5 Ways to Progress Your Plank


If you are a student of fitness long enough, eventually you will be exposed to some variation of the plank for core stability. The plank can be taught two ways: on your forearms or with straight arms. Regardless of the way it’s taught, the basic principle is the same. Set yourself up so your body is straight and strong, like a plank, and hold it (or lift a limb from the floor, or bring a knee into your chest, or rock back and forth). The variations are endless.

 

What if you consider the plank as a building block for more advanced exercises? And what if instead of holding it for minutes on end, you took a harder look at the set up as a precursor for things to come?

 

 

For the purpose of today, let’s explore straight arm plank. We will look at traditional set up, ways to vary the traditional set up, and discuss how these alternative plank positions can be used to work towards progressively challenging movements.

 

Why the Plank?

The plank is often touted as a magical exercise. Because gravity pulls down on the torso, the muscles in the abdominal region have to work to prevent the spine from ending up on the ground, making it an effective “core” exercise. (Core has many connotations. For today, let’s just assume core refers to the muscles around the spine.)

 

Straight arm plank is also the starting position for the push up. As a result, it’s a great place to teach awareness of the how the hands interact with the floor, how the upper arm and shoulder region position are dependent on hand position, and how rib cage position elicits stability through the torso.

 

Acquiring a sense of strength and being able to generate total body tension in straight arm plank translates into a variety of positions. It requires wrist mobility, straight arm strength, and strength in the torso to resist gravity. These fundamental components are prerequisites for more advanced exercises, such as crawling variations, mountain climbers, push ups, and arm balances.

 

Plank holds load the tissues in an incremental way. It can be adapted in a variety of ways to generate more tension and work on different areas, making it a great stand alone exercise for the beginning exerciser, or a great preparatory exercise for those working on more advanced skills.

 

Plank: The Beginner Version

All of the variations discussed can be done against a wall if you have trouble bearing weight on your wrists. Remember to work gradually, mastering the basic versions before moving on to the more advanced.

 

Before looking at more complex variations of the plank and discussing what they can lead to, it’s important to have a good foundation. The basic plank establishes a sense of strength and is a stepping stone to push ups, mountain climbers, and burpees.

 

To perform:

Start with your hands under your shoulders with your index fingers pointing pretty much straight ahead. Set yourself up so your nose is even with your fingertips and the back of your head is in line with your spine. Your arms will be straight and you are actively pushing your hands into the floor. The collar bones are wide and the breast bone is lifting away from the floor. Keep your legs strong and orient your feet so they are pointing straight up and down, parallel with each other. Your breath should be even as you hold this position.

 

 

Common sticking point:

  • You can’t spread your fingers evenly.

 

Fix:

  • Spend time on exercises for your hands. Focus on improving hand mobility and how they interact with the floor. Your hand is like the foot of the arm—the more strength and awareness you have of your hand when it’s on the floor, the better your floor experience will be.

 

Common sticking point:

  • You have a hard time straightening your elbows with your fingers pointing straight ahead.

 

Fix:

  • Bent elbows usually happen for one of three reasons: you are lacking straight arm strength in plank position, your arm isn’t used to the position with the hands fixed, and/or you lack good shoulder integration. Often, it’s a combination of all three. Practicing plank with your fingers pointing forward will help, but additional work strengthening the back of the shoulders, the mid-back, and your triceps in a straight arm position will expedite the process.

 

Common sticking point:

  • Your back dips while you are in plank position or you have a hard time keeping your breast bone lifted away from the floor.

 

Fix:

  • You either have a hard time sensing where your spine is in space or you don’t have the strength to support the torso in a less extended position. It might be a combination of both. Get really good at feeling different aspects of your back, either using segmented cat/cow or lying on the floor and sensing how the mid-back rests against the floor. Practice focusing on how your breath subtly changes the pressure of the back on the floor. When you exhale, observe how you can feel the mid-back pressing more on the floor.

 

  • Once you can feel your mid-back, turn over on to a hands and knees position. Set yourself up so the breast bone is parallel with your spine. Begin actively pulling the hands back towards the knees. You will feel work in your abdominal region. You can translate this into the plank position by performing the same action with the hands, teaching yourself how to generate tension through the torso. Be sure to breathe.

 

Common sticking point:

  • Your shoulders are behind your hands.

 

Fix:

  • You know you are doing this if your nose isn’t even with your fingertips. This is either a subconscious cheat to avoid work through the torso or a way to take pressure off of the wrists. Check your position on the wall to see what it feels like to have your hands right underneath your shoulders. Make sure you are pressing the center heel of the palm firmly into the wall. If you feel a lot of work in the wrist joint, you may need to spend extra time gaining mobility there before you begin spending a lot of time on your hands.

