photos by Always Love Photography

How many years did people spend trying to whittle their waist with the traditional crunch and/or sit-up? Strong abdominal muscles were thought to be the byproduct of just a mere abdominal contraction and shoulder lift. Thankfully, we’ve come far enough to determine the ‘plank’ as the most rewarding and valuable of abdominal exercises. The plank provides instant engagement of a ton of muscle groups all relating to the core and can be done by virtually anyone (anywhere) since there are so many modifications/options.

The plank gets pigeon-holed into the forearm or straight-arm varieties with an isometric intent, i.e. hold for 30 sec – 2 minutes depending on your fitness level. While this traditional means of planking is super effective and performed by many, why not freshen up your traditional plank with a few tweaks to really challenge yourself and your core?

Plank Exchanges

A great way to engage your core and eek in some cardiovascular benefit at the same time is to alternate forearm plank with straight-arm plank for time. A plank exchange just means alternating one plank type to another while in the face-down position. Rather than trying to move as quickly as you can, focus on proper form and continuous movement for the entire interval. Your heart rate will increase, your breathing shall become labored, and you will notice a spike in your body temperature. This core exercise not only targets your abdominal muscles, low back, hip flexors and glutes but will also challenge your cardiovascular capacity.

 Side Plank with Leg Raise

Sure, planks are intended to primarily strengthen your ‘core’: the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen; but why not get some secondary muscle groups in on the fun? A side plank can be performed with a straight-arm or on your forearm, and for many is a challenging movement in and of itself. Feet can be stacked or staggered in order to help achieve balance and stability. If you have enough core strength to perform this motion (holding) for a length of time, you can make the movement more challenging by adding a leg raise with the top leg (i.e. hip abduction). While keeping the hip elevated off the ground and maintaining a completely straight line from the shoulder to the hip, knee and foot, carefully raise the top leg and slowly lower. Performing just a mere 6-10 reps with each leg for one to three sets might be just what you need to strengthen that outer thigh and hip.

Side Plank with Push-Up

A side plank performed in straight-arm position is the perfect precursor/set-up to a basic, traditional push-up. If you have mastered the side-plank and can perform a push-up (without dropping down onto your knees), it definitely behooves you to combine the two! Alternating : side plank, push-up, side-plank, push-up, and so on, now shifts a core-centric exercise into a challenging upper body workout. While the push-up puts a ton of stress on the core, it also engages your chest and triceps. Essentially, you’re actively getting more bang for your buck by combining these movements. You can knock out a ton at once, hold the plank for time, or even perform more than one push-up in between plank sets. You be the trainer and decide what’s challenging, but doable, and where the focus should be put.

Planks are encouraged and performed in all athletic disciplines Triathletes should actively perform core exercises as a means to improve their swimming, biking and running. A strong core is also critical for proper posture and the relief of low-back pain as a result of sitting and/or a sedentary lifestyle. As I mentioned earlier, the plank is the cheapest, most straight-forward and efficient means of strengthening these muscle groups. It’s best to stick with the traditional means of planking, of course, but also try and get outside of your comfort zone with more challenging variations.