Planks are one of the most popular exercises in the world.
They’re also some of the simplest exercises you’ll ever see. True to their name, basic Planks (such as the High Plank, Low Plank and Side Plank) require you to remain stiff as a board and feature zero movement. So why, exactly, are they so popular among athletes?
We constantly preach the importance of your training translating to sports performance. The reason athletes are in the weight room is to get better at the sports they play. If the exercises and drills they’re utilizing won’t help them play better, what’s the point?
At first glance, Planks seem like an extremely un-athletic exercise. In what sport do you find yourself in this position for a prolonged period of time:
None come to mind, right? Because sports are about movement, and Planks are all about the absence of movement. So it’s not hard to see why someone might conclude that Planks are a waste of time for athletes. However, to realize the value of Planks, you must understand the role your core plays in performance.
Your core, commonly defined as the collection of muscles around your lower back and midsection, might be the single most important area of your body when it comes to athletic performance.
If you think of your body as a giant chain, your core is the center link that holds everything together. Without a strong and stable core, power cannot be adequately transferred through the body, and this has a negative impact on performance. Your core is also designed to resist movement, not create it. That’s why exercises like Sit-Ups are now considered outdated. If your core cannot resist movement, it’s going to be a major energy leak in your athletic actions, resulting in impaired strength, agility, precision and explosiveness.
Your core also plays a major role in the weight room. No matter if you’re benching, squatting, cleaning or even curling, the core muscles are built to stabilize the body and reduce injury. If these muscles didn’t exist, you’d fold like an accordion every time you attempted to lift heavy weight.
So while Planks may not look very athletic, they’re training the core for its major purpose—resisting movement. Planks fall into the category of “anti” movements, which are great for building an athletic, resilient core.
When you’re performing a Front Plank, be it of the high or low variety, you’re performing an anti-extension core exercise. Extension of the spine occurs when the spine “extends” backwards, or when the back arches. This is also often accompanied by the hips coming forward, or if you’re training in the sagittal plane, such as this case with a Plank, “dropping” toward the ground. Some extension of the spine is OK and actually quite natural during many athletic movements, but too much extension at the spine can cause serious issues. The reason Front Planks are taxing is because you’re fighting not to let your hips drop and your back arch the entire time you’re holding that position, thus training your core muscles to resist extension.
Side Planks, on the other hand, qualify as an anti-lateral flexion exercises. Side Planks may be the best type of Plank you can perform, as they’re one of renowned spinal researcher Stuart McGill’s “Big 3” exercises for treating and preventing back pain. Lateral flexion refers to your spine bending to the side as your shoulders sway outside of the hips. This often occurs during change-of-direction actions in sport or pushing/pulling in contact sports. Too much lateral flexion reduces an athlete’s efficiency and places them at higher risk of injury. During a Side Plank, you must resist gravity, which is trying to pull your hips toward the floor. This trains your core muscles to resist lateral flexion.
Planks are also incredibly simple and safe for athletes of all ages. Planks also help create better posture. By strengthening the erector spinae and abdominals, your core will stabilize you better and help put your body in a more natural, neutral position to better your posture and help eliminate back pain.
I get that a Plank doesn’t look as athletic as does a move like the Power Clean, and that it doesn’t build strength like the Deadlift, and that you never lie on the playing field in a static position.
But next time you watch soccer or basketball, notice how many times the player dribbling the balls get bumped into and contacted while they’re moving. Every time the contact is made, your core is responsible for stabilizing the body and making sure you don’t end up on the ground. Think of exercises like Planks like the glue for your athleticism. They’re not sexy, but they help re-inforce good movement patterns and make everything you do safer and more efficient.
How to use Planks in your training
Planks are popular because of their simplicity. This makes programming them into your routine rather simple. You can add a couple sets of timed Front Planks and Side Planks at the beginning of your routine as a primer before heavy movements such as the Squat or Deadlift. Planking will get all of your core muscles firing and ready to work!
But how long? This has become a hot topic in the fitness world as many people have gotten in the habit of holding Planks for minutes on end. However, McGill believes that shorter is often better. He recommends utilizing 10-second holds and increasing the number of reps, not the duration of the hold, as your strength and endurance increase (one of his studies saw subjects perform 15 reps of 10-second holds of both Planks and Side Planks, among other exercises). While that might sound shockingly short, if you’re truly bracing your core and performing Planks the right way, holding them for minutes on end would be all but impossible.
Once you’ve mastered the standard Planks, you have a plethora of more challenging variations at your disposal.