Deadbug getting easy? If you’ve got your periscope up, your sphinx down, and you can roll with best of them, then you’re ready for the front plank. Actually the best way to get into Front Plank if you ask me, is directly from Sphinx, that’s why I put them in this order. Honestly, I think this, and it’s many, many variations are the bees knees when it comes to training anti-extension and the front of your ‘core.’ Something I discuss further in ‘Core Training 101.’
Seriously, if you’ve got the McGill Crunch down for 10-15 quality reps, you’re good with spinal flexion so it’s time to train that core to do what it does best; Stabilize while you transfer force from your upper body to your lower body and vice versa. These are far more effective for training what your core does most of the time: STABILIZE your spine.
If you don’t have the full deadbug down yet, then you might not be ready for this just yet, but don’t worry, you soon will be.
Now in the basic front plank, you don’t need to do too much of any moving, at least not initially, movement is kind of against the point, for now. Nailing the front plank though, is a necessity for nailing the push up, so it’s a bit of a prerequisite. The front plank is demonstrating that you can keep your spine stiff in a neutral position. The push up is similar, but you demonstrate good movement through the shoulders, elbows and wrists, while keeping your spine stiff in a neutral position. The deadbug is also an expression of stability, but from a supported environment, with your back on the floor. We remove that additional stability by moving to 2 points of support, the feet and forearms. We can get creative with a front plank in the blue belt program and beyond by moving your hands or feet around your nice stiff neutral spine position.
That’s actually where most people experience their hiccups when trying to progress the front plank beyond these four progressions (one regression). The moment you increase the difficulty by moving arms, legs or rotating the spine, the demands of this exercise can significantly increase. If too much is done too soon, then suddenly the spine turns to putty and is bending and twisting all over the place to balance those movements, rather than remaining the rock solid foundation it needs to be. Training the front plank is a lot about training body awareness and proprioception (your brain’s perception of where your body is in space). It’s also about control and getting comfortable with a neutral spine. For this program I want to start you at a place I know most will succeed.
Please welcome my lovely assistant…
See the dowel? See how it’s pretty parallel to the ground? Maybe a slight lean downward towards the feet. That’s the neutral spine posture we discussed.
Knees are locked out. Glutes are tight. Arms are positioned in the same way you’d find in sphinx. Chest is pushed hard away from the floor. Shoulders protracted all the way forward. Chin is tucked back into a neutral position (there is that packed neck position again!) and if I asked you to take a big belly breath, you should be able to do it in this position without much strain.
Notice the gaps at the neck and the low back, but the three points of contact with the dowel at the back of the head, the upper back and the glutes or tailbone.
THAT’S A PRETTY GOOD FRONT PLANK.
And that’s the front plank standard you should hold yourself to. It’s the quality that matters, and a dowel is an easy way to give your body some feedback on where your spine is in space, particularly if you don’t have a coach with a good set of eyes. If it rolls off, you’re not in a good position. If you don’t have 3 points of contact, you’re not in a good position. And well you get the idea…
Why train it?
Dr. Stuart McGill’s work, gives the strong indication that training the core from stable neutral positions seems to be the ideal strategy overall. I emphasize this in my training for that reason, but it also gives some insight that people with pain-free low backs are capable of holding a front plank for about two minutes (really it’s a seated flexion test, very similar, but you won’t have the equipment for that…). Now that’s in correlation with about a ninety second side plank and a two minute sorensen too. We’ll get to those, I just want you to understand that balance between the front of your abdominals, the side of your abdominals and the back of your abdominals really matters and that over-training any one of them, could be problematic down the road. You don’t need to become a front plank champ at your gym, OK?
In other words, endurance matters a lot in the context of spinal stability and is probably the most important initial consideration of core training, but not alone. If two minutes is the marker for a pass, does that mean we want to train the front plank and see how long you can hold it for?
Nope! Not necessarily.
I see front plank competitions going down in the gym all the time, and that’s why I stress that the balance is important. If you can hold a front plank for eighteen minutes but your side plank for only ninety seconds (which is within the norms I gave you), you will still most likely end up with a problem, even though your front plank rocks the house and you’re strong as an ox in the front of your abs. I’m not sure I fully understand why, but I can tell you from personal experience, I’ve been a low back pain sufferer and the front of my abdominals has always been strong, probably a little too strong. To find relief, I needed to provide a lot more balance with deeper inner core work like the deadbug, more rotational work like quadruped (crawling position) and the side plank to get that mostly under control.
