature in unison (integrated) to share load across the entire body to protect and stabilise the spine. (Side note: most planks performed around the globe are NOT high-tension, high-active planks; folks merely ‘prop’ themselves up and hang out using low-level, low-tension planks.)

2. The translation of the bracing method during this exercise is a great teaching tool to adopt, train and enhance prior to moving into traditional strength training exercises such as squats, deadlifts, etc., where a bracing action (no motion) of the lumbar segments has merit.

3. It enables you to teach, train and enhance core stabilisation prior to sequencing and implementing movement and dynamic actions. As Paul Chek once said, “You can’t fire a canon from a canoe” (meaning the centre must be stable and strong, so that the distal elements of the arms and legs can move/produce force built from a solid foundation at the core).

Cons

1. The lack of a fun factor. Who (especially our clients) really and truly loves executing a static plank for minutes on end? Truth be told, it’s more exciting watching paint dry, isn’t it? Movement has a ‘playful’ nature that puts the FUN into FUNctional training.

2. It’s static. Every cell, organ and tissue requires motion to thrive, function and survive. Our biology depends on it – stagnation is the enemy in the body’s design. The body fights to move – test this out by standing dead still. Notice how your body subconsciously shifts/sways because cells need circulation; their survival depends upon it! Dr Stu McGill advocates 10secs or under ONLY – anything above that timeline in the case of stagnation will incur ‘cell death’ through lack of circulation. Muscles are designed to ‘ebb and flow’ (contract and relax) to assist circulatory necessities of the body – that’s why ‘movement is medicine’. PERIOD!

3. When muscles are inhibited and forced to contract isometrically (as is the case in the static plank), this causes the muscles to ‘pull’ (they don’t push when contracting) joint spaces closer together. Here, at the lumbar segments in this case, it increases prolonged and forced compression of the vertebral bodies and the intervertebral discs, causing potential ‘herniation’, bulging discs or, at best, dehydration. And, as the bones inevitably get pulled together and ‘shear’, this leads to impingement syndromes and compression of pain receptors located at the joints, exacerbating pain sensations/responses. The exercise programmed to defend against low back pain is the causation of pain in this instance. Unfortunately, this is seen all too often because of the extended timing factors (people holding for too long a time – 30secs, 60secs and more).

4. Unless training for traditional strength training, bracing and static holding will not translate optimally into life/sport (which really should be the outcome of all prescribed exercises). Under the rigours of high external loads, the movement potential in the body (especially at the spine) is low and ought to be stable to produce high levels of force safely. However, when unloaded and using one’s own bodyweight, the spine should have the freedom to move (in all three planes of motion), as movement is key to maintaining joint health, preventing scar tissue build-up, stimulating the sensory receptors (proprioceptors) which co-ordinate the muscles to control motion in functional (real) movement, allowing the necessary fluids and circulatory mechanisms to occur, and being the ONLY defence we humans have against osteoarthritis. Because, if we really think the spine should always remain in ‘neutral’, then it’s a matter of when and not if you will incur an arthritic spine due to lack of motion. MOVE IT OR LOSE IT.

5. Lastly, the real reason why many engage in plank training is to reap aesthetic benefits (six-packs, toning, etc.). Well, the truth is that metabolic activity will prove successful (along with calculated caloric intake) and a plank that invokes motion is much more metabolically demanding than a static plank.

So, there you go: there is much wisdom in upgrading your static plank to a movement-based approach for both health and fitness outcomes, and to best transfer into what life throws at you.

Author Bio

Paul Edmondson is a dedicated leader within the fitness industry, having worked with, and for some of the leading pioneers and biggest brands in the world both nationally and globally.

Paul has presented in 24 countries, over 5 continents on behalf of Gray Institute, ViPR, TRX, Anatomy Trains, Trigger Point, SKLZ, institute of Motion and at the IDEA World conference.

His thought-provoking sessions are designed to bridge the gap between the traditional and new sciences to better equip trainers to serve their unique and individual clients.

Paul takes pride in delivering complex content in a simplified and application specific manner that is perfect for trainers wanting to learn more, and is determined to drive forward those he works with to help them become “better versions of themselves”

References and resources

1 Dr Stuart McGill – Ultimate Back fitness and Performance (sixth edition) – Authored Book

2 Dr Gary Gray (Gray Institute) – Functional Video Digest series (Volume 2.2) – “The Abdominals – Potential Power”

3 Michol Dalcourt – “Functional Core Training for Life” – Digital video pro.ideafit.com


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