Friday, August 17, 2012

Why Planks Can Not and Will Not Cure Everything

I am really beginning to dislike planks. The plank exercise has become a "cure for all" exercise in the fitness industry and continues to be 'butchered' in all aspects of fitness including group exercise classes, bootcamps and rehabilitation. In this post, I'm going to explore--from a personal trainer's point of view--why and how this exercise gets butchered.

Planks became popular in the late 1990's as the focus on core stability and strength became more prominent in training circles. It is fairly easy to do...doesn't need any equipment...and allows people to train the "core".

Or does it?

I've seen planks performed in bootcamp classes and in training groups, and the focus of the exercise always seems to revolve around maintaining the position for an extended period of time. Holding the plank position for an extended period of time has become the goal or pillar of the exercise. In my opinion, focusing on time loses the initiative and purpose of the exercise. Many trainers and coaches are the culprits of this. Many instructors and facilities will hold "contests" with particiapnts to compete against each other to hold the plank position for upwards to 10 minutes! (Sorry to the owner of the video below):

As a trainer that has used and continues to use the plank in many programs, I will be the first to tell you that no one needs to hold the plank for more than 2 minutes. Why? Because I understand that once a 2-minute benchmark has been reached, fatigue takes over and allows compensatory patterns to flood the exercise. It's like having a party at your house and inviting someone that you know is kind-of-a-jerk. Once he arrives to the party, he brings four or five of his jerk friends. Next thing you know,  your party went from having one jerk to five jerks. Now your party is gonna suck.

In the spirit of group training, planks are fun for finishers and "tests" of will. However, the question beckons: Are trainers taking two steps back from three steps taken forward?

Let's explore what typical deviations from a perfect plank are seen and why it may happen.

1.) The Hip Hiker 
I typically see the hip-hiker in overweight or deconditioned people. But then again, when fatigue sets in...everyone becomes deconditioned, right? The core is a musculature unit that reaches a threshold when it is forced to isometrically contract against a fixed object. In this case, the floor is the fixed object during a plank. When it reaches it's threshold--which is individualistic depending on a person's fitness level--a compensatory effect consummates. In the hip-hiker, the hips rise up to a level that takes stress off the abdominal wall and lower back. With the butt positioned higher than the shoulder girdle, much of the stress is put on the shoulders and arms.

For some, this is easier to accomplish because the shoulders and arms are stronger in that position. If you place the arms in a push up position (long lever),  the user will not be able to hold the plank for long. As a trainer, when hip-hiking is observed, it is advisable to instruct the user to simply stop the exercise and "reset" or "take a break". 

2.) The Abducted Scapulae
I see this alot in people with overly developed chest, deltoids and abdominals. From a quick glance, you would think it is an acceptable plank, but a keen eye will uncover major deviations which takes the focus off of core stability. Clients with strong "anterior chains" (front muscles) will make up for a weak inner unit by allowing the  extrinsic muscles to perform the bulk of the work. This is usually seen when the scapulae is abducted so that the lats (upper back) and serratus must hold the position. In this poor position, stability doesn't come from the core, it is provided by the pectorals, lats, and hip flexors.
When one is strong in the upper body, there will be evidence of over-active cervical flexors (front of neck). Thus,  this creates the protruding chin and head position once in the plank. What I like to do with clients that exhibit this is focus on a total body flexibility program with some foam rolling. I don't even bother with planks at this point.

3.) The Sagging Hips
Sagging hips are the opposite of the previously mentioned "hip hiker". This plank position is the best "tell-tale" sign of core weakness and lack of muscle control/coordination. The two strongest points in this lengthened lever position are the ends. The middle equates to a rope bridge found in the jungles of the Amazon.

The lumbar spine receives a brute of the stress in this position, and is counter-productive of the purpose of the exercise. With clients that exhibit this position, I typically begin with teaching them how to "brace the abs" in a standing position. From there,  we follow up with a shortened lever position of a plank. The person is instructed to bend the knees and try the plank again. If the hips still begin to sag or the client complains of lower back discomfort, we will use a wall. With the wall plank, I will have the client stand with the feet (facing the wall) further away from the wall than the upper-body. The arms will be in  the same position as a floor plank (on the wall), and we will again, try re-educate the "bracing effect". I have had success with both versions.

At first glance, the plank doesn't seem like an intricate exercise. To an experienced and watchful coach, the plank holds as much intricate-ness as a clean and jerk or deadlift. Most facilities and coaches must stop from pressuring their clients to hold planks for ridiculous amount of time. The nervous system is very adaptable when it comes to repetitive actions. Good or bad. Some trainers and facilities may be doing more harm than good with this simple drill. Personally, I have seen people that exhibit 2 out of 3...or all three...deviations in the plank.

In times when a client cannot execute a great plank; it is best to simply use the drill as an assessment tool. I know what you are thinking....but it's not one of the Functional Movement Screens?? Truth be told, most exercises can be used as assessments. And the plank is no different. I discuss this at length in the new Muscle Imbalances Revealed Assessment & Exercise edition. I use three rules: 1.) Use your eyes to assess what deviations are obviously present. 2.) Respect fatigue as a factor when assessing. 3.) Lastly, remember that it doesn't have to look just has to look better than the last time it was performed.

This is the last day to get Muscle Imbalances Revealed Assessment & Exercise at the ridiculous SALE price of only $37. After that, it goes up. Take advantage of the sale that ENDS on FRIDAY (8/17) at 11:59pm. GO HERE <<<<


  1. Good post! I use the plank in my initial assessment. You can learn a lot about someone by the way they hold the plank.

  2. This seems to be the most hated position by most of the people that I have trained over the years! I agree with Anna above, it is a great measure of a person when you ask them to do the plank (correctly). If you are in the area and looking for a bump in your training and life, take a look at personal trainers in NYC for some great people that would love to help you get where you want to be!

  3. Awesome post. I just learned about your blog from Somerset but I like it a lot already. I train jiu jitsu. I love my school and teachers but I have to say that there is little attention paid to the warmup exercises we do, which often include pushups, planks, body weight squats, etc. I'm lucky I guess to have a lifting background and so I focus on form but to watch my friends in the class, who are great jitsu players and generally strong people, perform these exercises is breathtaking. Hip sagging in planks and pushups is very common. And squat pattern? Holy hell. Bonkers.


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