The "Moving Plank" by James Allen Stanton
If you've paid attention to the fitness industry over the last 10 to 15 years you're probably familiar with some variation of the plank hold -- the Push-up position plank; the elbow or "low" plank; the side plank (probably more accurately referred to as a side bridge, but I digress...), etc. The list of variations is manifold.
Done correctly plank holds are a great onramp exercise for beginner training programs, especially for the deconditioned and injured. They teach the intrinsic core engagement and bracing needed to preserve and stabilize neutral lordotic and kyphotic curves in the spine while maintaining alignment of key biomechanical landmarks: ear, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle...e.g. "Good Posture".
However plank holds quickly move into the category of busy work as strength & conditioning levels progress. You may have seen or heard accounts of those patting themselves on the back for holding planks for minutes, or even hours on end. Yay! Good for them. Let’s all pool our money to buy them the gold trophies they deserve for being the best at exercising.
But in pursuing such silliness did they do much by way of making themselves stronger? Probably not...at least not very much.
What I would like to address is more of a "Core Concept Of The Month" (no pun intended) than a "Move Of The Month". Enter the idea of the "Moving Plank" -- or, more accurately, integrating the concepts learned from plank holds into the basic human movement patterns of exercise to make them more effective. This is something of an expansion on the ideas outlined in my previous Move Of The Month write up that focused on Loaded Carries. Dan John refers to Loaded Carries as "walking" planks -- Stuart McGill calls them "upright" planks. And if you're unfamiliar with the work of either of those gentlemen, then I implore you to give them both a Google search when you get the chance. You'll learn a ton!
Let's start with the Hardstyle plank (also referred to as the RKC plank or the Yang plank). I'm not going to go into too many details on how to perform the Hardstyle plank, as working with a qualified coach is really the best way to approach learning proper exercise technique. But, for the sake of moving this concept forward, think of a standard elbow plank hold. Got it? Okay. Now ball your hands into fists, dorsiflex your toes, and imagine you're attacking that plank hold with all of your might -- no really, flex every muscle in your body as hard as you can! Right there is a worthy plank hold.
Consciously integrating the tension of this intense focused muscle engagement into other exercises will increase their efficacy greatly!
Start with the most obvious: the Push-up. You're already in a plank position at the top of the movement, as this is the base position of the Push-up position plank hold. Now, as you begin to descend into the eccentric phase, place focus on maintaining that conscious tension. As you slowly descend into the bottom of each rep and turn around into the ascension of the concentric phase put even more deliberate focus into your core engagement. Slow, controlled, deliberate movement. Guess what? You just made your Push-ups exponentially better! Sloppy, bouncing, partial reps begone!
Next up: inverted Ring Rows. Ring Rows are essentially the pulling counterpart to the Push-up, so the application of focused core tension and body alignment makes a lot of sense here as well. Once again, practice slow, deliberate movement. And don’t cheat yourself by relying on momentum get you through each rep.
At this point it's not too much of a stretch to extend the bracing concepts and core stabilization of plank holds to exercises in standing positions. I've already mentioned the "planking" nature of Loaded Carries, per Dan John and Stuart McGill. But it is equally important to address the integration of proper tension and spinal stabilization into Squat patterns as well as hip-hinging movements like Deadlifts and the Kettlebell Swing.
Loaded Squats are some of the best full body exercises around. Few things load up the large muscle groups around the hips and legs like a good heavy Squat, and good Squat patterning tends to sort out a lot of movement related issues. But front Squat variations like the Goblet Squat and it’s big brother, the Zercher Squat, are particularly challenging core exercises as well. Don’t believe me? Try cleaning a pair of 40 kilogram kettlebells and knock out a few sets of five repetitions. You’ll learn new depths of core engagement. Guaranteed. Much like...wait for it...the Hardstyle plank! Yes, focused core engagement to preserve and stabilize the neutral curves of the spine through the entirety of a good Squat -- especially the aforementioned front Squat variations -- requires good, solid planking abilities.
And the same goes for hip-hinging exercises like Deadlifts and the Kettlebell Swing. A good hip-hinge under load has essentially two phases: a hip-hinge phase, and a standing plank phase. Transitioning from phase-1 into phase-2 safely and effectively requires the very same focused conscious engagement of the core muscles as the Hardstyle plank.
Do I sound like a broken record yet? I could continue this thread by dipping back into Loaded Carries, addressing the core engagement needed for effective Crawling patterns...or go into deep detail on how each phase of the Turkish Getup requires solid planking skill. But I think my work here is done for now.
Learn how to perform a good solid (Hardstyle) plank. Then take that skill and translate it into all of the exercises you do to level up into a much higher and effective level of training.