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.

Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

I am sometimes asked why “fad diets” seem to fail so often for so many people, and what a simple diet plan would be.

In my opinion, fad diets—especially low-carb or no-carb type diets—usually fail because they involve trying to normalize extremes, specifically extreme restriction of calories and/or carbs. Being hungry or undercarbed (and as a result with poor energy levels and sometimes depressive feelings) can easily lead to falling off of the diet or outright binging. It takes the pleasure out of life to never feel satisfied after eating, and for every food to signify nothing but a certain number of calories. And who wants to live that way?

Pleasure is, believe it or not, just one principle from which to derive satisfaction in life. It is possible to derive satisfaction from other principles. For example, your food choices can be based on the general principle that your weight loss goals are valuable and worth sticking to, and some specific principles that fit within that. High caloric deprivation can cause feelings of fatigue, irritability, lethargy, and depression, especially when the calorie reduction is implemented all at once (to theoretically provide quicker results) instead of as a slow, gradual decrease in your daily caloric intake. Therefore, any principle upon which your diet is based must be strong enough to offset the displeasure that generally accompanies feeling tired, irritable, incapable, and unhappy.

Your thought process must be closer to “I am lean,” rather than “I should be lean.” Saying “I am lean” is an act of self-definition based on a principle whose validity you also define. Whereas “I should be lean” reflects more of a desire to conform to society’s principles, society’s definitions of what you should be. The more you validate societal principles, the more time, thought, energy, and passion you expend on them, the more you devalue yourself. Think about that for a moment.

What I’m getting at is this: the key to changing a behavior such as diet lies partly in understanding why you’re attempting to latch onto such a principle as “I should be lean.” Is it for your health, for your sense of well-being and happiness, your sense of accomplishment and personal growth based on the knowledge that you’re worth the time, effort, and appropriate level of self-absorption necessary to improve?

Or is it because you feel inferior to thinner, more jacked, or more “healthy-looking” people? Is it because you have failed in achieving fitness in the past, or failed in some other area of your life? Or do you feel defined by some other sense of just not being “good enough”?

Going a little further, does it seem like people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, and your desire to get fit is a reaction to that? To appease them and shut them up? It’s a rough world and such things are common. But worrying about being super-skinny to please other people generally doesn’t make most people happy, even if they succeed. Indeed, such folks often feel weak, miserable, and irritable, as I mentioned above, and as though everyone is criticizing them, hence the stereotype of the high-strung temperamental dieter. And a lot of them understandably have body image issues. Wouldn’t you?

Most mass-market fad diets play on people’s emotional insecurities and exploit them. The diets themselves are often designed by “doctors” or “nutrition experts”  (some of whom have no nutritional or even medical training) who are only trying to line their own pockets. Now, before any of you hardcore “free market” advocates come at me and say, “well is there anything wrong with wanting to line your own pockets?!” let me point out that not only have such business practices by “nutrition experts” NOT helped to curb the obesity epidemic in America, but anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders have steadily increased as well. So I say, YES THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

That is not to say that these diets don’t have a place. For instance, if you want to lose fat very very quickly, like for a wedding or upcoming beach trip, dramatically cutting carbs can make a big difference. However, such weight loss is generally not sustainable because living life without carbs is a ridiculous and bad idea, and your body knows it. Think of extremely low-carb diets as a specific tool, like a jigsaw or a pair of bolt cutters. They fulfill one specific need very well and aren’t terribly effective beyond that.

“Specific tools” is pretty much how I feel most diet schemes should be viewed. For instance, the technique of intermittent fasting (which I will discuss in detail in a separate article, along with its often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath counterparts, flexible dieting and 6-small-meals-per-day), is effective for some people at making bodyfat “melt” off. It involves utilizing only a relatively small window of time every day in which you get all of your calories and maintaining a fast throughout the rest of the day.

For some people, intermittent fasting, or IF, is a godsend. It is more of an eating schedule than a diet per se, and as such it provides clear guidelines and boundaries that do a lot to simplify the process of calorie control. And as I am nearly always willing to point out, if it works for you, do it.

