Powering up your Plank
By: Chris Kelly
“Plank routines are dull, unsexy, and I don’t feel the burn” is the gist of the response I typically receive from most clients when explaining my approach to core training—and I can understand their frustration.
After all, when it comes time to train there are few things as boring as holding still when you could be going to war with sit ups and crunches.
But after hundreds of hours working toward a better stomach, I have either prescribed or witnessed every crunch, leg lift and torso twist variation known to man. And though some worked better than others in “feeling the burn”, one conclusion I quickly reached is that banging out several hundred at a time is more likely to lead to a bad back then six pack abs.
My beef is not with crunches themselves, but any exercise which does not result in maximal return on investment. And much like the plank, this approach amounts to a long duration, low load stress being placed on the torso.
The difference is that much of this stress is directed toward the spine versus the abs– probably not the best idea for those already hunched over a computer several hours a day!
While neither exercise fits the bill alone, the missing link for building a ripped and functional torso is understanding how to condense sufficient intensity and density (amount of work performed) in to a routine which does not jack up the spine.
In this article, I will address the problems associated with both the plank and crunch and explain how to incorporate each exercise in to a routine which will challenge even the strongest stomach while busting your ass in the process—all in around five minutes.
While planks are intended to provide a sustained, low load contraction to build endurance in the abdominals, the static variety clearly falls short when it comes to abdominal development.
That being said, everything changes when we incorporate movement of the arms and legs. Specifically, this is done by performing moves such as crawling and stepping in a plank position while maintaining a flat back and abdominal brace.
Suddenly, this exercise becomes infinitely more difficult and offers several benefits:
- While crunches primarily target the upper portion of the rectus abdominus (six-pack or beer gut) only, planks can be utilized to systematically hit every area of the stomach to address muscle imbalances commonly seen in the lower abdominals and external obliques (side abs).
- While an excess of crunches creates or reinforces a kyphosis posture (or a hunch back), plank variations have a positive impact shoulder and upper back stability by forcing the user to stabilize the trunk with the arms and/or elbows.
By training torso stability while moving the arms and legs, plank variations positively impact athletic performance and weightlifting by enhancing the efficiency of force transfer from the lower to the upper body.
Especially when combined with a high stress stimulus, dynamic planks suddenly become the ultimate accessory exercise by providing prolonged time under tension for the abs while limiting spinal stress.
This is accomplished by pairing low rep exercises which involve torso flexion with planking movements to increase time under tension. The decision on which exercise to use comes down to the area of the stomach you intend to target.
In a recent article on the Best Exercises for Abdominal Activation, strength coach Bret Contreas lists several choices for each area of the stomach:
- Rectus Abdominis– Chin Up, Hanging Leg Raise, Ab wheel rollout Swiss Ball Crunch
- Internal Oblique- Ab Wheel from Feet, Ab Wheel from Knees, Bodysaw, Tornado Ball Slam
External oblique- Ab Wheel from Feet, Hanging Leg Raise, Bodysaw, Turkish Get Up
Picking Your Planks
After determining the target area of the stomach, the next step is exercise selection. The idea is to choose one core strength exercise followed by two plank variations performed back to back to prolong time under tension.
While Bret’s article offers a comprehensive selection for strength exercises, we want to choose plank variations which incorporate limb motion in the particular area we wish to develop.
For the rectus abdominus and anterior external obliques, this would include two frontal plank variations which involve the arms and legs. For the lateral external obliques’, this would mean two side plank variations.
We will divide these two areas in to anterior core (front of stomach) and lateral core (side abs) for simplicity.
Sample Workout #1- Anterior Core focus
This workout is intended to target the lower rectus abdominus.
In order to do so, we have chosen an exercise involving leg lowering followed by two frontal planking exercises which utilize the arms and legs.
Because the rep ranges are kept fairly low, it is important to move slowly enough to maintain an abdominal brace and build optimal fatigue
1. Stability ball leg lower — 5 reps
2. Stability ball push out — 8 reps
3. Stability ball knee tuck — 8 reps
Video example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTdrbgv2VEU
Sample Workout #2- Lateral Core focus
The half get up is a favorite of mine for targetting this area while also promoting stability of the shoulder.
We follow this up with two weighted side plank variations which will the sides of the stomach. While each of these movements can be made progressively heavier, they do not require much weight to be effective (10-20lbs works well for most) and should also be performed with slow and controlled movement.
1. Half get up — 5 reps
2. Weighted side plank pulse — 8 reps
3. Side plank row— 8 reps
Time is of the Essence
One thing you will notice from the above is that we did not include sets with our rep ranges. In our system, this is mainly due to the issue of time.
Because our clients are often faced with time constraints and short attention spans, our solution has been to incorporate timed circuits popularized in Charles Staley’s Escalating Density Training to really ramp up the intensity.
This can be done by simply setting a clock for 5-7 minutes and performing as many rounds as possible with proper form. Ideal for the time challenged trainee, this approach is also a great finisher after your strength training or conditioning work.
Putting It All Together
With a solid core (I couldn’t resist) of planking know-how, this sequence of exercises is all you will ever need to build superior strength and definition in your torso. Simply pick one strength exercises which directly targets your chosen area of the core followed by two supplementary plank movements from the list provided below.
Because the abdominals recover quickly, training for these muscles should be performed 4-5 times per week. Generally, we will rotate exercises and/or target areas of the stomach every two to three weeks.
But while more advanced trainees may benefit from a split which targets one area of the stomach only, a solid split for most beginners is devoting one day to both anterior and lateral core for overall development.
Mon: Anterior Core
Tues: Lateral Core
Thurs: Anterior Core
Fri: Lateral Core
For anyone doubters on the effectiveness of the plank, I challenge you to sample the workouts above and prepare for the plank beat your abs (and ass) in to submission!
1. Lower extremity frontal plank examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKbcUeFfjF8
2. Upper extremity frontal plank examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQE8dVMChdM
3. Side plank examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snAVWltGpKM
About the Author
Chris Kelly is a strength coach, fitness writer and educator based in T
ampa Florida. He specializes in innovative strength, conditioning and core training solutions for athletes, models, actors and figure competitors preparing for show. Check out his blog at http://modelfit1.blogspot.com