Plank — 5 simple progressions to a stronger core

Have you seen our new progressions board in the Strength and Conditioning room at Falmer Sports Complex? The board is a handy way to see the visual progressions for five key exercises: Squat, Deadlift, Push Up, Row and Plank, so you can make sure you’re mastering each of these fundamental movements. Getting the knack of these key exercises will create a robust framework for your strength development.

Our series of accompanying articles will focus on each exercise, showing key teaching points and explaining why they are progressions from the previous exercise. There are many ways to develop exercises, but we have found our progressions to be pretty successful. First up is the plank.

Why plank?

The plank is a great exercise to build core strength and can help the body become stronger for many actions: to raise your performance if you play sport, to reduce lower back pain or to simply increase core strength. The core is responsible for transferring and absorbing force so whether you kick a ball, swing a bat, make a tackle or run down the line, having a strong and functioning core is key to performance and health.

The plank is what we call an isometric hold. Meaning the muscles contract, but don’t change in length.

Our progressions board and the accompanying information here will help to provide variation in plank difficulty, so you can get an idea of when you should think about progressing through the difficulties of the plank styles. If you’re a Sussexsport member, you can also join our Small Group Training classes every Tuesday and Thursday at the Falmer Sports Complex to get instructor-led support in a small setting.

How to plank:

Start the plank progression using the simple form, a quadruped plank, and work up to the most difficult.

The muscles on the front and the back of your body are the ones that you need to work most; these are the muscles running around your body from your hip to your chest.

Each progression of the exercise should concentrate on activating the core muscles to keep the spine in a neutral position (this should feel as though it is in the same position as when standing tall, with slightly curved lower back and shortened frontal abdominal muscles). All variations of the plank should be challenging but pain-free when performed correctly. Follow the progression of the pictures and instructions. If at any time the exercises cause pain or if you are unsure if you are doing it correctly, find one of our trained staff members to seek advice before continuing the exercises.

Working the core muscles in such a way is very beneficial as this is the nature of how our core muscles operate. Essentially, they are meant to keep our body vertical and protect vital parts such as the spine.

A natural isometric contraction of these muscles is seen through movement, where other parts such as legs and arms are more designed for eccentric and concentric contraction. However, within the more advanced planks, your shoulders, upper back and legs have to work too, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hold yourself in this position.

We tend to start in a quadruped plank to try to minimise the amount that the other body parts have to work, so you can concentrate more on the core muscles and strengthen these, so that when you progress through the plank techniques, your core is already strong enough to perform the action correctly and doesn’t become overrun by the other body muscles.

When to progress?

The plank exercise can be held for timed sets with good technique. The stronger you become, the more you can add time or sets. We have a tendency to program 1–5 sets and sets consisting of up to 30-seconds (30s) of efforts and this is plenty to create enough work to ensure that improvements are made. We have found that 30s is usually enough rest time, but you should take as much time as needed to perform the required holding time for the next set. When you can perform 3 sets of 30s using the correct technique and with little challenge then you can move to the next progression, but you may need to start with shorter time and less sets.

If during any exercise you feel any pain you should stop and ask for support.

1. Quadruped plank

1. Start on all fours, with your toes tucked in. Hands should be directly under your shoulders and arms out long and straight. Balance the body from the hands and toes.

2. Knees should be situated under the hips at 90 degrees and when the plank is held should be just above the ground. Ensure that only the knees are raised and there isn’t any movement from the shoulders.

3. Make sure the core is activated, sucking the belly button in and keeping the spine neutral from head to tail. You may feel that the glutes at the top and back of your legs may also need to be activated to help maintain the correct position.

4. Good technique is considered to be when you are in total control before your muscles start to tire. A tired looking plank may look like your lower back is arching either drooping towards the floor as it tires or when it rounds up towards the ceiling when your body starts to compensate to try to make it easier.

This exercise is not leveraging lots of body weight and is a good starting point to focus on activating the core. This is where our plank progression starts. This should not be painful to perform. Each rep should be done by holding this position for timed reps.

2. Advanced Quadruped plank

The advanced quadruped is an increase in difficulty, due to the length of the body increasing. To progress towards the full plank, move the toes further away from the body so the angle of the knees becomes straighter and straighter until you reach the full plank (explained below). The teaching points on all quadruped plank versions are the same. Make sure to only advance through the angle of the knees once the body is ready.

3. Full plank

1. The traditional plank is performed by holding your body in a “straight” line from heels to head and supporting the upper body on your hands, which are placed directly below the shoulders.

2. The upper body rests on the hands and the lower body is resting on the toes.

3. The plank position will add more weight, making it more challenging to hold the pose. Keep the body rigid. Imagine a straight line from the heels, through the hips, and to the shoulders. It will provide a deep engagement for the core.

4. Breathing should still be smooth through the hold. If you are holding your breath, or only taking puffs of air, then back down to quadruped plank again.

5. When holding this position maintain short frontal abdominals and activate the glutes.

Hold the exercise like the previous progressions. As per the previous variations we program 30 second efforts, taking 30 seconds breaks between each rep. Perform up to five reps if possible. Do at least 5 x 30-second holds with 30 seconds rest in between before moving on to the next plank progression.

Shaking, soreness, and pain are all reasons to stop the third plank position. Move back to a previous hold for a week or two and try this one again. Your strength will build.

You can increase the challenge of the full plank position by moving on to the forearms, as the closer you get to the ground (i.e. more horizontal to the ground) the tougher the exercise!

4. Moving plank

Adding movement will make the exercise harder. Be careful when adding movement and don’t let the focus from the core drift to the actual movement. The main thing that people lose control of when trying this is the hips, which become different heights due to the rotation of the hips when the hand leaves the floor.

Focus on keeping your hips at the same level.

Do not add too much movement too quickly. Using equipment such as slam balls, sandbags, or soft weights is best, although consider starting with unweighted movement first by just using your own body movement. If starting out just move your hand from one side, beneath you to the other side and back again, once you have mastered the movement then setting weight beside one hand can allow you to pull the weight beneath you and across to the other side. Then, pull the weight back again.

When trying new things, first have a steady control of the plank position. Having a strong and steady base to work from is more important than adding movement. Keep your plank form. Imagine the straight line through the heels and hips to the shoulders, keeps the form perfect. A rigid body with smooth breathing keeps the exercise controlled. Try practicing movement before adding weight. Move slow and controlled. Add weight in a safe way. Find ways to place the weight on you or beside you without moving in awkward positions. Have a friend or exercise partner help you move the weight. They can watch but above all, be safe!

Again this is a timed exercise just like the other planks. Start small and build up more reps and time aiming to do at least 5 x 30s holds with 30 seconds rest in between before moving on to the next plank progression.

5. Anti-Rotation Plank

This will require more stabilization and therefore make it harder. Stabilization is extremely important for a good movement pattern. Therefore make sure to add these kind of exercises when possible.

The anti-rotation plank can start with just one hand off the floor reaching forwards; there are variations where both arm and leg are raised, but starting with the arm is challenge enough. We have made the anti-rotation the hardest of our progressions, due to the arm increasing the length of the body.

Again making the plank unstable will make the exercise harder. Make sure you are not letting the focus drift from the core to the unbalanced body part. The main thing that people lose control of when trying this is the hips becoming different heights. Focus on keeping your hips the same level.

If you need help with any of these progressions then please ask one of our qualified staff at either the Falmer Sports Complex or Sport Centre who will be more than happy to help.

The next training progression article will be out soon and focuses on the squat.

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