20 Plank Variations That Actually Make You More Athletic

'The body is only as strong as its weakest link.' These exercises will help you destroy weak links.

Training an athlete for the purpose of improving their "core strength" is a very touchy subject.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the coaches who believe all you need to do is perform your major multifunctional movements correctly (such as the Squat and Deadlift) to develop sufficient "core strength." On the other end, there are coaches who make exercises used specifically to develop "core strength" the foundation of their entire program.

I find myself somewhere in the middle, taking concepts from both sides because both have valid reasoning. My idea of developing "core strength" is by both locally and globally training all the musculature attached to the hips. The movements this musculature perform includes hip extension/flexion, hip abduction/adduction, lateral flexion and anti-rotation.

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Training an athlete for the purpose of improving their "core strength" is a very touchy subject.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the coaches who believe all you need to do is perform your major multifunctional movements correctly (such as the Squat and Deadlift) to develop sufficient "core strength." On the other end, there are coaches who make exercises used specifically to develop "core strength" the foundation of their entire program.

I find myself somewhere in the middle, taking concepts from both sides because both have valid reasoning. My idea of developing "core strength" is by both locally and globally training all the musculature attached to the hips. The movements this musculature perform includes hip extension/flexion, hip abduction/adduction, lateral flexion and anti-rotation.

In addition to the abdominals and hips, another muscle I find to be an integral part of well-rounded "core strength" is the Latissimus Dorsi, or the "lats."

One of the origin points of the lats is the iliac crest & sacrum (hips), so when your lats are tight, it can easily pull you into extension and cause excessive anterior pelvic tilt. This will lead to poor transfer of energy throughout the body's kinetic chain and cause potential compensation patterns.

Secondly, the lats provide stabilization for all movements that are performed with the upper extremities. They are the glutes of the upper body. Lastly, the lats are tied to the musculature of the hip through a myofascial sling known as the Posterior Oblique Sling. Think about running: When your right arm swings back, so does your left leg.

For our body to perform dynamic movements, it is essential that our myofascial slings work efficiently. There are four major myofascial slings in our body. They are the Anterior Oblique Sling, Posterior Oblique Sling, Deep Longitudinal Sling and Lateral Sling.

Each myofascial sling is responsible for certain movement patterns in each plane of motion (POM). That's why developing your athletes' myofascial slings is so important; to be prepared for the unpredictable nature of sport, the ability to stabilize and transfer energy in all planes of motion is essential!

Posterior Oblique Sling

  • POM: sagittal, transverse
  • Upper Origin: Latissimus Dorsi
  • Lower Origin: Contralateral Gluteus Maximus
  • Function: producing force during walking, running, and sprinting & transfer of force between upper and lower extremities during rotational movements

Anterior Oblique Sling

  • POM: Transverse (primary), Frontal (secondary)
  • Upper Origin: External and internal oblique
  • Lower Origin: Contralateral Adductor
  • Function: transfer of force between upper and lower extremities during rotational movements & hip stability

Deep Longitudinal Sling

  • POM: Sagittal
  • Upper Origin: erector spinae, multifidus
  • Lower Origin: sacrotuberous ligament, biceps femoris, peroneus longus, and anterior tibilais
  • Function: horizontal force production & controls ground reaction forces during gait

Lateral Sling

  • POM: Frontal
  • Upper Origin: Quadratus lumborum
  • Lower Origin: Gluteus Medius, TFL, adductors
  • Function: provides hip stability during frontal plane movement

When there is a weak link in a sling, this leads to either an energy leakage within the kinetic chain or a possible compensation pattern that could lead to injury down the road.

This is why when we are training athletes to improve their core strength, we shouldn't only look at each muscle individually, but at each sling as a whole.

Planks for Real Core Strength

The most common prescription to address a lack of "core strength" is to perform Planks and Plank variations.

