As an exercise, the plank has some crazy lore surrounding it. If you were an alien from another planet and came to earth to study human society, you would think that planks have replaced the, now extinct, fire-breathing dragon as enemy #1 to Homo sapien survival.
The plank isn't going to kill you. In fact, it may be unrivaled in its ability to engage a large number of muscle groups in an isometric contraction. So much so that you actually become harder to kill when the plank is trained properly.
That being said, you can't plank all day and all night. so I'm going to give you four alternative exercises to add to your training program in lieu or in addition to planks.
If you just want to learn more about planking, check this out.
1. Seated Straight Leg Lifts
The straight leg lift has gotten more attention thanks to gymnastics strength training picking up popularity in the last few years.
It's pretty simple you sit up straight, with your legs out straight in front of you, and alternate raising each leg for a set number of reps or seconds. It seems simple, but it lights up your quads (especially the rectus femoris) like no other.
If you find your hips sagging quickly when planking or you know that your quads are a weak point of yours in general, I strongly recommend adding two sets of straight leg lifts to your leg day.
This exercise will help with your plank, the ACFT's leg tucks, as well as building strength for sprinting and running distances under a mile where you're pushing for speed.
2. Quadruped Hand Walk-outs
This is the poor man's ab wheel exercise. Don't let that fool you though, at first glance, it may seem easier than a roll-out, but when you focus on the right muscles, you'll find that it brings a whole new level of muscle recruitment to your core.
Start on all-fours, with your knees under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. Alternate walking each hand out about a ½ a hands length away from your body. Try to open your hips and your shoulders simultaneously as you walk out. The tendency is to allow the hands to walk away from under your shoulders faster than having the hips move past their starting position, directly above the knees.
Here's the hard part. Step your hands slowly, and DON'T allow your hips, core, or shoulders to shift from side-to-side as you walk. Instead, keep your core so tightly contracted that it allows you to hold in a balanced position even when you only have one hand supporting you on the ground, while the other is in the air changing position. Walk your hands out as far as you can and then simply walk back.
When doing this exercise, go for time instead of reps. For whatever reason, when people go for reps, they tend to cheat a lot more. Just set your timer for 30 seconds and perform 30 seconds worth of perfect and deliberate movement.
To make it even harder, lift your knees slightly off the ground, like the video demonstrates above.
When you're able to walk all the way out to arms fully extended overhead, holding a plank will feel like child's play.
3. The Ab Wheel
The ab wheel is basically moving you from a position that's easier than holding a plank to a position that's harder than holding a plank. When performing this one, really focus on that position in the middle of the movement that most closely mimics the plank.
The ab wheel has the ability to work every core muscle fully, if you do it correctly. The common cue I give is to "Stay out of your lower back!" meaning that you shouldn't allow your low back to hyperextend. Instead, I'd rather see you hold a constant position of mild flexion, that doesn't change throughout the entire movement. When you hyperextend in your low back, you're basically losing all core tightness and relying on your vertebrae to stop you from arching any further. If that sentence seemed painful to read...imagine how your back feels.
Similar to the previous exercise, I prefer to do the ab wheel for time instead of reps. It prevents cheating and allows you to focus on perfect form rather than trying to hit some arbitrary number of reps that will undoubtedly cause you to throw form out the metaphoric window.
4. Hollow Body Hold
I like to think of the hollow body hold as pull-up junior. The engagement of muscles that a properly performed hollow body hold can achieve is exactly the same as a pull-up minus the lat engagement of pulling yourself to the bar. If that sounds crazy to you, I'm willing to bet you rarely perform beautiful pull-ups.
Yes, your core is the primary muscle of the hollow body hold, but it's not the same "core" as the one that gets worked during crunches or other dated ab exercises. The hollow body hold allows you to isometrically contract your quads, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, obliques, lats, seratus, erector spinae (if you're really good), neck muscles, pecs, psoas, and calves. Basically, every muscle of the front of the body and then some.
I highly encourage you to actively mentally walk through every muscle group I just mentioned the next time you attempt the hollow body hold. If you do, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. A few sets of a solidly executed hollow body hold, and you'll be begging to just do planks instead.
Work smarter, not harder...even when you're trying to work hard do it smart.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andy O. Martinez)
Go train your core. Before you go though...
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Send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org if you hate these core exercises or want to know if you're doing them right. I get a kick out of hearing gripes from those of you bold enough to message me directly, rather than just screaming into the void that is Facebook comments... or you know, just tell me how you're training is going and what your goals are. Bringing others in on your challenges and goals is a sure-fire way to ensure you actually overcome and accomplish them.