But for a lot of people, not eating for long stretches of their waking day is not feasible. Some people work very physical jobs and it is not practical for them to start their work in the morning in a fasted state. Even people who work at desks experience trouble focusing while fasting and turn to caffeine or other stimulants to perk them up for the next 6-8 hours. Many people can’t exercise effectively or muster up the motivation to do so when they’re undernourished.

In general, it is unpleasant to be hungry for long periods of time, and I can imagine (I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but bear with me here) that it leads to cheating for a lot of people, if not outright binging. And this failure will have to be recovered from, as will the next one, and the next one….such is the definition of “yo-yo dieting.”

Continuing with IF for a bit longer, that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the people who have the most success with IF are not new to fitness or dieting. They are already engaged in one or more aspects of a fitness lifestyle, and use IF or other tools for a specific purpose, much like a veteran gym-goer who knows how to deadlift but only chooses to do so for a specific purpose, rather than the novice gym-goer who has no idea how and would probably get hurt if he/she tried. Deadlifting, and IF, are not good places to start.

The trick is, we’re trying to develop discipline. It’s hard to develop it if every time you try, you experience physical pain or discomfort. I get it, we need to break free of our comfort zones, et cetera, and that is 100% true. But let’s briefly think in Darwinian terms: imagine placing a gilled sea creature—the distant precursor of the human being—on the sandy shore and yelling “Evolve! EVOLVE NOW! BREAK FREE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!!!” at it. What’s going to happen? It’ll desperately try to get back to the water, and die from lack of oxygen. It took millions of years for those sea creatures to creep up onto the land, and then to breathe air, and then to walk upright. They crept up, and experienced a benefit: safety from much larger sea predators. They learned to breathe air, and another benefit was bestowed: the ability to sleep. Walking upright proved another benefit: reaching for sweet fruits from trees, making fire, and so on.

For successful dieting, it needn’t take millions of years. But it will still take patience, and experiencing particular benefits. You can’t get that from merely dieting. You need holistic health: nutrition AND exercise. That’s all I’m saying.

And now, after that picaresque detour, on to the second part of the question I am often asked: what is is a simple dieting plan that can be adhered to with relative ease?

A simple dieting plan would be to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods in meals, snacks, and desserts, monitoring salt, unhealthy fat, and empty calorie intake, drinking tons of water, and eating enough to match, exceed, or fall short of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) depending on whether your goal is weight maintenance, gain, or loss, respectively, all while utilizing an exercise regimen based on compound movements, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health, consisting less of a certain number of sets and reps (although this is fine and works for a lot of people) and more of a specific amount of medium-heavy to heavy exercise per week and light-medium to medium exercise per day. Whew. Long sentence.

To identify your TDEE, do an internet search for TDEE/BMR calculator. I don’t want to push a specific on you because a lot of these sites are trying to sell you something. So try a few of them and average the results. But take my advice: never go below your BMR. Your body will go into starvation mode, your metabolism will become sluggish, and your weight loss will stagnate if not reverse itself. Let’s do this right, or not at all.

It is important to find exercises that give you a sense of enjoyment, just as it is important to find nutrient-dense foods that you also enjoy and can serve as staples. In order to lose one pound per week, you must reduce caloric intake by 500 calories. And when it comes to reducing caloric intake, think of it this way: you can reduce caloric intake by eating less, or by exercising more. That’s a liberating concept. The more you exercise, the more (healthy, nutrient-dense) food you can eat. You can be full all the time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

And then, eventually, when you have a strong grip on portion sizes, you won’t have to count calories. Ever again. Counting calories is just a tool. Just a tool.

Why not shoot for losing 1/2 of a pound per week, and use those 250 “extra” calories you eat each day to fuel some heavy lifting, or high-intensity interval training? And building that muscle, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, will increase your BMR and you’ll become a “fat-burning machine,” all on your own, without any need for super-restrictive diets or ACTUAL machines!!!

