Reconsidering Planks

Planks have been around for a long time.  A few years back, they became the rage of the internet with random positions and humorists:

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This gave way to the even funnier and more absurd ‘whaling’:

But I digress.

Planking in it’s most viral form was actually a stiffened laying.  It actually worked the core musculature much better than most folks who try versions with their hands and feet connected to the ground.

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A). Too much upper back, meaning less feet and abs.
B). Too much upper back and hip hike, meaning less abs and slightly more feet.
C).  Huge hip hike upward (flexion). meaning all weight is supported by the base — feet and shoulders up.  Minimal abs.
D).  Hip sag (extension), meaning using the upper through elbows as a stake and letting the whole mid-torso ‘hang’.  From this position the upper back tries to pull you up, rendering the abs useless.
If you’re not feeling it in your abs, you’re probably not using your abs.

Still, what is the purpose of planks in the first place?  Is it to strengthen or build endurance?  I don’t think it’s either.  The true value of the plank is that it answers the question, “Can you set your body so the stomach can do it’s work?” If you can’t get your body in position for the abs to do their job, you’re actually building strength and endurance of the other muscles you’re using to hold the plank.  The gains are dysfunctional.

Planks should be considered less of an exercise  and more of check for alignment.  

In the fantastic Continuums DVD, Dan John and Gray Cook talk about the “kneeling plank.”  It’s used as a postural analysis.  You’re to hold a kettlebell down in front of you and see if you can rotate.

Planks, like carries and chops and half kneels, are an alignment check.
It’s EASIER to resist external forces when everything’s sitting the right way.
The hard part is getting yourself into the proper position without cheating.
With planks, the biggest cheats are overusing your back and shoulders and not putting enough weight in your feet.  To remedy this issue, take your arms out of the equation entirely:
You’re not looking for height here, you’re looking for control.  The weight has to shift to the feet in order to lift your hips up.  It’s also a great pelvic tilt catch, as if it’s not titled posteriorly you’ll feel it immediately in your lower back.
If you have shoulder issues and have trouble getting your arms overhead, the same task can be performed with arms out wide:
In this version, my pelvis automatically tilts as I shorten my foot stance to get a good foot grip (note how the heels are past the toes).
 Simpler work typically leads to more efficiency.  Keep exercise productive by teasing out it’s purpose.

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