The Plank has stood the test of time.
Through all the cool-looking exercises and advanced training methods out there, the simple Plank still often finds its way into elite programming.
Why have Planks endured? Because they are flat-out effective when performed correctly. Not to mention, they are extremely low-impact, scalable and very easy to coach. A Plank delivers a ton of bang for your buck. However, most people aren’t getting the most out of this popular exercise.
At PACE Fitness Academy, we have changed the way we look at Planks over the last year or so. Instead of the typical duration-based Plank, we like to incorporate breathing into our Plank programming. We ditched the timers and now use our athletes as self-timers by using breaths as repetitions.
For beginners, we usually start with three breaths. For intermediate, five breaths. For advanced, 7-10 breaths. Once you get beyond 10 breaths, you run into a duration where more advanced options would make better sense.
Here is an overview of how/why you can make this simple tweak and an outline of the huge benefit it can offer athletes of literally every skill/experience level.
True Core Recruitment
The length of your Plank rarely offers any indication of how much you’re activating your core.
Many times, the longer the Plank is, the more an athlete will rely on muscles outside their core to stick it out.
Supporting yourself with your spinal extensors, anterior deltoids and quadriceps while you hang on for dear life does not make for a good Plank, even if that Plank lasted 2, 5 or even 10 minutes. During marathon Planks such as those, your core musculature was probably truly engaged for just a fraction of the time of the total duration. The rest of the Plank was largely a waste of time.
Using your own breathing to define your Plank duration maximizes your dynamic breathing patterns and allows you to tap into your deeper core muscles. This helps you develop a relationship with your diaphragm and discover the role it can play in performance.
Speaking of the diaphragm, this mysterious muscle in your torso plays a major role in breathing. Breathing and bracing with your diaphragm allows an athlete to achieve “3D expansion” of their midsection. Belly breathing is not enough. You need your entire midsection to expand in all planes to truly master this function.
This internal pressure and security allows you to turn on deeper core muscles, better stabilize your spine and hips, and ultimately can lead to an increase in performance.
When you add these rep-counting-breaths to a Plank instead of time, you’re going to isolate the targeted area (trust me, you’ll feel the difference almost immediately) while also refining this breathing technique in a low-impact situation. Then, when you take it into competition or intense training, your body has already practiced it.
Time is of the essence. Busy high school and college athletes (and even pros) don’t have hours upon hours to spend in the gym. Efficiency is key. Replacing time-based planking not only helps you optimize your training time, but it also opens up programming opportunities for other needs, such as mobility, more lifting or recovery work.
Shaving off 3-5 minutes that would normally be mundane planking can allow you to squeeze in some very vital individual details to a program that can make a huge impact in that athlete’s performance.
In summary, this little tweak can be a differentiator for you or your athletes. It’s low-risk, high-reward and carries a wide variety of benefits highlighted above. Mastering diaphragmatic breathing in the Plank position will also unlock so many other core training variations down the road, ultimately giving us healthier and higher-performing athletes.