When these two things (diet and exercise) go hand in hand, it is much easier to maintain your diet because you are seeing your health holistically. The foods you eat will affect the quality and enjoyability of your exercise, and vice versa. For example, a lethargy-inducing, nutritionally-deficient burger-and-fries meal will make you feel like crap, diminishing your desire to work out the next day. Knowing this and cultivating foresight and discipline may help you avoid eating in such ways.

The positive benefits of diet and exercise complement each other, and screwing up in one area will result in a hiccup in the other. In other words, your actions and behaviors have effects outside of themselves. This is another reason fad diets often fail: when diets don’t connect in some way to exercise or your life in general, you are simply depriving yourself of something for its own sake; it has no gravity outside of itself. Whereas when exercise and nutrition are related and based on your life—instead of some “fitness guru’s” arbitrary or semi-arbitrary pronouncements about what’s healthy—it is easier to commit and see a greater purpose in it, especially when it relates to improving the overall quality of your life and not just some immediate weight loss goal.

I know this article got pretty deep and philosophical, but I hope it has helped you think critically about fad diets and about dieting in general. There are three main points to come away with.

1) The first step to improving yourself is to know that you’re worth improving.

2) Diet and fitness must be viewed holistically, as part of “the whole you.”

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

The Three Criteria of Whether Something is “Good For You”

Instant gratification is a powerful expectation. Once we become accustomed to it, it can define the value of something, just by giving us that initial, endorphin-filled feeling of “now I have it!”

When it comes to fitness and nutrition, though, this “instinct” can hold us back. There are no quick fixes to becoming healthy, losing weight, or gaining muscle.

Every week, another product appears on the market whose claims of being “what you need” to reach your goals sweeps the nutrition field: apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, kale, açaĂ­, goji berries, garcinia cambogia, white grapefruit, paleo and other low-carb diets, et cetera.

But none of these products or routes is “THE” answer. The actual answer is not to make one or two or three changes while keeping everything else the same. It is, instead, to transition into a healthy lifestyle wherein your health and longevity play a key role in your decision-making. The questions of “is this [food or activity] healthy?” and “will this [food or activity] positively contribute to my health and fitness goals?” should constitute a significant portion of your daily conscious thinking, and active measures to accomplish these ends should constitute a significant part of your daily conscious action.

This is, of course, dependent on having fitness goals. So you must be empowered to think knowledgeably in order to set them, and to act confidently on that knowledge in order to meet them.

This transition is easier for some people than it is for other people. It has a lot to do with your current level of health, your day-to-day schedule, your mentalities, your upbringing, and your relationship (or lack thereof) with physical exercise. Just changing from little or no conscious thought about fitness to some conscious thought about it is a challenge for many people, never mind reaching the point where it is regularly considered and acted upon on a daily basis.

Part of the reason for this is the perceived “learning curve.” All of our lives, we are told to become educated in our field of study and profession in order to get ahead in those fields. But rarely are we told to, “educate yourself on maintaining good cardiorespiratory health!” “Learn about retaining insulin sensitivity!” “Develop a firm grasp on how antioxidants CAN EXTEND YOUR LIFE AND FIGHT DISEASE!”

Gym class is of little help. Now, I’m not trying to blame Phys Ed. teachers here, but gym class should be about more than either learning how to play floor hockey, or learning how to get out of playing floor hockey. It should be about learning why floor hockey or any other physical activity is important to your life, and if you don’t like floor hockey, here’s a bazillion other options to choose from.

Similarly, we aren’t told much about the value of nutrient-dense food over nutrient-deficient food, at least not before college. The roles of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber are barely understood by the general populace. Rarely do we hear about the law of thermogenics in relation to health: “if calorie intake exceeds calorie expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” How many times did you hear about how awful heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are, without being told how to prevent them besides “eat your vegetables”?

Like I said, different people learned about these subjects differently, so maybe you learned about them just fine, and maybe you are doing just fine with your fitness level right now (I hope). But many people’s understanding of them is deficient; even if they are excellent at building a house, balancing a budget, writing a novel, or raising a child, staying and feeling healthy is something they just can’t seem to nail down.

