Is The Plank A Useless Exercise?

Plank*This article was originally published on JackedPack.com in mid 2014. For reasons not revealed to me, Jacked Pack have since removed the blog from their site. So I figure I’m entitled to re-publish my original articles here now.

I can’t believe I’m actually writing an entire article about the humble plank. If there’s a less exciting exercise, I can’t think of it. I hardly expect this one to set your training world on fire, but bear with me and you’ll come out the other side with greater clarity as to where exactly this sometimes maligned, sometimes revered, seldom appropriately utilised exercise fits into your training program.

What the plank is

The RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certification) came up with their standard for the plank exercise: the “RKC Plank”.  Basically it’s a plank with a hard brace, full body tension, applied through a series of specific cues such as contracting the glutes hard, pushing back into the heels, locking the knees hard, pulling the elbows down (without actually moving them) to engage the lats, puffing the chest out and packing the neck.

The thing is, to me this is just a plank. Any other variant – which I’ll cover next – is just a plank done wrong, or at least ineffectively.
So credit where it’s due I guess, if you wish to call it an RKC plank that’s fine. I’m not an “RKC guy” myself, and I was performing and teaching the plank this way before I’d ever heard of the RKC, so I’ll just be referring to it as a plank from here on out.
Name aside, the primary objective of the plank is to utilise that hard brace to resist extension at the lumbar spine, which is where gravity wants to take it.

What the plank is not

The non-RKC style, i.e. simply hanging out in a front support position absent of a deliberate hard brace and glute contraction means nothing to me. When someone tells me about their five minute plank, I’ll try to respond politely, but I can’t share their enthusiasm. That’s because they’re really not achieving much, if anything. Typically what I see in these endurance style planks is somebody either hanging out on the passive restraints of their lower back by allowing it to sag into extension, or they’re sticking their butt way up in the air and rounding their upper back over like a buffalo hump to get away from that extension force and effectively shorten the lever.
The fact is, no one is holding a hard brace as outlined earlier in a nice, neutral position for five minutes. Just one full minute is highly unlikely, and even 20 seconds is deceptively difficult.

What the plank is sometimes claimed to accomplish:

Building a strong core

Seeing as no one can agree, let’s just start by assuming that what most people are referring to when they use the term “core” is that general torso area between the legs and the shoulders, as that seems to keep most people happy and will suffice for today’s purpose.
So while training the plank may well serve as a useful starting point for building a strong and functional core, alone, it is going to provide very limited results. Our body is designed for movement, not rigidity. So while it may be useful to learn how to properly brace for the right purpose at the right time, a full repertoire of core training would include static holds, static holds in the presence of external resistance and perturbations, and dynamic movements where the core must resist heavy loads and transfer force between the lower and upper extremities in all planes of motion. In other words, your “core” is going to be involved in almost every athletic manoeuvre you can think of. The plank alone could hardly be considered athletic.

Curing low back pain

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a large shift toward core training with a focus on spinal stability exercises rather than exercises that promote movement through the spine such as crunches, sit ups and twists.
Overall this has probably been a positive step forward from the days of finishing a training session with hundreds of sit ups but, as we are prone to do in the fitness industry, we may have swung the pendulum too far the opposite direction and avoided all exercises that create any spinal motion. While the lumbar spine is a joint that doesn’t tend to respond very well to a lot of excessive motion when compared to a more mobile joint complex such as the hips, it certainly is meant to move. As Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras outline in their review paper1 the purported risks of spinal motion appear to have been overstated.
So aside from potentially saving a few at-risk populations from inappropriate spinal flexion exercises, the plank really doesn’t have any other inherent low back pain curing properties. And while the plank exercise may well be one step in the process of helping someone be rid of or work around pain (as I’ll address later) being that low back pain – and pain in general – is such a multifactorial issue that involves much more than just structural and biomechanical factors,2,3 to ascribe this basic exercise as the cure for such a widespread painful condition is preposterous.

Six pack abs

A far less common condition, yet a far more commonly desired one is the apparent holy grail of all things fitness: the six pack.
A plank alone is not going to give you a six pack. In fact, no exercise is. As you’ve no doubt heard repeatedly by now, your diet, with its calorie deficit, will be primarily responsible for getting your body fat down to the necessary level for your rectus abdominus “six pack” muscle to show through. And while direct ab exercises may help contribute to the hypertrophy of the muscle to enhance its appearance, when we consider the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy4, the plank probably isn’t your top pick there, either.

Improve sports performance

There’s something to be said for knowing how to contract your muscles hard and brace for impact, certainly. This is especially important for those in collision and contact sports. And this is where the benefits of the plank begin and end for sports performance. If you think improving your plank hold from 30 seconds to two minutes is the key to taking you from a bench warmer to a starter, you’re kidding yourself.

