If you have been following the likes of Dr Stuart McGill you will already know of the danger that abdominal crunches and sit ups
can have on your spine. Training the abs for stability (planks, roll outs) as opposed to using flexion of the spine (sit ups, leg lowering exercises) to train your core is a much more effective way to do ab work for the average desk jockey. There are exceptionsto this, but that’s a whole other article. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there that think the plank is just too easy and they have to hold it for minutes on end to even feel their abs, but nothing could be further from the truth. Today is your lucky day because today you will learn how to advance the plank.
When we use a plank to train our core we are trying to stabilize the hips and shoulders against the force of gravity pushing down against us. If we wanted to make the plank more advanced all we need to do is decrease the stability. The most basic progression is to go from a kneeling plank to a plank from your feet, but this is typically about as advanced as a lot of people get, continually increasing the time of their hold. Now it’s great to do some endurance work using the plank to help with preventing back pain, but if you are anything like me you will quickly get bored. Here are some ideas on how you can increase the difficulty of your planks (some of the variations at the bottom are what I used with Paul Drinan (who had set a Guinness Book of World Record on May 11, 2011 by holding a plank for 33:40 minutes). Oh yeah, did I mention that Paul is 68 years old?
A great way to start to build up your time with the basic plank is to hold for 10 seconds and rest for 2 seconds until you reach 1 minute of work. But once you’ve got to the one minute mark, let’s start cranking up the difficulty, and here are 6 simple progressions to turn the basic plank into an advanced core exercise.
1) Lift a Limb
Start by performing a plank from the floor while lifting one foot slightly off the floor. If you want to take it up a notch hold the plank position and extend one arm out in front of you. Once you’ve mastered those two versions test out your superhero strength by pulling one knee out to the side and holding (aka Spiderman style). The final progression would be to lift your opposite arm and foot simultaneously and hold. With all of these be sure to keep both the hips and shoulders square with the floor. You really want to limit any rotation of the hips or shoulders.
2) Elevate you Feet
Place your feet up on a bench shoulder width apart and get into the plank position. Ensure you keep your elbows underneath your shoulders. To take this to the next level simply lift one foot 6-12 inches off the bench. But make sure you keep your hips level with the floor. If you are unable to keep your hips level then this one may be a little to advanced for you (at the moment). If you want to regress this a little try starting with a plank from the floor and lifting one leg.
3) Increased Instability at the Feet
The easiest version of this should look just like a normal plank from the ground only now you will have your forearms placed on a stability ball and your feet up on a bench. To gently increase the difficulty start with your forearms on the ground and your feet up on a stability ball (just like #2 only using a ball instead of a bench). What, you want to make these harder? Cool, just lift one leg slightly off the ball. Maybe you have some suspension straps (like a TRX, jungle gym, or rings) you want to throw into the mix. Place your feet into the straps and get set to really feel your core turn on.
4) Increased Instability at the Arms
Ok, now we are getting serious. To get you more familiar with the position you need to be in you will start off with doing a plank with the forearms on a stability ball and the feet on the ground. Next, get into a push up position with your hands on the ball and your feet on the ground. Once you are comfortable with those two versions we now make it hard. Take it up a notch by putting your feet up on a bench while holding a push up position on the stability ball. Not hard enough yet? Where did those suspension straps go because you’re going to need them. Set up the straps so that they are only 6-12 inches from the ground. Now get into a push up position with your hands in the straps and brace yourself. Still too easy, lift one foot slightly off the ground.
5) Double Instability
Moving onto double instability is very difficult and takes a lot of strength through the core, low back, glutes and shoulders. Do not, I repeat, do not try these ones until you have built up enough strength in these areas or you will injure yourself. The easiest version is to use a BOSU with the flat side up. Set up in a push up position with your hands on the BOSU, then bring the feet up onto the stability ball and hold tight (did I really just call that easy?). If you do not have access to a BOSU, not to worry because the next level we will use a medicine ball. It’s exactly the same except this time we are using a medicine ball to put your hands under, while your feet go up on the stability ball. And if you want the killer of them all, bring back out the suspension straps. You will set yourself up with your hands in the straps like a push up, and your feet up on the ball. Or if you need to dial it down a little bit you could put your feet in a TRX and lift a single arm out in front of you. These are what I got Paul to do to really build up a lot of glute and shoulder strength while he was getting ready for his Guinness Book of World Records attempt.
6) The Resisted Plank
This is one that I unleashed during my presentation at the 2nd Turbulence Training Summit in San Diego and it really surprised the trainers there how hard the entire core is forced to work. This one especially gets the lower abdominals to do a lot of work which is not the case for a lot of the other versions of the plank. Here is the video of the whole presentation:
In summary, there are limitless ways to increase the difficulty of the plank so don’t stop doing this great exercise just because you can hold a standard plank for 2-3 minutes (or 32 minutes in Pauls case). The main thing to always remember is that your form is always far more important than how long or how advanced you can make it. Hopefully you now have a couple new core exercises to try out in your next training session and feel free to comment below if you come up with any more variations. I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with!