My colleagues are currently taking great pleasure in including “clams” in their exercise programs just to wind me up, so thought it was about time I gave them some new material. (See my thoughts on clams here).
Like “Clams” I have similar opinions on the rational behind including “planks” as part of an exercise prescription for athletes. I will start, and re-iterate later on, that there are times when they are appropriate, providing they have been clinically reasoned. But this is my point, do we throw them into rehab plans / injury prevention plans out of habit or have we individualised the exercise for an athlete?
What are the benefits?
Performed properly, the Plank is an isometric exercise that crudely speaking, activates the “core”. In doing so, it should encourage a sustained hold of a posterior pelvic tilt and neutral spine for a set duration of time, also working the shoulders and lower limbs to support the torso. Stability provided by the trunk muscles allows for whole body dynamic balance (Anderson & Behm 2005) and as such, these muscles require both strength and endurance. The deep stabilisers of the lumbar spine display a small cross-sectional area, as such their ability to generate any torque is limited, so their function is to provide local stability and require this endurance component we talked about – perfectly targeted by a well performed plank. In patients with chronic low back pain, isometric exercises had positive effects on increasing the cross-sectional area of the multifidis muscles (Danneels et al 2001).
If we apply the principle of Optimal Loading, then there may be examples of injury where a static exercise is the only way of applying load to an individual. It may be that they are limited with any rotational components of exercise and are pain free in a neutral position. We also understand that isometric contractions can have an analgesic effect on patients (Bernent et al; Huber et al), hence the popularity of adductor squeezes for adductor tendinopathies.
..So what is wrong with Planks?
There are undoubtably examples and case studies where the use of a Plank is appropriate for an exercise program. However, un-supervised, there are many compensation patterns that patients can adopt when performing this exercise.
If prescribed as a home exercise, you should have great confidence in the athletes proprioception and ability to self correct. Otherwise you will likely re-enforce the exact reasons why you are treating the athlete in the first place. My biggest gripe with Planks, or Side Planks, or any isometric core exercise is that most people will fixate instead of stabilise. Locking the back into extension (plank) or into side flexion (side plank), or tilting the pelvis anteriorly, or flexing through the thoracic spine are examples of relying on passive structures like ligaments and joint capsules rather than stimulating active structures that should stabilise these joints.
“Don’t replace STABILITY with FIXATION”
Core stability is “the product of motor control and muscular capacity of the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex” (Click here for an excellent core stability review by Paul Gamble). The clue in this quote are the the words “stability” and “motor control”. There are very few examples in sport or even in daily living where we need to hold a whole-body isometric contraction for 1 minute or more. Essentially movements in sports occur in multiple directions. Even in events like Skeleton or Luge, the athletes are reacting to perturbations from the track or adjusting their course via small shoulder or lower limb movements, so I’m struggling to think of the cross-over benefits of a plank into sport. The benefits of a strong lumbopelvic region help transfer ground reaction forces to produce movement and integrate the function of the kinetic chain. Weakness or dysfunction of any link in the chain can increase risk of damage to another structure and as such, any one muscle should not be views a more important to another in terms of lumbopelvic stability (Brown 2006).
“Don’t give me problems, give me solutions”
As I said, in principle there are he benefits to core stability, especially in terms of proprioception and limbo-pelvic dissociation. But for me, the trick is to stimulate the core during movement.
Some simple modifications of the Plank can greatly enhance its suitability for athletes.
1) Plank with Wall Taps:
Assume the traditional Plank position, you can regress this with bent knees, similar to a press up regression. Position the athlete about 2ft from a wall, facing the wall. Ask them to reach forwards and tap the wall with alternating arms but maintain stability of the pelvis and trunk.
Although a sagital plane movement, the athlete will be working against a transverse plane to stop the pelvis and lower trunk from rotating to the side of the moving arm.
2) Plank with Stacking
Again, in a traditional Plank position, but this time set up a stack of 3 x 2.5kg weight discs on one side of the athlete. Ask them to reach over with their opposite hand, pick up a weight and start stacking on the opposite side. Repeat until all weights have transferred sides, then begin with the other arm. In doing so, instruct the athlete to stay as still and controlled in the hips and lumbar spine as possible, the movement should come from the shoulders only.
By reaching across with one hand, you are de-stabilising the torso. Moving the weight from one side to the other adds a transverse element to the exercises, as well as the challenge of moving with and without a weight.
3) The Side Plank with arm tucks:
Add an element of upper body rotation whilst stabilising the pelvis. Instruct the athlete to keep their hips up (relative hip abduction of the lower leg), tuck their extended top arm underneath themselves (like putting on a seatbelt) but in doing so, don’t let the pelvic twist. Encouraging dissociation of the pelvis and spine to stop them moving as one column.
There are so many variations that I haven’t included; you can add cables or theraband and ask the athlete to pull in different directions maintaining the plank position, you can add movements of the lower limb or think of various ways to de-stabilise the more advanced athletes. For those athletes that just “get it”, there are brilliant variations of the Bear Crawl which may be appropriate – for me, a perfect example of “core stability” (averagely demonstrated below)
Activities during sport require both static and dynamic strength – however in rehabilitation, these should be dynamic exercise with a pause rather than prolonged holds. At times, we may have to regress back to its most simple form in order to educate the athlete on correct positioning or increase proprioception but there should always be a plan to progress into dynamic core stability, rather than progressing the time holding a plank.
When designing rehab programs, we should always consider the individual – what do they need to cope with for their sport / daily life? What physical capabilities do they have at this moment of their program? Am I challenging them appropriately?
I hope this provokes some thought and discussion, please let us know your experiences and opinions
Yours in sport,