How do you train it then?
Well you don’t train the test. The next time you go to your training space after reading this book, you’re going to get yourself in that position and have a partner put a dowel on your spine, then help you find the right position (dowel parallel to the floor) as best they and you can. Time it. If you can do two minutes, you can move onto level 2 or 3 versions. Just don’t push your luck, people who do self-assessments are prone to misjudging their own ability, until they encounter a coach who holds them to a higher standard. That’s why I encourage having a partner make the judgement call. If your hips drop more than once in the 2 minutes, and your partner has to tell you to reset, you didn’t get 2 minutes, and you probably shouldn’t advance to level 2 or 3 just yet. Remember that it’s important in the context of training to hold yourself to as high a standard as you might if I were watching.
If you can’t do this cleanly — and I’m willing to bet that most people won’t be able to their first time around, unless you’ve been reading my work for a while now and have been training this, or they sacrifice on quality — then the better approach to training the front plank is to practice with repetitions.
Repetitions of three to ten second holds, or repetitions of one to three deep breaths. So you’ll see these written in the programming examples as six repetitions of five seconds holds for example, or three repetitions of ten second holds. Generally speaking a set should be an accumulation of thirty to sixty seconds of work and then do multiple sets, particularly if you need work in a specific area.
Why do I recommend this strategy? For a few reasons. One, it forces you to go from Sphinx position to the Front Plank position several times. This helps groove a motor pattern and improve your motor skill. Two, it keeps the quality of the movement high, by not allowing you to get too fatigued and start cheating by lifting your hips up in the air, or slouching through your neck and shoulders. That would groove the wrong motor pattern. Three, it’s easier to count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, all the way to five or ten, than it is to sixty, ninety or one-hundred twenty. Your eyes really shouldn’t be on a clock or anything, unless you put a timer right under your face. Alternatively, a partner could be timing you.
Lately I use breaths and breath counting, more often, rather than set times, but I go back and forth too. If you struggle with breathing in this position, I recommend the breath strategy to start, so you can work on your breathing. If you’re more of a natural apical chest breather, opt for the belly breathing strategy to the repetitions as well. It’s also useful for people who have a lot of stress, or have difficulty managing their stress as deep belly breathing has a relaxing effect on the nervous system. The breathing focus helps people reinforce good breathing, reduces strain and improves spine stability through that focus. It’s also even easier to count to three breaths than it is to count to five Mississippi. If you don’t have any of those problems, feel free to use whatever you like. Some people like more tangible reference points like stats and numbers, that’s cool too.
Another slightly more advanced concept but one that I use often for muscular endurance training is called, a descending ladder approach, or what the Russians might have called a reverse pyramid. Instead of making each set even, you can tap into the fact that your endurance on the first set will be better than the following sets. In fact, you’re likely to get more and more fatigued as you do multiple sets. A descending ladder approach might look like this:
- Set 1 = 5 reps of 5 second holds
- Set 2 = 4 reps of 5 second holds
- Set 3 = 3 reps of 5 second holds
- Set 4 = 2 reps of 5 second holds
In effect you’re anticipating that your quality will diminish over time and playing into that natural fatigue effect, in order to maintain a high quality of stability. The main purpose here is to avoid training a bad plank position under too much fatigue. Excessive fatigue often means that muscles we may not necessarily want to train, have to engage to assist with fatigued primary muscles. In fancy trainer speak this is called, ‘Synergistic Dominance,’ or the point where supporting muscles being to outwork the prime muscles. It’s a little like supporting cast members trying to upstage the star of the show. This is obviously an undesirable training effect. If your hips sag, or lift during your plank exercise, you can readjust back to the proper position, but if it happens a second time, you should probably stop the exercise and permit a little rest.
After a phase of training, working progressively with longer and longer holds, or with a great number of sets, you can revisit this as a baseline assessment a few times each year. Again passing means you should move on to a more difficult challenge. Many people will be able to get to the full front plank quickly if they have a good McGill Crunch and motor control. It’s rare that it takes longer than eight weeks to get to that point, unless you have a pre-existing injury, in which case, seek out a professional.
