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.
Hi! I'm a dance science educator, Pilates instructor and Personal Trainer residing in Toronto. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.