By Dave Thomas
CPT – NSCA, USAW, RKC
Earlier this week, we tackled the introduction on why body weight work not only matters, but should be an integral part of your training programming. If you missed it, you can check out Take Pride in Your Body Weight Work, Part I: The Pushup.
Being an abdominal snob or overlooking the work altogether is a fatal mistake I see a lot these days. The thought process is that you don’t need to do basic ab work if you are already front squatting, deadlifting and other heavy barbell implements. While those movements are inherently phenomenal for the trunk/core, it is highly advisable you do targeted ab work in order to overload the muscles. Just as you do targeted hamstring work (RDL, glute raises) in addition to deadlifts, so too must you do the same for abs.
Consider this from the legendary Don John via an excellent article by Master RKC Andrew Read: “Abs support your training goal as much as they support your internal organs. You must do abs in order to support your whole training system”. In Read’s article, he makes a great point that just about everything that we do is a plank in nature.
Heavy Farmer’s Walks? A plank.
Deadlifts? A plank.
Since all a plank really is at its bones is abdominal resistance against movement or rotation.
Now, “ab work” is a phrase that I don’t really care for as all I can think about are fitness models in leotards performing side crunches for “8 Minute Abs”. The key is to make the abdominal work functional, so that you can not only work on the aesthetics everyone is after, but vastly more important is the need for athletic performance and injury prevention.
We could argue what abdominal exercise reigns supreme and I am not here to sell you on reasons why the plank is even the best body weight ab movement (though I believe it is). But, it’s damn good in a number of ways in that first and foremost, it teaches the body tension. And you know how we love our tension at P360. Tension is vital for any heavy lift we do and without learning and maintaining that through abdominal work like the plank, we can lose it. You will NEVER be strong at power or Olympic lifts without a strong core. EVER.
Further, the plank strengthens all of the major abdominal muscles, the lumber and provides excellent core stability. Planks will help you core intensive movements such as the front squat, clean and jerk and snatch, and will also improve your posture and help prevent spinal related injuries.
A Few Key Points
Retract the Scapulae. Without scapular retraction this movement is essentially lost as hunchback shoulder blades remove any work on the transverse abdominus (the main abdominal muscle group). Pretend as if you are trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades.
Draw the Belly In. Think about pulling your belly button towards your spine for the most effective abdominal targeting.
Feet Together, Knees Locked Out. As we mentioned in Part I for pushups, creating and maintaining tension is everything when it comes to the plank. The easiest way to ensure tension is by bringing your feet all the way together, locking out your knees and hips completely, and squeezing your glutes together. By creating this tension you set yourself up for maximal abdominal tension (paired with scapular retraction) and you also ensure the quadriceps will be involved.
Head Neutral. As tempting as it is to look up or let your head sag, it is very important that you keep your head and neck completely neutral. When you let your head drop you inevitably will see your shoulders hunch, the exact thing we said to avoid in the first point on retracting the scapulae.
Elbows Under Shoulder. Don’t Flare. When positioning your arms underneath, you should aim to align your elbows directly under your shoulders and your forearms should be completely parallel with one another. The reason you might hear us suggest not clasping your hands together is because it can flare the elbows outward and cause you to lose that precious scapular retraction.
If you learn planks correctly, you will be able to make them repeatable. Make them repeatable and your core/trunk will become substantially stronger against movement and rotation. Become stronger against movement and rotation and watch your deadlift, farmer’s walk, Turkish get-ups, overhead pressing and Olympic lifting improve noticeably.
All based on the foundation of the harmless plank.
Dave Thomas is a co-owner and coach at Performance360 in San Diego, CA.