Plank Exercises: How to Build a Super Strong Core
Many people see their core as an unimportant muscle group – something to pay lip service to near the end of a workout. Even then, the majority of people tend to focus on exercises like sit-ups, crunches, knee raises and other ‘ab’ movements to help develop their six pack – technically known as the rectus abdominis muscle. However, there’s also a deep lying, unsung hero of a core muscle called the transverse abdominis.
The transverse abdominis (TVA) is important for several functions, which includes providing stability across your hips and spine. It also helps control and ‘restrain’ the mid-section, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the corset muscle.
A strong well-functioning TVA and core has been said to help protect you from injury, lower back pain and improve athletic performance by helping ‘brace’ the core as well as ‘tighten’ the waistline for a more aesthetic appearance.
WHAT ARE THE BEST CORE EXERCISES?
There’s always an inherent problem when trying to prescribe the ‘best’ exercise or exercises. A lot of it depends on the individual’s goal, whether they have specific weaknesses that need addressing and if there’s a risk of injury, or aggravating injury, by performing a movement.
However, with core work there are some staple exercises almost unanimously accepted as ‘good’ when it comes to providing the benefits a strong core gives us. The Plank and all its variations are definitely one of them.
The majority of ab exercises that focus on crunching movements primarily work your six pack muscles and these exercises will activate your TVA to some extent. However, to really work your TVA, and in a manner that improves its main functions, exercises that involve ‘bracing’ are a good option.
WHAT EXERCISES REQUIRE BRACING?
The two main exercises were bracing becomes important for both performance and injury prevention, probably unsurprisingly, are the squat and deadlift. In these lifts the lower back is particularly vulnerable if your core is either weak or not activated correctly.
Bracing is paramount for any heavy lifting exercises. You can learn how to brace by trying to ‘fill’ your lower abdomen to brace against an imagined external load. To practice this, hold your hands into your sides and try to push against them with your core muscles.
This is how weight lifting belts should be used. They’re not designed to provide direct support by holding your body in position, they’re there to brace into to allow your core muscles to create internal pressure to protect the lower back.
This can take a bit of practice but there are other exercises that encourage us to brace without consciously thinking about it. One of the most effective exercises to use with the brace to develop core strength is the plank.
HOW TO CORRECTLY PERFORM THE PLANK
The start position for the plank is simple. Rest on your elbows with your forearms flat on the floor and feet up on your toes with your body fully lengthened. There should be an almost perfect straight line from your head, down the back and legs to your heels. Imagine a broom handle running down the back of your body that never loses contact with your body from head to heel.
Many people try and ‘cheat’ the plank by either lowering their hips or lifting them slightly. All this does is shift the load onto other muscles and completely defeats the point of doing the plank in the first place. Once in the ‘broom stick’ position, the key to maintain it is to activate and contract your core and bracing to stabilise the spine. This should become challenging very quickly if performed correctly!
One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to compete for ‘time’ on the plank instead of focusing on making sure everything in their core stays braced and tight. Failure on any exercise should be when you lose perfect position or form.
WHAT IF YOU CAN’T DO A PERFECT PLANK?
Don’t worry! Despite the apparent ease of the plank, the fact is many people struggle when performing it with perfect execution because it is very challenging. There are modified versions of the plank you can use to progress on to the full plank.
Instead of performing the plank with your elbows on the floor, you can start with your arms straight (like a press-up position) with your hands forming the base of your plank, or with your elbows raised onto a block, box or even exercise ball.
This makes the plank mechanically easier to begin with, however be aware the exercise ball can be challenging because it is an unstable surface. If you do struggle, perhaps leave this one until you have mastered the plank on a stable surface.
Starting with your elbows raised around 12-18” off the floor should make life a bit easier. As you become stronger and can maintain a good position for a minute or so, then gradually lower your elbow position to 6-12” off the ground. Once this is mastered, you can assume the full plank position.
CAN YOU MAKE THE PLANK HARDER?
Yes! The most sensible approach to making the plank challenging is to use an exercise ball with a partner trying to carefully move the ball in different directions whilst you try to resist. This is EXCEPTIONALLY challenging and requires a partner who can work with you to apply the appropriate amount of movement to your ability.
Core work is so much more than helping to develop a six pack. Appropriate core exercise is essential to help prevent injury and improve performance in both the gym and on the sports field. Learning to brace and effectively stabilise the core is a key component that determines the effectiveness of any ab training routine.
Incorporating a variety of exercises that challenge the core is likely to be beneficial, but the mainstay of workouts for core strength should be based around bracing and the plank. Plank variations are an excellent exercise to develop this skill if performed correctly.