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Positives to Planks:
Starting with the good. We know that core stability is important for posture, spinal stability and even crosses over to functional movement patterns (PubMed, 2018). I like planks because they are simple to learn, they do naturally teach bracing and will give you a degree of abdominal activation. They may be useful in younger athletes, older aged groups and those who may be injured.
Although there is not much validity or data, I did find a small study conducted among adolescent soccer players where trunk endurance positively correlated with performance. Specifically, endurance plank tests were highly correlated with Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test and moderately correlated with the Cooper test (PubMed, 2016).
Additionally, isometric training has been shown to increase some motor performance like basketball, jumping ability and sprinting (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014 p. 22). I also think it’s important to mention that isometric actions can be helpful after injury (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014 p. 22). Although it may be a stretch, planks being an isometric movement may cross over to improved performance to a degree.
I think it’s important to note that although few researchers have shown a significant relationship between trunk endurance and athletic performance, I do believe it’s important to incorporate core strengthening to reduce injury risk. A progressive core routine may strengthen the trunk, help resist shear loads and prevent excessive spinal movement that may cause injury. Take the big 3 from Dr. Stuart McGill for example: great for back pain or those susceptible to injury. But assuming the athlete is experienced and healthy, read the limitations to planking.
If I chose to incorporate planks, it may serve as a good starting point (especially in younger, injured or older aged groups) to improve core stability and trunk endurance; however, I would keep it progressive. Progressive overload will continue to place demands on the body and thus, continue to make gains in strength and endurance. An example of a plank progression may start with an isometric plank hold, then arm reaches and shoulder taps, bird dogs, move to side planks, rolling side planks and then progress to weighted planks.
As mentioned before, let’s assume the athlete is healthy and experienced. If that’s the case, there may be more effective exercises to choose from. Although planks and basic variations may serve as a good starting point, they do have limitations. Static positions that stay in one plane of motion may not be sufficient to resist force in all directions. In performance, the athlete may not find many situations where their body is held steady (with the exception of wrestling, biking, gymnastics). In short, a plank may not be the most effective exercise for performance in every sport.
One study to review may be comparing core muscle activation between a plank and 6RM back squats (PubMed, 2018). The main findings concluded that squatting resulted in greater erector spine activation, so high intensity squats rather than isometric low intensity squats were recommended for the athletes. One way to look at this is possibly the idea of training specificity, where perhaps isometric training in this instance shows significant changes in isometric strength and endurance; however, in every-day life and performance situations, isometric strength isn’t the only thing tested. Again, most situations your core and spine will be challenged with resisting force from all directions while the athlete tries to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis. And for this reason, if the goal is overall performance, there are better exercises to have the athlete spend time working on.
I would prefer exercises that challenge the body to react to changes while the athlete tries to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis. An example of one may be something like a single arm front rack kettlebell march, where the hip and shoulder position are more challenged while the athlete tries to keep neutrality throughout the core. What exercises may depend on the athlete’s level of experience and sport. These may include anti-rotational, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion movements that resist all forces from all directions. Personally, I like to include 1 arm suitcases carries (for anti-lateral flexion and oblique strength), Palloff Press and Holds (anti-rotational, both static and dynamic stability) and Ab Rollers (anti-extension). However, there are many possibilities here and will vary from athlete to athlete depending on the goal and sport.
Again, although there is not much validity, I do feel a stable spine and strong core is something any athlete can benefit from and may carryover to improved performance and keeping the athlete safe.
Just for fun, I conducted my own survey among coaches and training, where I asked participants if they chose to incorporate planks in their programming as a means to improve athletic performance. Interestingly enough, 71% percent of the responses indicated they used planks in their athlete’s programming and 29% did not. One reason of why planks were incorporated, coming from a triathlete coach, was to mimic arm position down in aero on the bike. Another reason from a youth fitness coach was as a way to teach them to engage core muscles. Another reason to use them from a general fitness coach was that he used them for older clients because it’s low impact and low risk in comparison to other exercises. This is not necessarily conclusive data to add, I just found it interesting.
That is all for now.
Happy training friends!
PubMed(2016). The Relationship Between Trunk Endurance Plank Tests and Athletic Performance Tests in Adolescent Soccer Players. Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University. Retrieved fromhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27757284/
PubMed (2018). Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet.Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29922376
PubMed (2018). The Effect of Core Stability Training on Functional Movement Patterns in Collegiate Athletes.Sport Rehabil. Retrieved from