The front plank exercise is commonly performed by runners to improve core strength and stability, but unfortunately, it’s commonly performed incorrectly. What may seem like a simple position to attain, actually requires acute body awareness to perform well. From sagging spines to really high hips, the front plank posture has seen it all. But like most exercises, there is a sweet spot where you’ll actually feel your abs contracting (which is the goal!). Let’s finally learn how to perform an effective front plank.
Why Plank in the First Place?
The front plank focuses on strengthening the anterior abdominal muscles (core muscles in between your ribs cage and pelvic floor on the front of your body). These muscles work in a coordinated fashion to create an isometric (static) muscle contraction to increase lumbar stability. In other words, they create an effective, balanced posture by working together with the obliques (core muscles on the sides of the torso), paraspinal (muscles parallel to the spine on the back of the body) muscles, and additional muscles in between the rib cage and pelvic floor to prevent motion in this region of the torso. Yes, the anterior ab muscles also execute movements like sit-ups and crunches, but these exercises don’t have much carryover to running.
Improving strength of the anterior core muscles will help maintain neutral/ideal lumbo-pelvic (low back and hip) alignment that will lead to a more effective running gait. Runners with weak anterior core muscles tend to have a resting posture with a forward-leaning pelvic tilt and an increased lumbar curve, along with tight hip flexors. Furthermore, the glutes tend to be weak in this posture, and the low back musculature tends to be overly tight. This unfavorable combination of muscle weakness and tightness is referred to as lower-crossed syndrome and often leads to running stride problems.
Develop Spine and Pelvic Position Body Awareness
When learning how to do a front plank, you must first learn how to flex your spine and tuck in your pelvis. This is best understood on all fours.
The Cat-Cow Exercise
To perform the cat-cow, go on all fours. Your knees should be below your hips and your hands below your shoulders. Bring your chin to your chest, round your back toward the ceiling and tuck in your pelvis. This is the cat pose (think of a cat stretch). Notice what you’re doing to achieve this position: your spine is flexed and your tailbone is tucked in.
Next, for the cow position: raise your head and look toward the ceiling, extend your back and rotate your pelvis in the opposite direction. In this posture your spine is extended and your tailbone is out. Go from the cat pose to the cow pose 10–15 times until you know exactly how to control your spine shape and pelvic position.
Two simple cues for the cat pose: 1) ribs-up & 2) bum-in
Two simple cues for the cow pose: 1) ribs-down & 2) bum-out
The Cat-Cow in the Elevated Plank
Because performing a perfect front plank on the floor, resting on your elbows and toes, is actually very difficult, I suggest all runners learn how to do the cat-cow while in an elevated plank.
Stand facing an exercise bench or a box up to 24 inches high. Place your elbows and forearms on the box and go onto your toes. This body shape is looking more like a plank. Make sure your shoulders are above your elbows and your heels just behind your toes. Next, look down in between your forearms and create a slight double chin.
Keep this head and neck position while bringing your ribs-up and bum-in cat pose. Next, move into the ribs-down and bum-out position cow pose. Do this 15 times and notice what you feel. When the ribs are up and the butt is in, the abs are now involved to maintain this posture. The glutes are also able to squeeze, so squeeze them! When the ribs are down and the butt is out, the abs are no longer required to contract, and the glutes will be off. You may also feel some strain in the low back (this is not what you want to feel when doing a plank).
Finding the correct pelvic posture is the first challenge in achieving the perfect front plank. Hold the elevated plank for 10-seconds with your ribs up and butt in. After the 10-second hold, go into the cow position for 2-seconds, but stop the movement before you feel strain in your low back. This will further teach you how to control your spine and pelvic posture while in the plank position.
The Proper Plank, Elevated
Return to the ribs-up, butt-in position and do your next hold. Your body should be in a straight line from the top of your head to the heels. Your upper back will be slightly rounded, which is ok, and your pelvis tucked in. You should try to squeeze your glutes and, as a result of this position, you should feel a tightening contraction in your front core muscles and will also feel your oblique muscles contracting as well.
Do 6 repetitions, which equals one minute of work. Do 5 sets with a 40-second kneeling rest, every second day. There is no need to hold planks for longer. Focus on an intense core contraction for 10 seconds at a time and make sure your rests between holds is only 2 seconds. You’ll get more from this set/rep scheme compared to holding planks for minutes on end.
Once you get really good at the elevated plank, you can make the plank more difficult by lowering the elevation. The goal is to slowly work your way down to the ground. Once you master the front plank on the floor for 5 sets of 6 x 10-second holds with 40-second rests, then you can venture to different plank variations such as the side and reverse plank. Good luck.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a Strength Coach with 15 years of experience and co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He’s a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner. Find out more at JKConditioning.com and on social media @JKConditioning.