Harder, Not Longer (Planks That Is)
In his book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Dr. Stuart McGill notes that when referring to low back stability, one needs to place an emphasis on endurance rather than strength training. As counterintuitive as it may sound, most people with chronic lower back pain, do in fact, have strong lower backs. The reason why they’re so jacked up all the time is because they use their lumbar spine too much, and lack the proper spinal stability to control end range of motion.
Rather than bore you will all the intricate details (cause I know how many of you have been waiting with abated breath my thoughts on gross motor patterns of the lumbar spine), I came across this Cliff Notes version of McGill’s thoughts written by Len Kravitz titled Low Back Stability Training. It’s a great synopsis on McGill’s thoughts. Here’s a quick snidbit:
From McGill’s research on low back stability, the data suggest that the healthiest training intervention for the spinal flexors involves muscular endurance versus strength training. McGill states that “the safest and mechanically most justifiable approach to enhancing lumbar stability through exercise entails a philosophical approach consistent with endurance, not strength; that ensures a neutral spine posture when under load (or more specifically avoids end range positions) and that encourages abdominal muscle cocontraction and bracing in a functional way.” Bracing is a neurophysiological phenomenon involving cocontraction of the abdominal wall and deep intrinsic muscles of the spine in an effort to better stabilize the low back.
Enter the wonderful world of planks. Oftentimes you hear of strength coaches/personal trainers having their healthy clients perform planks for upwards of two minutes (per set!). I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to hire someone to just stand there and watch me perform planks for 10% of my session, I might as well hire a freakin ham sandwich.
If I’m dealing with healthy individuals, I’d much prefer to make planks and their variations harder, rather than longer. And just to clarify, those who actually suffer from chronic back pain are a completely different story. In that case, I’m all for using planks for endurance. However, with typical clients, my cut-off point is 30 seconds. From there, I just think of ways to make planks more challenging. A great example would be the side plank w/row.
Here you just use a cable machine and set up as if you were going to perform a typical side plank.
1. Elbow directly underneath your shoulder, both shoulders back, hips forward (don’t stick your butt out).
2. Set the pulley at a low setting and grab it with your free hand.
3. Brace your abdominals and perform a standard row, making sure to stay completely stable. You shouldn’t have to compensate by hiking your hips or rotating your torso.
4. Don’t look now, but that hot girl on the elliptical just checked you out. DUDE!!! I said not to look. Dammit. Okay, stay cool. Go make a protein shake or something. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that chicks dig dudes who drink protein shakes. You’re so money and don’t even know it!