As we settle into the new year, it’s time for many of us to return back to our normal routines and fight off the results of a season of excess. For many, that means getting back to the gym and exercise. Many consider the plank as a go-to core exercise but is this the case? Should the plank be one of the exercises to add to your workout this year?
Is it Game Over for the Plank?
The plank, side plank and plank variations must be amongst the most commonly practiced core exercises in the gym. Runners, footballers, swimmers, overhead throwing athletes and more or less anyone who has ever been involved in sport professionally or recreationally has been put through their paces with the plank and its variations during sessions. Should the plank be the go-to exercise for everyone looking to “build a stronger core” though? Is the plank the best option when it comes to core exercise?
What is Core Stability?
Now this is a tough one to answer and an area of extremely heated debate throughout the medical and fitness worlds. I will not delve too deeply into the realm of defining pseudo-clinical terms, but I do believe that the common Oxford dictionary has a good, working definition. According to the Oxford dictionary core stability is:
“the capacity of the muscles of the torso to assist in the maintenance of good posture, balance, etc.,
especially during movement.”
The core is a foundation for stable, safe and efficient movement during both day to day and sport-related activities. The core muscles are meant to activate prior to purposeful movement in order to establish a stable base. If there is no stable base prior to movement, there will be compensation, often involving (and overloading) superficial muscle groups. This can then cause poor movement with improper balance leading to excessive loading of spinal joints, discs and muscles.
And this is where the problems start for the plank…..
The muscles of the torso must be able to maintain good posture, balance and efficiency DURING MOVEMENT. At the end of the day, a big part of training is improving at the things that are important to us. It is here that the importance of functionality and functional training comes into play; I think we can all agree that a runner should train to become better at running, a swimmer to become better at swimming etc. This is a well-known concept in the exercise world but specificity of training should also extend into day to day life. If my patient is experiencing low back pain when trying to iron a shirt, then something has gone wrong with the system and rehabilitation needs to be focused on helping with this issue!
Unfortunately the plank and its variants satisfy very few of these criteria. How often do you see a swimmer, runner, rugby player etc completely rigid from the torso during their sporting activities? This fact does not only apply to athletes either, how often do we, as human beings, hold perfectly still during our day to day activities? Simply breathing results in some degree of movement after all! The plank simply does not correlate to one’s specific meaningful tasks, whether that task is competing in sport or hanging up the washing pain free!
So what does the plank do?
Granted, the plank feels like it hits the right bits, it’s challenging! This is because the plank is a bracing movement, it recruits global, large muscles to maintain a static spine during a “stress position”. The main muscles activated (as shown during EMG studies) are the superficial rectus abdominis and obliques (the large superficial muscles of the abdomen). My main issue with the exercise is that I can think of very, few day-to-day and meaningful activities which require such levels of rigidity! I would go on to say that trying to re-create this bracing movement during day to day activities could actually cause back and neck pain, as muscles which would normally be dormant are over-working and becoming fatigued.
What can we do instead?
Once again, this entirely depends on what a person’s “meaningful task” is. Do you want to run faster, drive pain free or simply move better?
During early stage rehabilitation, I regularly turn towards specific Pilates based movement and exercise, with concentration on using the correct muscles during movement; this incorporate breathing and verbal feedback to
ensure that the correct muscles are being recruited.
Outside of the rehabilitation setting I often favour sport-specific across body movement, challenging the core in a dynamic rather than static fashion. Exercises such as Russian twists, lumberjacks and the superman exercise; as well as other incorporated arm and leg movements.
That being said, no one movement or exercise will fit everyone’s needs!
Should I stop Planking?
Although the plank does have its weak spots, I am not advocating throwing this exercise out of the window completely. Rather, I suggest integrating the plank into a varied core conditioning programme, designed for your individual needs. When ‘planking’ try to find variations that include movement in your arms and legs, such as shoulder taps or mountain climbers.
My advice would be to analyse the movements you commonly perform, those movements that you find challenging in day to day or sporting life, and find a way to get stronger and more efficient at them; perhaps discuss this with your physiotherapist to find the best fit!
In general, look for better ways to recruit deep core and spinal stabilising muscles, such as the transversus abdominis, multifidus and the pelvic floor. Lots of verbal prompting, concentration and visual imagery to get correct recruitment of deep muscles instead of letting the big, superficial muscles take over too early. Finally, be functional! Make yourself better at whatever you want to do, move better and feel better!
About the Author
Matthew Camilleri is a Physiotherapy graduate from the University of Malta. He is currently reading for a Masters degree in clinical pain management with the University of Edinburgh.
He has been involved in a wide array of sports throughout his life, ranging from volleyball and handball to football and rugby, either through his work or participation. He has been involved in local rugby for the past 10 years and has formed part of the Maltese national rugby team. Outside of physiotherapy he is also an IRB certified strength and conditioning coach and sports first aider, apart from having a keen personal interest in sport and exercise.
Over and above entry-level physiotherapy he is a certified kinesiology-tape practitioner and an AACP approved acupuncturist. His main area of clinical interest is pain management, especially chronic musculoskeletal pain. He is also interested in exercise and exercise prescription, especially strength and conditioning.
Should you wish to get in touch with Matthew, feel free to contact him via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or book an appointment via phone (99212822).
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