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Exercise of the Week – Front Plank

Feb6th 2012

I’ve discussed the front plank here previously as a way to demonstrate the mistakes many people will make when performing ‘core’ exercises.  The most basic mistake is allowing too much lumbar extension (excessive inward curve of the spine).   In this position, the spinal joints are compressed and providing the stability.  This is a great way to hurt your back over time!

In that post I wrote about achieving a more neutral spine position by trying to pull the belly button to your nose.  This activates the abdominals and rotates the pelvis backward slightly bringing the spinal curve to a more neutral position.  Check out the examples below.

Too much extension
Neutral spine posture

You can see in the second picture that a straight line could be drawn from her hips through her spine to her shoulders.  That straight line should also extend through the neck to the ear, but I’ll talk more about that in a moment.  The neutral spine position is the first correction that must be made, but once you’ve mastered that here are a few other  techniques to get the most possible benefit from the front plank exercise:

1.   ‘Breathing behind the shield’ – this is a cue used by the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) to improve spinal stability and strength in the plank and other kettlebell exercises.  When breathing appropriately, you should feel the abdomen expand circumferentially (see the picture below).  The chest will expand slightly but definitely do not want to feel the shoulders rise toward the ears.

Using the diaphragm appropriately during any activity triggers the deep muscles of the core that are responsible for segmental spinal stability.  This is the most basic level of stability in the spine and what keeps our vertebrae in proper alignment.  This is a must for injury prevention and optimum performance.  We all breathed this way when we were younger but most of us lose this ability especially when challenged.  Check your breathing right now.  Do you feel your abdomen expand when you inhale?  Or do you feel the expansion in your chest?  Worst of all are your shoulders rising when you inhale?  Pathological breathing pattern can contribute to all sorts of orthopedic ailments and reduces your ability to exercise efficiently.

The ‘shield’ refers to the braced muscles of the abdomen.  If you’ve taken the steps I’ve described above then you should feel the abdominals contacting hard.  The breath should feel like it is pressing out into the abdominals.  Many trainers and clinicians advocate drawing the belly button in toward the spine, but this only destroys the breathing pattern and weakens the deep stabilizing unit.

2.  ‘Pack the Neck’ by pulling the chin back to your spine.   The common mistakes here are to bring the chin down toward the chest or to look up.  You should be looking straight down and feel like your head moves up away from the floor.  This small movement activates the deep flexor muscles in the front of the neck which are known to be a ‘trigger’ for recruitment of the inner core muscles I spoke of in #1.  Again, anything that makes you stronger in this exercise will only help bring you closer to your fitness goals, prevent back pain, and improve carry over to everyday activities and sports.

Packing the Neck – I was unable to find a good example in the plank position – which should tell you how few people do it correctly!

3.  Increase abdominal muscle activation by pulling your elbows to your toes.  The elbows aren’t going to move, but you want to feel yourself pulling into the floor in that direction.  You will feel the abdominal contract much harder as well as the large latissimus muscles on each side of the upper back.  Once you can hold your plank using this technique, now try to pull your toes toward your elbows.  Once again you will feel everything tighten down and bring more muscles into the exercise including the abdominals.  This uses the principle known as irradiation which basically means the more muscles you can recruit the stronger you will be.

When you try these techniques you realize how hard the plank exercise should really be.  I’m not impressed by people that tell me they can hold the position for 5 minutes because they are doing it wrong.  This should be an extremely difficult exercise.  Start with 10 second holds with 10 second rest breaks.  The goal should be to hold 20 seconds per rep, rest 10 seconds in between, and then work up to 10 reps.

Feel free to leave your comments and let me know what you think.  Thanks!

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