To plank or not to plank?
It is a common claim that a strong core will enhance movement ability, such as for walking and running. 'The Plank' and similar 'core' exercises are therefore often prescribed to achieve this. But how appropriate are planks for our everyday movement requirements? Postural control sitting at your desk, turning, reaching, walking, swimming or running? Do we really sit, walk or run looking like a plank?
In effect, if we strengthen muscles in a particular way, they will be terrific and strong in that, but not necessarily with a cross over effect to other movements or requirements. This is called 'training specificity.' Muscles and movements needs to be precisely and specifically trained to optimise gains in strength and movement quality.
So what about muscles involved in 'core stability'?
When we speak about 'core stability', stability suggests rigidity and no movement. However, don't we really want to be able to bend and move through the spine and body? Think about your average day and the range of movements involved - turning, twisting, and bending, from popping on your socks to start the day, to twisting your head and trunk to reverse out of the driveway in your car.
In exercises like 'the plank', there is the need to brace and co-contract multiple muscle groups at one time. This is a model relying on stiffness. However, stiffness in our bodies does not necessarily result in better function. Walking and running activities are perfect examples of this where there needs to be free trunk rotation as the arms swing, and free rib expansion and movement for greater breath capacity.
Instead of 'core stability', a better term to use would be 'postural control.' This suggests that muscles need to be strong and efficient within movement, controlling you throughout. When we move, there is a whole team of muscles working. There are the little deep ones holding on at your joints, while the team of bigger ones move you. Even these bigger ones work to control the movement speed and precision. So to get these teams working like a well oiled machine, exercises should be practiced to mimic both the movement and postures involved.
At The Fix Program pilates classes, we work really hard at making sure we follow this theory of strengthening, exercise and movement. How do we do this?
- Have you noticed we spend a lot more time now strengthening your 'postural control' muscles in many varied postures – standing, sitting, stepping, twisting and lying?
- We teach you how to be more precise and aware about control (not rigidity) about the pelvis, the ribs, the neck and shoulder blades.
- We use visual cues such as 'float through your postures', 'feel more fluid in your movement,' becoming aware of breathing symmetrically through the rib bases. All of this is in contrast to bracing or rigidity in postures.
- We have introduced more Feldenkrais and Yoga type sequenced exercises where movement is free and awareness is paid to differences/asymmetries across our bodies.
There is nothing wrong with continuing to plank, so if you enjoy these, go for it. They do always feel like a brilliant challenge for the body. But do be aware of the need to exercise with movement also.
At the end of the day it's more about beautiful movement, free and flowing.