 

  • If your wrists feel fine, check your position on hands and knees, using a mirror if necessary to see exactly where your shoulders are in relation to your wrists, or ask a friend to check your position. Try the same trick I mentioned earlier, pulling the hands towards the feet. Continue to actively pull the hands towards the feet as you extend one leg out at a time to come into a straight arm plank. See what that feels like.

 

Common sticking point:

  • You don’t know how to keep your legs strong.

 

Fix:

  • Straighten your knees as much as possible without locking them and pretend you are squeezing a tennis ball between your thighs. Your legs should warm up nicely.

 

Plank: The Shoulder Blade Version

Now that you are comfortable setting up for basic plank, let’s explore plank variations as they relate to prep work for more advanced skills.

 

Understanding how to move the shoulder blades without the rest of the body moving is extremely beneficial for hand balancing, basic shoulder function, and improved strength through the mid-back. Because we can’t see our shoulder blades, we often have trouble moving them independently of the torso. Moving the shoulder blades in a plank position improves strength, awareness, and mobility.

 

To perform:

Begin in plank. Make sure your breast bone is parallel with the floor. Your torso isn’t going to move. Your hands should be pressing equally into the floor. As you exhale, press the hands a little bit more and allow your shoulder blades to move away from each other; inhale, get a little lighter in your hands and allow your shoulder blades to come towards each other. Keep the arms straight as you move the shoulder blades. Perform 6-8 times.

 

 

Common sticking point:

  • The back moves instead of the shoulder blades and/or the shoulders move up by the ears instead of staying in line with the wrists.

 

Fix:

  • If you have trouble with this, try it on your hands and knees or against a wall. You can also come on to your forearms and work on isolating the shoulder blades in that position.

 

Plank: The Crow Prep Variation

This is a great way to prep the action needed when you are balancing on your hands in straight arm crow pose.

 

To perform:

Set up in plank. Begin pressing your hands strongly into the floor and allow your shoulder blades to move away from each other while rounding your mid-back. It’s as though your breast bone is moving so far away from the floor it’s going to touch the ceiling. Stay in this position for four breaths, letting your inhale fill your mid back and maintaining the rounded shape as you exhale.

 

 

Common sticking point:

  • You don’t have good flexion in your middle back and/or you have trouble moving your shoulder blades away from each other.

 

Fix:

  • Practice cat/cow, the yoga move where you round your back and arch your back in a hands and knees position. When doing the movement, see if you can initiate the rounding and arching from different parts of the back. Once this becomes comfortable, practice isolating the movement to one area of the back, taking extra time with the area between the shoulder blades down to the bottom of the rib cage.

 

Plank: Planche Prep

To perform:

Come into the basic plank position. Shift your weight forward so your shoulders move forward of your wrists. Stay here for four breaths, gradually working up to 10 slow, even breaths.

 

 

Common sticking point:

  • The shoulders collapse forward.

 

Fix:

  • Work on strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and the middle of the back. Make sure you have good awareness of what it feels like to keep your collar bones broad while your hands are in front of you.

 

Common sticking point:

  • Your wrists don’t have enough flexibility to allow you to move forward.

 

Fix:

  • Add in wrist mobility work twice a week to begin addressing your lack of flexibility. Work on other plank variations, and test your ability to move forward periodically. It’s a great way to gauge whether or not the wrist mobility program you implemented is making a difference or if you need to take another approach.

 

Plank: The Single Arm Variation

If you are working towards a single arm push up, the single arm plank can be a great way to build strength at the top of the movement.

 

To perform:

Set up in plank. Take your feet wider than your shoulders. Begin strongly pressing your right foot and your left hand into the ground. Make sure you feel you feel your left center heel of the palm pressing into the floor and imagine the weight is evenly distributed across all five fingers.Take your left hand behind your body. Stay here for four breaths. Switch sides.

 

 

Common sticking point:

  • Torso rotates (can’t keep shoulders square).

 

Fix:

  • Work on one hand variation in quadruped with an emphasis on maintaining square shoulders and hips. You can also work on slow crawling patterns, focusing on which hand and leg support you as you crawl forward and keeping your torso still. For instance, when you crawl your right hand and your left leg forward, your left hand and your right leg strongly press into the floor so the torso doesn’t tip to the right. See if you can translate the feeling of contralateral support to the one arm plank position.

 

  • If your goal is to be strong and maintain a sense of control while working on more challenging exercises, take a hard look at your foundation. Learn how to generate tension and spend time refining and addressing the set up for basic movements. Mastering straight arm plank will save you time and frustration when working towards more advanced skills later. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and then devise a plan to get there using what you know—the basics are only boring if you forget they are building blocks that can be viewed an infinite number of ways.

 



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