Power to the Plank

After hundreds of hours working toward a better stomach, I’ve either prescribed or witnessed every crunch, leg lift, and torso twist variation known to man. While some worked better than others for “feeling the burn,” I quickly concluded that a lot of stupid stuff occurs in the commercial gym environment.

In the context of abdominal training, we have the abdominal crunch and the twist machine. These are two machines that actually stimulate the mechanism of spinal herniation in laboratory settings. We throw them in a gym filled with bad backs and include the ability to perform the movement under load. While most spinal trauma rarely occurs as an acute injury, this is a damned good way to buck that trend.

With that said, thousands of repetitive spinal flexion and rotation movements that build to cumulative injury are a far greater threat to the back. This explains why it’s possible to throw the back out while bending over to pick up a pencil. Because the lumbar spine is an area with a limited ability to rotate (and to a lesser extent flex), we want the abdominals to prevent excessive movements such as bending and twisting to protect the spine in daily life. This means that if your job involves hours of sitting, standing in place, or repetitively bending over, doing several hundred crunches on a stability ball with a plate behind your head may not be the smartest idea.

So what does this mean for abdominal training? In the words of physical therapist Shirley Sharmann, “During most activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk, which, as discussed, is limited in the lumbar spine.”

In order to train the abs to stabilize the trunk and prevent excess motion (versus creating it), exercises such as planks and side planks are excellent tools for building isometric strength and endurance. The problem with these exercises for enhancing your physique is they only provide low load abdominal contractions that do little to define the stomach. But throw in a few twists, a push-up or two, and some crawling along the floor and it is my firm belief that the plank will do more to chisel your core (and protect the low back) than the crunch ever could. Allow me to explain…

The anti-crunch

For both core training and beyond, the plank can truly be seen as a bang for your buck exercise.

By requiring the client to support his weight on his forearms or hands, this exercise can literally be seen as the mirror opposite of the crunch in both its position and benefits. While excess crunches create or reinforce a kyphosis posture (or a hunch back), plank variations have a positive impact on scapular stability by forcing the client to stabilize the trunk with the arms and/or elbows. Because crunches primarily target the upper portion of the rectus abdominus (six pack or beer gut), an imbalance in the strength/stiffness often appears between the upper portion of the stomach and the lower abdominals and external obliques (side abs), which is a bad thing unless your goal is to look like Quasimodo.

As you will see in the examples below, modified plank variations involving movement of the arms and legs are a fantastic way to target these areas to address this imbalance. By flexing one portion of the torso, several hundred crunches actually retard the muscle’s ability to strengthen by creating excessive shortness and an inability to contract and relax. By integrating all areas of the core to maintain stability, the plank allows us to target a certain area of the stomach while still involving its neighbors.

Perhaps most important when comparing these exercises is the potential for progressive resistance. While the crunch requires more volume or additional weight to increase its level of difficulty, the plank can always be made more challenging with nothing more than body weight and creativity.

Putting your plank together

When putting together plank progressions, we have taken the traditional plank matrix—which involves holding in a frontal plank followed by a side plank on each side—to the next level by adding a component of movement. For both physique and stability purposes, clients at our gym are then introduced to planks involving various arm and leg motions that require stabilization of each of the six quadrants of the core.

  • Frontal plank, left arm
  • Frontal plank, right arm
  • Frontal plank, left leg
  • Frontal plank, right leg
  • Side plank, left side
  • Side plank, right side

When combining these movements together, we come away with a stability task of the highest order. For new clients, this begins with our traditional plank progression. View an example of one of our circuits.

After this progression can be held for at least 30 seconds in each position, we introduce movements such as crawling, push-ups, and various stepping patterns with the upper and lower extremities to challenge the stability of the traditional frontal plank. The goal is to maintain a stable torso while pressure is applied to each area.

In our system, we always include an exercise that involves movement of the arms followed by movement of the legs and a side plank variation. The order of these exercises can be changed based upon the client’s particular need.

In this set up, we perform each exercise back to back while maintaining an abdominal brace and minimal movement of the torso. The advantage of this set up is that we can target particular areas of the core for either preferential stability and/or development. Listed below are a few examples of progressions that we utilize for specific areas of the stomach.

#1: Lower rectus abdominus: For someone who tests poorly in lower abdominal strength, we begin with a plank that involves leg movement first in our circuit. This is followed by a side plank variation that also involves leg movement. View the circuit.

#2: External obliques: Because the external obliques have been shown to be best recruited via movement of the arms and upper extremities, we begin this circuit with a plank involving arm movement. This is followed by a side plank variation also involving arm movement. View the circuit.

#3: Transfer to standing: Despite the effectiveness of these exercises, they were useless unless transferred to a standing position. In order to alleviate this issue, we added a vertical core exercise that involves bracing in a standing position to complete our abdominal circuit. View the circuit.

Getting with the program

Over a four-week period, we generally begin with six repetitions and progress by two repetitions per week until we reach twelve repetitions. Once the client has mastered the circuit with good form, we either increase difficulty by elevating the feet or introduce a more advanced rep progression such as a countdown or density circuit to really crank up the volume.

As with the above, planking progressions can utilize various equipment pieces such as dumbbells, medicine balls, stability balls, and bands to really spice up this combination. So the next time someone tells you to “hit the floor and give me twenty,” just pick one exercise from each category based upon your need and perform it back to back (we recommend starting with 8–12 reps).

Frontal plank—upper extremity:

Frontal plank—lower extremities:

Side plank:

Vertical core:

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About the Author

Chris Kelly is an experienced fitness journalist, personal trainer, and teacher. He is the owner of Peak Fitness, a personal training studio located in Tampa, Florida. As both a teacher of personal trainers and the owner of a busy studio, Chris specializes in innovative systems for managing the training of large and diversified client populations.