To go along with the 'core' theme of late, today’s exercise is the PLANK!
Strengthening your Core
Strengthening your core is essential for a healthy spine and a healthy, and optimally functioning body. The core consists of a complex set of muscles that extend far beyond just the abdominal muscles and include all muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis. If you look at the anatomy of the spine, you will see that the ribs attach to the thoracic spine providing anterior support in that region. There are however no bony structures supporting the front of the lumbar spine. It's not surprising why, when people complain of back pain it is usually first in the lower back. For this reason, it is so important to develop strong abdominal muscles to keep the lumbar spine supported and able to move fluidly with ease. The deep inner abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis, pelvic floor, multifidus) are essential components to a strong core and are important for stability and postural control. Many people doing conventional exercise programmes forget about these little guys. These, along with the larger more superficial muscles that aid in movement work together to create a stable and strong core! With a strong core, you are able to perform movements with more fluidity and ease in a safe manner.
The plank exercise is so great for your abominals, but it's even better because it also works your entire core including your arms, shoulders, back, legs, bum…. etc. The plank is an example of an integration core exercise, which means it is a complex, multi-joint exercise that works a combination of muscle groups simultaneously. An isolation exercise on the other hand, is a single joint exercise that works only one muscle group ie. crunches which work only the superficial muscles in the tummy; basic, simple and what we now understand to be not all that effective!
A research study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that integrative core exercises elicited greater activation of both the proximal muscles (abdominals) and distal muscles (shoulders, arms, glutes) of the trunk while incorporating balance and proprioception challenges (Gottschall et al., 2013). This was shown through EMG (electromyography) a measurement of the force the muscles had to exert to perform the exercises. Yay plank!
I love doing the plank, but I absolutely HATE how boring it is. I can’t think of anything worse than just holding a plank for 2 minutes - well maybe holding it for 3 minutes! So, I’ve started making my planks more dynamic! Incorporating additional movement allows you to challenge all the nooks and crannies of your core while dynamically moving and having a bit more fun.
From a functional perspective, incorporating movement into core work is valuable as well. The static plank isn't actually all that functional of an exercise! I mean, when in life will you find yourself forced to statically balance on your forearms and toes, remaining perfectly horizontal to the ground. You will however, most likely require core strength whilst moving through life; walking up stairs, picking up a box from the floor, getting up and down off the floor. These are movements that happen in all planes of movement and therefore core strength is important through various planes of movement as well.
With stability must come mobility and that is why a dynamic plank is so much more functional!
Here are a selection of ways you can spice up your plank! Apologies to those in Canada who are still facing the brutality of winter. Spring has arrived in London! Watch this video and try adding these movements into your core routine.
Pointers to Remember:
Keep your back straight and your belly button drawing in towards your back the entire time. At all times, you are trying to create a straight line from the head to the toes, allowing for the natural curves of the spine. If at any point you feel like your lower back is starting to arch, lower your knees to the floor for a little rest, then lift back up. It’s not worth a back injury! At the same time, don't allow your bum to creep up so you make an upside down V with our body.
Forearm plank / Straight arm plank
Forearm plank with rocking
Straight arm plank with rocking
Plank Up and Downs (alternating arm that leads)
Mountain climbers (with twist)
Plank twists with leg raise
Plank twists with bum drops and leg raise
Plank to downward dog
Plank Kick Ups (alternating right and left leg)
Walking plank (moving right and left)
7 minute Dynamic Plank routine:
Try performing each dynamic plank movement for 20 seconds, with 10s rest between movements. Then finish off holding forearm plank and straight arm plank for 30s each!
Have fun planking!!
Gottschall, Jinger S; Mills, Jackie; Hastings, Bryce. (2013). Integration Core Exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation Than Isolation Exercises. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27 (3). 590-596.
A few clients have recently asked me about exercises they can do to strengthen their backs. So, I have put together a series of progressive exercises to get you moving towards a stronger and healthier back.
