Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Eight Great Alternatives to Plank
Don't get me wrong, here--there's nothing wrong with plank. It's a great abdominal/core exercise (even though it's somewhat misunderstood). But if you're tired of spending long minutes on your elbows and toes, here are some alternatives. I've ordered them from easiest (i.e. use them to work your way up to plank) to most difficult. I've also tried to include exercises that are especially applicable to triathletes. So without further ado . . .
Quadrupedal iso abs
Begin on all fours. Make sure your knees are directly under your hips, hands directly under your shoulders. Make sure that your back is in a neutral curve (not extended or arched). In one movement, tighten all the muscles of your abdominals and back without allowing your position to change (i.e. maintain neutral alignment of the spine). Hold for 10-20 seconds, relax the muscles (again, without changing the shape of the spine). Repeat 3-6 times.
Begin on all fours. Make sure your knees are directly under your hips, hands directly under your shoulders. Make sure that your back is in a neutral curve (not extended or arched). Maintaining the neutral position of your spine and pelvis, extend one arm in front of you and the opposite leg behind you. Hold for just a second, return to the starting position, and switch sides. Repeat 8-15 times.
Plank + Dolphin
First, go here and here and read all about how to do Plank and Dolphin properly; a full explanation of those poses will take more time than I want to devote to just one exercise. Focus on keeping the serratus anterior (muscles just below your armpits on your sides) engaged by thinking of wrapping your shoulder blades around your rib cage. This exercise is equally useful for increasing shoulder stability and flexibility (helpful for swimming), which is why I include it. Hold each position (Plank and Dolphin) for 10 seconds each. Switch back and forth 3-4 times.
As you can see in the video, there are several variations of side plank. The easiest is to balance on the knees and elbows; the most difficult is to balance on one arm and one leg. Whichever position you choose, make sure your arm is directly under your shoulder, because stacking your shoulder over your arm/elbow will encourage you to use the strength of your core rather than your arms or shoulders. Also be sure that your hips are perpendicular to the floor and that your body makes a straight line from your head to your feet/knees.
Plank w/ one arm/leg variations
This one can be performed either from the elbows and feet or from the hands and feet. Begin by making sure you can hold a standard plank position with the spine and hips in neutral extension; if your back sags or arches when you try this one, you need more work in plank first. From the plank position you can raise one arm, one leg, or the arm and the opposite leg. The key is to prevent your back from changing shape and your hips from rotating--that's where you really get good work for core stability.
This is a variation of side plank, which means that you need to be able to hold sideplank from the hand and the side of your foot properly. Begin on hands and toes, as if you are about to do a push up. Rotate the whole body to one side so that your torso is perpendicular to the ground and your arm is reaching up towards the sky. Rotate back to the starting position and without setting your arm down, reach your hand under and across. Repeat 8-10 times on each side. Note that the hand does not touch the ground until the set is over.
Downward Facing Dog + plank series
Begin in Downward Facing Dog (that means you need to know/learn how to do it), and walk your hands back until your heels are flat on the floor. Raise one leg straight up behind you, forming a straight line from your hands (on the floor) to your heel (in the air). As you exhale, bring your leg forward, aiming the knee towards the elbow. Return to the one-legged dog position on the inhale. On the next exhale, bring the knee towards the opposite elbow, then return on the inhale. Finally, bring the knee forward towards your shoulder on the exhale, and back on the inhale. Repeat 3-4 times, then switch sides. Note that your body should move forward over your hands as you exhale; this brings you from Downward Facing Dog into more of a Plank position.
Bakasana (Crow/Crane) into Plank
Again, this assumes that you know how to do Bakasana. If you can't do that pose, then this exercise is out for you. From Bakasana, pull your pelvic floor powerfully up into your body and float your legs back to land in Plank. That's really the best explanation I can give; this one you've just got to try! Do this one 3-6 times, then rest and stretch your wrists by slowly moving your hands in a circular pattern.
Each of these sets can be done 2-4 times, depending on how much time and energy you have. Obviously, these exercises won't translate directly to your standard "Knee-up crunches, 3 x 20" ab routine, but you should be able to insert them in your training plan where you would normally do core work, and particularly where you might do Plank.
In addition to preventing boredom in your ab routines, these poses will (I hope) give your abs a kick in the butt. Your muscles get used to routine exercises, so if you throw in something unusual, you'll get a better training response as your muscles try to adapt to the physical stress of an unfamiliar exercise.
Also note that there are variations in how you can do plank--with arms straight, from the elbows, with arms bent (as in Chaturanga Dandasana). Some of these alternatives and variations require a particular beginning position (for example, Dolphin), but you can also experiment with different arm positions to add even more options to your abdominal routine (for example, you could try side plank or twisting plank from your elbows).
Do you have any further ideas of plank alternatives? Please share in the comments!