A reply to Breaking Muscle’s “A Frank Assessment of the Plank”

Breaking Muscle is a website and social networking presence that I follow and read a good amount. I respect their standpoints and expertise and like a lot of what they say. So consider this a respectful critique of author Charles Staley’s recent article “A Frank Assessment of the Plank: Just a Way to Burn Time?”

Coach Staley’s first criticism of planks originates in their supposed inability to improve body composition. He bases this critique on his belief that “this is by far the primary benefit that those who do planks expect to experience.” I can’t fault him for what other people expect; however, he could have pointed out that the plank serves most effectively as an activation exercise for most of the people who use it as such, not as a muscle-builder.

Additionally, the type of plank that Coach Staley is probably critiquing involves nothing more than basically maintaining a static pushup position on your elbows. When there is no attempt to actively engage the main core musculature (abdominal wall, intrinsic core stabilizers, glutes, erectors), perhaps because the exerciser is not able to actively or deliberately engage them, naturally there would be a reduced level of functional improvements and a decreased level of calorie-burn. Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for the fact that most people don’t know to activate these muscles while planking, which would make the exercise 1000x more effective for all possible uses.

However, he is wrong in saying that “planks involve no actual movement, they don’t burn a significant number of calories, nor do they disrupt homeostasis enough to cause muscular hypertrophy.” An isometric muscle movement, of which the plank is one, is defined as an exercise in which the muscles are contracted but there is no joint movement. However, this contraction of the muscles certainly IS movement, which leads to both calorie-burn and muscular hypertrophy. Isometrics are not the most effective way to build muscle, but it is downright wrong to characterize them as being unrelated to either calorie burn or muscular development.

Furthermore, any movement intended to build muscular development shouldn’t be criticized further on the basis of how well it burns calories. The muscle that is gained increases a person’s BMR and burns the lion’s share of the calories, not the compound movement itself. That’s why increased BMR should be the end-goal of weight-training, not calorie burn. But that’s a sidenote.

Again, as an activation movement, and one that is properly progressed to include contraction of the abdominals AND glutes and a retraction of the shoulder blades, the plank has the ability to build the mind-muscle connection necessary for the average person to safely perform the compound lifts that Coach Staley asserts are the best or only way to build necessary core strength, and it does so in much safer and more controlled environment (which he later does acknowledge in the section titled “The Cost of Doing Planks”).

One question Coach Staley asks to plank practitioners is, “what type of real-life challenges will the plank make you better at? Don’t look at me [for answers].” The need to be able to activate and isometrically contract the core musculature is an absolutely ESSENTIAL skill for various functional activities. I don’t believe using deadlifts or squats to activate these muscles is as effective as planking because there are so many other mechanics in play while learning how to deadlift or squat, it is too easy to reinforce poor movement patterns/muscular imbalances at best, or screw up and injure yourself at worst.

In other words, the plank—which is itself a compound movement, yes, a movement—is also a kind of regression of compound movements like the squat and deadlift, the latter of which should not necessarily be implemented until adequate core activation has been achieved through such regressions. I’m not saying planking is the only example (here’s another: the glute bridge), or that other regressions more similar to actual deadlifting and squatting can’t be implemented as well. But a person who lacks the ability to activate the core shouldn’t be deadlifting, at least not any amount of weight necessary for “burning calories” or improving “body composition.” How is such a person supposed to build core strength by deadlifting if he or she can’t even activate those muscles? Any core strength built this way would be practically incidental. Maybe it worked out okay for the Coach, but for a lot of people, trying to deadlift without this skill will lead to injury.

After his apparent inability to identify any real-life challenges that planks help you improve upon, Coach Staley concludes, in all caps, “IF YOU CAN HOLD A PLANK POSITION FOR TWO MINUTES, YOU PROBABLY HAVE ENOUGH CORE STABILITY AND THEREFORE, DON’T NEED TO DO PLANKS. IF YOU CAN’T, IT’S LIKELY THAT YOU’RE SIMPLY WEAK OR OVERWEIGHT, WHICH MEANS THERE ARE FAR BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN PLANKS.”

How about, “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, progress it?” or “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, you’re doing it wrong in the first place”? If I can deadlift 320 or snatch 205 for 15 reps at 6’6″ tall and 175-pound bodyweight, I’m probably doing it wrong: jerking, flipping, jumping, flaring the S out of my ribcage, hyperextending the F out of my lower back. The same is true of planking. If it’s too easy, you’re doing it wrong. It’s just that planking is 1000x less dangerous than those other movements when done wrong.

“If you can’t [plank for two minutes], it’s likely that you’re simply weak or overweight, which means there are far better things to do than planks.” Like what? Since Coach Staley didn’t as yet mention any alternatives, I can only guess. Situps? Crunches? Hanging Leg Raises? Let me say that one or two of my favorite articles I’ve seen on Breaking Muscle are about how to spot a bad personal trainer. One telltale sign is, “does that trainer have you doing crunches or situps?” I agree with this. And hanging leg raises are completely inappropriate for most novices and many intermediates. Why? Because these folks are unable to activate their core musculature. Teaching how to activate it is what the plank is meant to do.

As far as alternatives go, I can safely assume that Coach Staley does NOT mean situps, crunches, or hanging leg raises. He means compound lifts. Another telltale sign of a bad trainer is having a client do compound lifts without having built up the proper body mechanics necessary to safely perform such lifts. Core strength, like strong abductors, shoulderblades that retract, a neck that doesn’t tip the head back, and heels that stay down, is just another one of these body mechanics.

Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for only being aware of, or only choosing to criticize, the plank that most people do. I appreciate his critique of fitness professionals who have clients perform the boring “get on your elbows and wait” plank instead of applying any progressive, regressive, or functional principles to it at all. Seeing people planking like the woman pictured in the article, with absolutely no core or glute activation whatsoever and a bored look on their face, is probably what makes Coach Staley’s blood boil (my words, not his) when it comes to planking.

But I think a more worthwhile critique would have been to critique exactly this type of plank, the useless type, not planking in an absolute sense. When he does address the issue of alternatives to planking, Coach Staley says, “If you’re looking to improve body composition, I’d dial your diet in and lift weights. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about your core stability, I’d first ask yourself why you feel your core stability is lacking. If you come up with a reasonable answer, I’d do things like this…”

And then he includes this video:

I’m not sure whether Coach Staley means to imply this or not, but the Stirring the Pot exercise is none other than….a plank progression. It is a difficult movement, not to be tried by novices whose core is unable to adequately contract to protect the lower back. As you can see in the video, this person’s back is completely flat and not dipping down at all. It wouldn’t look like that for a lot of less-fit people, I’ll tell you what. It’s irresponsible, in my view, for Coach Staley to suggest the Stirring the Pot exercise as an “alternative to a plank” for someone who “feels their core stability is lacking.”

Plus, Stirring the Pot IS a plank.

In conclusion, perhaps a greater point than the faults I perceive in Coach Staley’s article is how important it is that fitness professionals in general —trainers, class instructors, coaches, et cetera—stop telling people to plank without giving them any real understanding of what the plank is supposed to do: build activation and core strength by encouraging isometric contraction of the core musculature. Of course, that’s dependent on them KNOWING what the plank is supposed to do. The standard for fitness professionals must continue to increase, and I appreciate Breaking Muscle’s contributions to this dialogue, including the critiques that Coach Staley himself has made.

Still, a critique of the poorly-performed plank is needed. Coach Staley should try planking with his abs and glutes completely contracted and his shoulderblades retracted, if he hasn’t already. Then, he can write an article about planking that tells people what to do, not what NOT to do.

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