If you’ve never seen an advertisement for Abdominal training, or Ab Workouts, or Six Pack this and that, well done. You’re probably one of the lucky ones who haven’t been inflicted with horrific images of back busting silliness all in the name of grabbing attention to a program, product of instagram likes.
Whilst there is plenty of great information out in the interwebs, most of the time we only see the very well marketed, sparkly sensationalised ‘stuff’.
Commonly we’ll see 4 week programs with an irrational progression where arbitrary volume is added by time or repetitions regardless of the readers ability or actual progress. We’ll see recommendations for 3, 4 or 5 minute plank holds or worse still, a list of multiple exercises to target the waist muscles and all at the same time, totally disregarding the readers ability.
My good chiropractor and physiotherapist friends rub their hands in glee, simultaneously frustrated by the lack of respect for the body.
There is nothing wrong with challenging the plank position every now and then, but there needs to be a solid foundation of strength first.
Abdominal strengthening is much like the strength training of any other part of the body and doesn’t need a special formula for excellent results. For beginners the rules are simple – learn tension for brief moments long before challenging longer efforts (which we’ll get to shortly).
In training and coaching we have both the teaching ‘how’ to do something and then we’ll have the cueing. Cueing is a reminder of the key instructions. Generally a frequently used word, or short sentence, again just as a reminder of the important stuff to do.
Tension is one the most important aspects to help develop strength and it could be summed up by one cue – ‘squeeze’. Once you learn the how of building tension to execute a strength movement better the gentle reminder of “squeeze” is often all that’s needed to remind the lifter to, well, squeeze everything to get tight.
The plank is the ultimate squeeze exercise. There is no movement (apart from breathing – that is rather important). The plank is an isometric and something we use in the gym to teach control of tension that is then applied to other movements like the top of the deadlift, or the kettlebell swing, the squat, military press, push up, carries – you see a pattern here? Every strength exercise requires tension, the act of squeezing.
Why? Tensioning up is like loading a spring, compressing it, readying it to recoil with explosive power and awesomeness. Secondly, being tight aka tense, serves to protect the joints, the spinal column in particular and muscles. There is a time for relaxing but not when attempting to deadlift.
Whilst tension practice with the plank is a great tool, performing the plank is also just fine to practice, to get better at planking. It’s ok… really. It’s fine to have a personal goal you know. As a brief side note, you’ll observe many extremists (and social media has an abundance of shouters and followers) who will say you should just do the big lifts and stop faffing around with the small stuff. No one has the right to demand you only do A, B or C. If you want to focus on getting better at something – do it. It’s glorious to celebrate a victory not matter how big or small. Celebrate 🙂
Back to the Plank
Let’s take a peek at a good plank and then a terrible plank before looking at progressions.
Like any other strength movement, short sets are great for maintaining technique and the tension I’ve spoken of.
I typically refer to the volume of an isometric set in terms of breaths. That is, I practice a high tension plank for the duration of 5 breaths for 3 or maybe 4 sets. Can we do 10 breaths? Yes. But master 5 breaths first off.
For a beginner we even take a graduated breathing repetition scheme. Set 1 for 1 breath with the best tension we can muster. Rest then hold for 2 breaths, 3, 4 and then 5. That is 5 sets of gradually more volume for a total of 15 breaths. And that’s perfect – a good starting point for a beginner.
Once the basic plank is awesome, then we can start to play with progressions. We can progress by complexity as shown below or by adding time. This is when we can start to look at holding a great plank for 30 to 60 secs and perhaps more if form is sustainable.
I’ll stop at this point as it’s tempting to provide a challenge haha. If you’ve read this and think you need to work on your plank form, do just that before looking for sexy, fun ways to just make it harder to do. There is nothing sexy or fun about getting a tweaked back due to sloppy plank form.
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