Most clients ask me for back exercises because they want to get rid of their wobbly bits... Great we can help do that! BUT... It's important to understand there are other important reasons to not ignore your back in a core programme. The core muscles are arguably the most fundamental muscles for good health. They are essential for everyday functional movements whether you are picking something up from the floor, getting out of bed, or simply standing upright. Despite what many people think, your back muscles are actually part of your core. A strong core is important for a strong body and a strong back is essential for a strong core.
A little back anatomy
The back is divided into four regions. The upper back is composed of the cervical spine (the neck region) the middle back is the thoracic spine (behind the rib cage) the lower back is the lumbar spine and then the very bottom tip of the spine is the sacrum composed of five bones that fuse together throughout life. I just found out actually that the sacrum doesn't fully fuse together in most people until their mid thirties!
The spine has four major movements. It can flex like when you curl forward; it can extend as you come back up straight (or hyper-extend as you look up to the sky); it can laterally flex in a side bend; or it can rotate (twist). The muscles at the front of the body (abdominals) are responsible for flexing the spine where as the muscles on the back of the body extend it. Side bending and rotating require muscles from both the front and back of the body. Different regions of the spine will have more or less mobility depending on the specific movement, however a healthy spine is able to perform all four of these movements with ease and fluidity.
The spine is the framework for the back. Attached are various muscles that intricately support the spine from different angles. When the muscles and ligaments that support the spine are weak, unnecessary stress is placed on the spine.
Many people who sit at a desk or computer all day may begin to develop a kyphotic posture over time. As the back muscles become weak and your centre of gravity begins to shift forward, this can place extra and unnecessary stress as a chain effect down the body and ultimately may lead to pain. Pain= Not good! But not to worry, there is so much that can be done to counteract this! And you can begin with starting to strengthen your back muscles! And then on top of that... Yes, strong backs are sexy.
This post will focus on some progressive exercises that you can do to strengthen you back. It is important that in any whole body exercise programme however, you should be doing exercises to strengthen the muscles on the front and side of the body as well to ensure muscle balance, promote optimal posture and reduce injury. But that's for another day!
Progressive exercises to strengthen the back
1) Robot arms
This exercise will help strengthen the thoracic region of your spine. It is a really good exercise for people who sit hunched over a desk at their computer all day as it opens the chest while strengthening the back.
Progression: From the lifted position, extend your arms up to the 'high V' position then back.
2) Quadruped Arm and Leg Reach
This is a great exercise to strengthen the back while also helping to integrate core support with arm and leg movements. Really focus on maintaining that connection from your navel to your spine to avoid arching in the lower back.
Try to create a long line from the tip of your finger to your toes, lengthening the spine and the neck. Keep your hip bones and pubic bone parallel to the floor so you aren't tipping the pelvis.
Progression: Add in 10 little pulses in the outstretched position before returning the limbs to the floor.
3) Thera-band Rows
You can increase or decease the intensity of this exercise by using different levels of resistance. If you have access to a gym, the cable machine is great to use for this exercise.
Progression: Increase the repetitions or the resistance.
4) Bent over lateral arm raise
This is a more advanced exercise and it's important you have a substantial amount of core support and abdominal strength to do it correctly. Beginners can still do this exercise lying face down on a bench so the arms extend and hang vertically while building up the abdominal strength to one day do it fully.
Keep the arms in line with the shoulders (or very slightly below shoulder level) and the neck long. Try and avoid changing this upper body position throughout the exercise. The goal is to stay horizontal throughout the whole movement!
Progression: Challenge your balance by lifting one foot slightly off the floor.
Enjoy these exercises and a stronger, healthier back!
Hi, I'm Hannah. I'm a Registered Massage Therapist, Movement specialist and dance science consultant, I am a Registered Provider for Safe in Dance International and teach workshops and courses related to Safe Dance Practice. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.