Fitness Coach/Surfer
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There are better ways to get the same results. Photo: Shutterstock

There are better ways to get the same results. Photo: Shutterstock


The Inertia

It didn’t take me very long to come to the conclusion that I should stop getting clients to do long-duration planks. In fact, when I really began to think about it, it didn’t take me very long to come to the realization that I should stop getting clients to ditch planking all together. For those that don’t know, the plank is an exercise where, while balanced on elbows and toes, one attempts to hold their hips, back, and shoulders in alignment off the ground for an extended period of time.

The plank test has long been used by trainers as a core strength development/assessment tool. This alone, though, is not a reason to continue doing it–especially considering the pervasiveness of mindless training that I observe in the gym on a daily basis.

Before providing my reasons for stopping the widespread use of this exercise, I would ask anyone who thinks they hold the knockdown argument against my reasoning to please offer it without hesitation. To paraphrase Sam Harris, I don’t wish to be wrong any longer than is absolutely necessary.

I also note that the title of this blog is why I “stopped” giving clients the plank. This implies that at one time I thought this was a good enough idea to incorporate into my client’s training, and for a fee no less! I do however reserve the right to change my opinions where reason and logic persuade me to do so, and always in the light of evidence.

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For this reason, I shudder a little whenever I hear of a professional prescribing planking as a “core” exercise. This is a first alarm bell to indicate that they really either have no idea what the hell they are doing or couldn’t be bothered to investigate the application of any number of exercises that are considerably more useful.

So what I offer are my reasons for quitting this pointless endeavor, as well as my recommendations for similar exercises that will have an immediate AND useful strength benefit for your core training.

Reason 1: Long duration holds have nothing to do with strength.
Feeling the burn is, in fact, counterproductive to strength development. The burn most associated with “hard” exercise often has no place in making people genuinely stronger. This exercise would be better performed in a way that did indeed stimulate a strength effect, with a focus on maximum muscular contraction over holds of 10-20 secs only.

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The only byproduct I see from long slow plank holds is often piss-poor form, leading to long-term dysfunction. This desire to punish yourself is sadomasochistic and has NO place in the gym.

Reason 2: What’s the point?
Let’s say for the sake of this argument that you have indeed trained yourself to hold a three-minute plank. I’m stoked for you, but so what? What the hell does this make you better at? All you are teaching your body is how to be stiff in a posture. That, to my knowledge, has no carryover to any sport on the planet. Even curling requires a greater degree of dynamism than planking provides.

It certainly has NO place in surfing, where you are required to be stable often in end ranges of spinal flexion or extension, often with rotation. Planking fails this basic principle in all three planes of motion.

Reason 3: There are better exercises to train your core.
If you knew that there was something more effective you could be doing with your time, wouldn’t you want to do that?

For example:
Strength for your deep abdominals (Transversus Abdominus): The four point tummy vacuum

This involves 5-10 sec maximal contractions of your deep abdominals and pelvic floor, and is an incredibly effective method of strengthening your deep abdominals and stabilizing your lower back.

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Multifidus, Rotator Cuff, Transversus Abdominus, Lower Abdominals, Integration of Glutes, Lats, Abdominals in Twisting: The Horsestance

If you want to get the isometric benefits of planking, with SO many other benefits, the horse stance wins over planking on all counts, in any category I can think of. Again, if you can think of a knockdown argument against this, please stop me being wrong publicly on the internet.

Strength training for the sagittal plane: The Forward Ball Roll

It’s kind of like planking, but just better in EVERY way. If you lack the strength, coordination or potential to perform something with bigger bang like a Prone Jackknife, I can understand why you would want to regress that exercise to something that you could perform with perfect form. The Forward Ball Roll allows you to manipulate the point of load into your lower back with greater specificity than planking ever could. With the ability to perform either isometrically or dynamically, this exercise teaches you not only how to engage and strengthen your abdominals, but also to do so while teaching your body how to move safely into and out of loads into your low back while bending.

This exercise is often abused in the gym, but if you learn to do it properly, you will find it has an amazing strength benefit. This exercise also teaches you how to regulate the degree to which they increase the stabilization from the abdominal and hip stabilizers to meet the instability demand. So you engage your abdominals more, the further you roll forward. You aren’t stiff all the time, just as you need to be. This makes this exercise not only useful for strength, but has an immediate functional carry over to life.

Stability isn’t about being stiff, it’s the firing and relaxation of muscles to create the illusion of stability through controlled instability. Otherwise, you would be so stiff you couldn’t bend, twist or be agile. That’s an evolutionary death knell.

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The Forward Ball Roll has the added benefit of being a semi-open chain exercise to improve your shoulder strength.

I didn’t write this piece simply to be controversial–I just see no benefit to long-duration hold planks. I hope that I have made some valid arguments to assist you in removing this pointless exercise from your routines. Even when performed for strength durations, when better exercises exist, why bother?

Find full instructional videos for each of these exercises here.

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