There are so many voices in the media and everywhere telling us to do a million different things in order to “get fit.” Healthy, “fit” people seem to have mastered these million things, while everyone else is still struggling. Those who were brought up to have a positive relationship to physical exercise have an advantage, and everyone else has a disadvantage. In neither case, of being “born into” healthy habits or overcoming unhealthy ones and embracing a healthy lifestyle, does it occur overnight. And keep in mind, you can’t always tell how healthy a person is by looking at them.

The “secret” that many successfully healthy people have learned is what I am right about to share with you. The three criteria for knowing whether something—a food or an activity—is good for you, are the following:

1. Does it fall within my health restrictions, if any, caused by a medical condition such as lactose-intolerance, Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, or high cholesterol? If so, do not eat it.

2. Is it aligned with my sense of ethics? You should not eat anything that you don’t approve of, ethically. Avoiding moral compromises helps to reinforce feelings of self-control, discipline, and long-term thinking, and produce an “eating to live” mentality, rather than a “living to eat” mentality.

3. Does it fit my fitness goals? If you want to run marathons, you will need carbohydrates in your diet. If you want that “dry, shredded look,” carbs are a no-no. The health value of any food is almost completely dependent on what you are trying to achieve. Of course, reaching your daily intake goal for fats could be achieved by eating bacon, or by eating avocado, and I would be hard-pressed not to say that one is healthier than the other, especially if one of your fitness goals is longevity.

Another simple criterion you could consider in deciding if a food is good for you is its nutritional content. If it is rich in nutrients, it is good for you. If it isn’t, or if it is also rich in bad things like saturated fat, cholesterol, or added sugar, it is bad for you or should at least be eaten in moderation.

The majority of your foods should be nutrient-dense, whole food (unprocessed or minimally processed) options that leave as little question of their nutritional value as possible. Nutrient-dense whole foods have many benefits: they keep us feeling full longer due to higher fiber content. They give us more sustained energy because they are more vitamin-rich and their carbohydrates are broken down more slowly. Due to that increased energy, they complement our exercise routines. And, they contain more water to help us stay hydrated and reduce water retention (“water weight”).

The trick to remember, no matter how “healthy” all of your foods are, is that law of thermodynamics: “if caloric intake exceeds caloric expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” So if you did nothing but “eat your vegetables” for 3000 calories a day, there’s a good chance you’d gain weight.

That’s because there is no “quick fix,” whereby “you do this and ONLY this, and all of your health worries will be solved.” No. The marketing value of such products is that, once you’ve implemented them, they free you from the burden of having to think about health and fitness, or change anything else about your life.

The truth is, health and fitness require sustained informed thought and decisionmaking, and conscious choice. In other words, it requires some thinking and some time out of your life to really make it happen. But isn’t your health worth it? Wouldn’t it feel good to know that your decisions are based on achieving a larger purpose, and the stress of “not knowing what you’re doing” can be replaced with the empowered feeling of being a nutritional badass?

Now, another question is, do these criteria reduce food and exercise to mere instruments for larger goals, alienating them from their individual pleasurable attributes? Do they demystify flavor and apply a utilitarian purpose to every macro- and micronutrient? Do they encourage every food-related decision to be considered and thought about and monitored, and thereby remove the joy of eating?

I would say no, they don’t. What they do is repurpose food to suit a greater purpose than the hunger or flavor of the moment. Hunger and flavor are indeed important, and needn’t be left behind. But the stress and destructive cycles that mindless, uninformed, or confused consumption can cause should indeed be left behind immediately. There is a very clear pleasure and reward to eating and living with your health being an end result. It is its own reward.

Plus: kale, watercress, avocado, pistachios, chickpeas, arugula, pineapple, kiwi, black beans, oatmeal with ground flaxseed and agave, baked sweet potato, and a million other things are delicious! But, like floor hockey, health is an acquired taste. All it takes is learning how to skate in a straight line, and you’re 100% closer to success than you were before.