When and why to use the plank

After spending so much time taking a literary dump on the plank exercise, it’d be reasonable enough to assume I think it’s a complete waste of time and that you should nix it entirely. However, that’s actually not the case. I just wanted to thoroughly highlight its many limitations and how it is often used and prescribed ineffectually.
The benefits of the plank are few and rather specific, but just like any good recipe, understanding how and when the plank will be just the right ingredient for the job can significantly enhance your training program.
Here is when the plank could well be that right ingredient:

–    The plank is a pregression (hat tip to David Dellanave for that term) to the push up. That is the number one reason that I incorporate a basic plank exercise into my clients’ training programs. A push up is a moving plank. That’s the big one.

–    Other exercises such as a row from plank – a renegade row, a DB row with a supporting arm, or a cable row with a vertical pull – also require the basic plank position to be held.
Or we can add to the plank itself, such as adding in manual perturbations, arm or leg raises, plate switches or any other variation that brings in an anti-rotation component to add to the already present anti-extension aspect.
And of course, while it serves as the pregression to a push up, the plank also serves as the foundation to the myriad other anti-extension exercises available, such as roll outs, fallouts and pushbacks, to name but a few.

–    As alluded to earlier, pain is a multifactorial issue. So to make a blanket suggestion that the plank is a cure would be reckless. However, there are certainly some low back pain clients who have fairly straight forward biomechanical triggers for their pain, e.g. some people tend to be flexion intolerant – activities such as sitting for long periods or forward bending often results in pain – and other people tend to be more extension intolerant – activities such as arching backwards or reaching overhead can cause them pain or, their inability to resist extension from a front support position such as a plank or push up, results in pain. In the latter case with these extension-based back pain clients the plank may be very helpful, if only as a starting point, to help them better understand their body positioning to avoid a known trigger for their back pain.

–    Static stability – the type of stability trained in a plank – may have some beneficial carryover to slower, less dynamic movements such as a heavy squat, deadlift or farmers carry. Again, it’s simply that understanding of how to brace hard. Of course other elements are required to create the full body tension that is used in those heavy lifts, such as the Valsalva manoeuvre to add intra-abdominal pressure. But the basic ability to co-contract a lot of muscles at once to create the brace is still an important skill.

–    Finishers/metabolic circuits. Bracing hard is deceptively demanding from a metabolic standpoint, and it is low risk. Better still, there is something particularly challenging and potentially beneficially about being forced to brace hard while under duress, such as breathing heavily. This means that it could fit very nicely at the end of a mini-circuit.
If you’re currently in a fat loss or conditioning training phase, try something like this done in a circuit style as part of your training program:

1A) Staggered Stance Squat x 5/side
No rest to 1B

1B)
Ring Push Up x 15
No rest to 1C

1C)
Chin Up x 10
No rest to 1D

1D)
Plank x 15 secs on, 10 secs off x 3
REST 60-90 secs back to 1A

Repeat x 4 Rounds

That ought to bring the plank appreciation up a notch.

Wrapping up on the plank

Where are you going with the plank? Remember, it’s a pregression, a stepping stone to progress to somewhere else.  Get into the position, and own it. Brace hard for a few seconds repeatedly. Build up positional familiarity with it, and improve your ability to hold that hard brace. Once you can do it with good form for two or three repeat rounds of 15 seconds, move on. Continue to utilise the learned form in other related exercises such as push ups, and either add other challenges to the plank itself, or get up on your feet and move around. Because there’s not too much in training, or life, that requires you to hover above the floor on your forearms for any length of time.

References

1.    Brad J. Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, “To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design”
Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 33 No. 4 pp. 8-18 (2011)

(2)    Ronald Melzack and Joel Katz, “Pain” WIREs Cogn Sci 2013, 4:1–15. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1201

(3)    Eyal Lederman “The fall of the postural-structural-biomechanical model in manual and physical therapies: Exemplified by lower back pain.” Journal Of Bodywork & Movement Therapies [serial online]. April 2011;15(2):131-138.

(4)    Brad J. Schoenfeld “The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24(10) (2010)


Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below.
 And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.  

2 thoughts on “Is The Plank A Useless Exercise?”

  1. My sons hockey coach just sent out a things to do list in preparation for the coming season ( some things were good) Part of the to do list is a 4 min plank and 30 push ups in a row. Boys are 12. It is disappointing, there needs can be met in a way that is far superior/engaging/fun than what is suggested. I was looking for words to help reiterate what I feel. Your writing here is spot on. thanks

    1. Hey Gary, glad you enjoyed the article.

      Yeah, dealing with club coaches can often be frustrating to say the least. I’ve got more than my share of stories of things coaches have said or done to my soccer athletes that have run the spectrum from mildly annoying to flat out horrifying. And it can make for a tough balance in respecting the coach and teaching them to listen and have confidence in the coach, and explaining to them when their coach is just flat out wrong and telling them to ignore the poor advice.

      Good luck with it!

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