The basic Planks can be very effective, but only for athletes with a low training age (middle school, high school, and maybe a small percent of college athletes). They teach them how to fire the musculature of their abdominals and hips, so they can properly brace and maintain an isometric position.

Once an athlete can hold a proper Plank position for a short duration (10-20 consecutive seconds), progressive overload must take place for further adaptation to occur.

To provide an overloading stimulus for the plank, coaches typically either increase the duration of the movement or add an external load to the movement (such as placing a plate on the athlete's back.)

Although both of these appear to be logical options, there comes a point when the musculature of the abdominals and hips is no longer the limiting factor.

In my experience with long-duration Planks, athletes often cite other areas as fatiguing much faster than their core. They say things like, "This burns my shoulders more than anything else, and I don't even feel it in my core."

If their ability to hold themselves in a proper position is limited by their shoulder girdle endurance, are we even achieving our goal of stressing the athletes core strength?

I believe the most effective methods for progressively overloading the Plank involve using feet-elevated variations and/or adding manual resistance.

Elevating your feet increases the intensity of the Plank because it changes your body's center of mass from being centered in your lower body to being centered in your upper body. It may sound like this change will be more taxing for your upper body, because that's where your center of mass is now located. However, this will actually cause your body to engage and increase motor unit recruitment from the musculature of the abdominals and hips in an attempt to shift your center of mass toward your lower body and hips and create balance.

Intensity can also be increased by having a training partner apply manual resistance. Manual resistance is effective for all levels of athletes because the amount of force applied is dependent upon each individual athlete's strength level. It also allows for strength to be trained both eccentrically and isometrically, both in advantageous and disadvantageous positions.

The biggest benefit, however, is that it allows the core to actually be trained for strength rather than just endurance. Due to the high levels of loading that can be applied, minimal volume is needed for adequate stress to be achieved. This allows for our "core strength" training to be focused more on "quality" rather than "quantity," which is a rarity.

With that in mind, let's go over four Feet-Elevated Plank positions (as well as five progressions for each variation) that not only develop "core strength" globally, but also isolate specific muscle groups often overlooked in traditional programs. As the saying goes, "The body is only as strong as its weakest link." These exercises will help you destroy weak links.

I've had great success implementing these exercises and progressions with my athletes for both injury prevention and increased athletic performance.

1-5. Feet-Elevated Glute Planks

  • Function: Hip Abduction/ Anti-Lateral Flexion
  • Local muscles: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fasciae latae
  • Global musculature: Lateral Sling
  • Variations: Short Lever, Long Lever, Partner Push Advantageous ISO, Partner Push Eccentric, Partner Push Disadvantageous ISO

6-10. Feet-Elevated Groin Planks

  • Function: Hip Adduction/ Anti-Lateral Flexion
  • Local muscles: adductors brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus gracilis, pectineus
  • Global musculature: Anterior Oblique Sling (works groin and contralateral oblique)
  • Variations: Short Lever, Long Lever. Partner Push Advantageous ISO, Partner Push Eccentric, Partner Push Disadvantageous ISO

11-15. Feet-Elevated Prone Planks

  • Function: Hip Flexion/ Anti-Extension
  • Local muscles: iliacus, psoas, rectus femoris
  • Global musculature: Deep Longitudinal Sling
  • Variations: Short Lever, Long Lever, Partner Push Advantageous ISO, Partner Push Eccentric, Partner Push Disadvantageous ISO

16-20. Supine Planks

  • Function: Hip Extension/ Anti-Flexion
  • Local muscles: gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosis
  • Global musculature: Anterior Oblique Sling
  • Variations: Short Lever, Long Lever, Partner Push Advantageous ISO, Partner Push Eccentric, Partner Push Disadvantageous ISO

Once all the progressions of the supine and prone plank can be performed proficiently, they can also be performed either on a single leg or single arm (or both). This will add an anti-rotation aspect to the movement, further enhancing the challenge.

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Topics: CORE | PLANK