WHEN IT COMES TO TRENDS in the fitness industry, core exercises have lasted and increased in popularity over the years. You know something has caught on when new students ask about specific terminology and exercises (i.e. ab-roller and crunches) during the first training session. While kettle-bells, myofascial release and plyometric are still foreign to many, virtually everyone knows about planks and how to hold one (Until they are told to do so for more than 10 seconds).
Despite the fact that the plank is usually associated with core training, students often ask me how the sensation felt in their shoulders, legs or low back is training the abs. In truth, this lack of understanding by students and fitness goers really illustrates the issue many fitness professionals face when prescribing exercises that are intended to train core stability.
Though many fitness enthusiasts know how to crunch their abs into submission, few actually possess an understanding of how to properly engage these muscles in daily life. To perform a plank correctly, you must be able to engage your core muscles to create a neutral spine, which is the correct position during walking, squatting and daily life movement.
Let me explain why the plank is such a great exercise. The abdominals tighten around the spine to provide support during exercise or daily tasks such as bending over and rotating. Contracting the abs in a plank is known as an abdominal brace. As opposed to drawing in the waist to the spine, planking involves a simultaneous contraction of all abdominal muscles to provide additional stiffness and support to the spine. This method of creating strength in the muscles around the spine will help the body create power and reduce pain such as lower back issues.
While this reaction happens automatically with healthy adults with a strong mid-section, a lack of conscious control during exercise is often related to a host of issues such as back pain and weakness of core muscles deep inside our bodies. While the outer core consists of the visible stomach muscles (rectus abdominis and obliques), the muscles of the inner core are located close to our joints (multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor and transverse abdominis). The function of these muscles is to contract isometrically before movement occurs to stabilize the joints. If this cannot be achieved, the chance of injury increases and the ability to create significant power will not exist.
The most important thing to understand about this idea is that these muscles must fire before any movement takes place in order to create stability. Interestingly, a timing delay in this reaction has been found to exist in fitness goers with chronic back pain – illustrating the fact that the presence of chronic or acute pain can throw off the way our inner core fires and stabilizes the body. By contrast, the muscles of the outer core are responsible for moving or preventing motion of the extremities and trunk after the inner core muscles have fired.
A common error made in training programs for students who are deconditioned or returning from injury is an overabundance of outer core training without re-establishing control of these inner core muscles. But in order to do so, we must first establish whether or not these muscles are working correctly and whether the client is able to actively engage an abdominal brace. For this purpose, we can rely on several key tests, but one of the best and easiest to perform tests is to perform a plank in perfect form for at least two minutes. If this can be achieved, it will prove your core muscles are stabilizing correctly and working efficiently.
Watch Michael Greenhouse demonstrate how to do the plank the right way.