Monday, September 9, 2013

3 Unintended Mistakes of the Plank That Can Destroy (Not Build) Your Core

I'm the type of person that when everyone starts doing the same thing...I want to do the opposite or do something different. It's like when I was younger and a certain rock band became popular. Everyone was wearing the T-shirts and singing the songs. I immediately, looked for another band to take over my radio.

Lately, I have begun 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 one of the first exercises associated with "working the core".

But does it really work the core for those that abuse it?

I've seen planks performed in bootcamp classes and in small-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 participants 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. Any longer than that, and its just plain boring.

Why do I say this? 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 with this exercise?

 Let's explore what typical problems are seen when someone performs a plank:

 1.) The Hip Hiker Plank

 I typically see the hip-hiker in overweight or deconditioned people. 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 reference, if hip-hiking is observed, it is advisable to instruct the user to simply stop the exercise and "reset" or "take a break".

 2.) The Upper Body Dominant Plank

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 Plank

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 complexity as a clean and jerk or deadlift. Most facilities and coaches must stop from pressuring their clients to hold planks for ridiculous amounts 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.

Being a great fan of Juan Carlos Santana --not the musician, but the fitness professional--I firmly believe that all exercises can serve as assessments. 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 use three rules:

1.) Use your eyes to assess what deviations are obviously present. 
Put down the score sheet and observe the movement as a whole. Stop wasting your time staring at one piece of the puzzle and look at the exerciser as a whole. Watch what areas effect what.

2.) Respect fatigue as a factor when assessing.
Fatigue is a factor that no one really talks about at length in exercise programming. I think its a piece of programming that has to be respected. Any activity performed in daily life involves fatigue and threshold. Any activity that involves contracting muscles in tension for periods of time and cardio-respiratory threshold will greatly affect performance and injury potential. I discussed this topic at length in one of my videos back in 2007:

3.) Lastly, remember that it doesn't have to look just has to look better than the last time it was performed.
It is always about progress....not score sheets. If its ugly, I want to make it look pretty. Unlike your prom date, it will take some time. So practice a little patience and keep your client motivated!


  1. Nice to be reading your stuff again. I see the same thing over and over again in commercial gyms and even at studios. It's also really hard to re-teach someone the plank , when they come from another trainer who lets them get away with it.

  2. Thanks for coming back!!

  3. Now that everyone is doing planks, what exercise should I do instead to strenghten my core? Great post!

  4. Approve.


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  5. A routine to build muscles should include both weight machines and free weights. Because free weights have more movement to control, they can add mass quicker.

    Regards Anthony

  6. Glad to be reading this great article.


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