Kneeling Front Plank
If the front plank is too difficult at the moment, don’t fret. There is a simple modification, and all you do is shorten the lever required for stability like this:
Chances are pretty good you can hold this position for at least three seconds to start training the front plank movement. I’ve yet to meet a person who couldn’t hold this quality position for a few seconds, long enough to get a training effect until they are ready for the full version. Yes the dowel is on more of an angle, but the spinal position is still good and that’s what matters most, developing some stability in that spine.
If you can get to six repetitions of ten second holds with this version, chances are really high that you can give the full version a try for a few repetitions of three to five second holds.
In case you’re wondering, yes, there are additional variations that could be go betweens. Elevated elbows against a wall or bench is also often easier than the floor. It’s possible that these variations are a better initial approach if they are closer to your current ability. An incline bench also serves as a reasonable go-between, until you’re ready for the full thing from the floor.
Feet Elevated Front Plank
For a level 2 challenge, create a gravitational challenge where you’re weaker. The hips are bigger and more muscular, so naturally it’s easier to generate stability when the hands are elevated, but it’s generally more challenging to your less stable upper body if you elevated the feet. This exercise has the additional benefit of challenging the stability of the shoulders to greater effect.
This is greater gravitational challenge to the shoulders. I’ve removed the dowel here as it will often slide off. If you have a partner, they can hold it for you until you find your position. Notice that the neutral spine position still exists, with a slight lordotic posture in the low back, shoulders are forward, slight kyphosis in the upper back and the head and neck are back into a packed position.
The set up is slightly more challenging, unlike the regular full front plank, there is a little more dynamically involved in positioning the legs for this movement. Where I’d typically recommend getting into it from Sphinx position (from the ground up) for the regular version, in this version starting from the crawl position, dropping to the elbows and then reaching back to the bench one foot at a time is the better strategy and briefly involves more rotational stability control.
In this example, the trainee has a natural tendency for a more lordotic or anteriorly tilted position (remember that most women generally do) and is perhaps slightly pulling the head back to look at the floor, but is an otherwise outstanding feet elevated front plank position.
Stability Ball Front Plank
To take it a step further, add instability. Before I get into any dynamic movements around the plank, I like to go here first as stability challenge. I’m generally not a fan of instability training methods like the stability ball, but for a few exercises, it has it’s place. Training stability of the core and shoulders, is one of those places. Standing or kneeling on BOSU or a Stability ball, is not one of those places. Actually many research studies suggest that instability training for the lower body is only really useful for rehabilitation situations, and has little value for the healthy person trying to move better and get stronger. Conversely instability training for the upper body shows a little more value, so doing a plank with your elbows on a ball is probably a better strategy than putting your feet on the stability ball.
We’re basically making it a little easier, by elevating the hands, but trading that off with the instability that the stability ball provides. This results in something just a little more challenging than the full plank, by making the shoulders and torso have to do a little more work. If having the swiss ball in free form like this is a little too difficult, you could first progress by leaning the other side of the ball into a wall or bench. That reduces the instability of the ball somewhat, but without making it so stable that you may as well have your elbows on a wall or bench. It’s a good segway into learning the proper control of this movement.
All the same rules apply as above. Slight lordotic curve of the low back. Slight kyphotic curve of the upper back. Slight lordotic curve in the neck. Neck is held into the packed position. Nothing should change if you’re doing this well, only the angle of your torso. Remember that you can always double check your positioning with a dowel and a partner.
Feet Elevated SB Front Plank
The most difficult variation you’ll find in this book, is simply playing with levers again. Rather than feet on the floor, you can increase the gravitational challenge of the Stability Ball Front Plank, by elevating the feet onto a bench or chair.
I could use a dowel to doublecheck this position as we’re back to that straight position again. As you might be able to tell, this is a pretty challenging position, even for intermediate trainees and beyond. Six reps of ten seconds holds for this and you’ll probably experience some shakes. Once more, if this is too difficult a transition from the SB Front Plank, then you can put the other end of the ball into a wall or bench to provide some additional stability to the ball as a transitionary method. Conversely, a training partner could also hold the ball steady for you, and even take their hands away and put them back to a pulsing kind of effect, so that you are only challenged in short second long bursts.