You can't walk into a gym nowadays and not see someone doing a plank or some variation thereof. They are a great way to train the anti-extension moment of the lumbar spine. They have quite a bit of carryover to other movements such as the squat, deadlift, and also to everyday tasks in our everyday lives.
One thing I see time and time again is people attempting to hold the plank for a certain period of time. I remember hearing about contests to see how long someone could hold a plank for and people would be posting on social media about it and their friends would be attempting to beat their friend's time.
I am definitely not against a little competition, but when people are attempting to hold planks 5+ minutes, that's when things get a little crazy.
Why is holding a plank for a long period of time a "bad thing"?
Well, besides holding a plank for a long period of time, when else would you be maintaining this plank position for during other gym-related activities or during everyday life?
Exactly! Never. During squats and deadlifts, maintaining a neutral spine position is only for a few moments. Definitely not as long as some of these multi-minute planks.
Second, with any type of exercise or movement, technique eventually begins to falter. Some people are better than others and can maintain proper form for a longer period of time. When performing a plank, we ideally want to see a nice, neutral spine position as shown in the picture below.
In the majority of people performing this type of movement, you can't tell me that they are maintaining pristine form during the entire time their are holding the plank position. What eventually is happens is one of two things:
One, they lose that nice, neutral spine position, gravity wins and their hips drop down towards the ground and they go into lumbar extension as shown above.
The problem with continuing to hold the "plank" in this position is that the abdominals are no longer the primary muscle group being "worked." The focus is now on either other muscles/areas such as:
Second, they lose that neutral spine position and instead of going into an extended position, they will hike their hips to the sky as shown below.
This is still not ideal because the spine isn't being trained to maintain a neutral spine. In order to improve spinal stability, especially under load when lifting or exercising, we must train the spine to maintain a neutral position while outside forces (ie. gravity) are trying to de-stabilize it and bring it into flexion or extension.
So, instead of trying to hold a plank for as long as you can and eventually defaulting into one of the examples shown above, try this INSTEAD!
Prone Plank with Breath
This variation is much HARDER. When incorporating the breath into this, you cannot rely on holding your breathe for increased spine stability. Now, we can get into a debate on whether holding your breath is good or bad during exercising.
If you are performing a max effort lift, ie. squat, deadlift, etc. and you need maximal spine stability, then holding your breath during a part of the movement may not be a bad thing. I would take a breath hold over not holding it and losing spine stability.
By performing a full expiration of air during this, you are forcing the abdominal musculature to have to force itself to stabilize vs using the Valsalva Maneuver and holding your breath to maintain spine stability. You don't want to consistently train by compensating and holding your breath to gain/increase stability.
You can start off by trying for a 1-2 breath duration and then increase to 4-5 breaths. Holding a plank or any other variation for days on end is more for "show" than it is for true application to lifting and/or daily life.
Give this variation a try and let me know what you think.
Here I will be writing and posting about topics ranging from physical therapy, injury prevention/reduction, and strength and conditioning.