... ... Why Runners shouldn't do the plank - Mile27
Nov 222012
 


The plank is seen as a fundamental core exercise that every runner should include in their training routine. But could it be making your core less suited to the demands of running?

If you have read any of my other blogs on the topic you’ll know that there is no research that shows that traditional core training has any positive affect on running performance or in preventing injuries.

Having no positive affect is different to having an adverse affect but when you consider the action of the abdominal muscles in exercises such as a plank and when you run there is a strong case that exercises like the plank could be detrimental

The plank is all about training your abdominal muscles to maintain a neutral spine. A neutral spine is the natural position of the spine with all the curves of your back in good alignment – lumbar, thoracic and cervical. Once you have this position the exercises are designed to challenge your abdominal muscles to maintain neutral.

The biggest problem with this approach is holding a neutral spine is not desirable when we run. Have a look at this illustration of some elite female runners – you can see that everyone of them has a sideways tilt in their pelvis of around 20 degrees and a rotation through the abdominal area (illustrated by the green line). Clearly not a neutral spine.
 

The illustration below shows a side view of some of the best runners the world has seen and you can see the extension of the leg behind the body. It is important to understand that the hip joint can only extend 20 degrees due to its structural design. Any more extension than this has to come from an anterior pelvic tilt. You can see in the diagram the three runners have between 23-31 degrees of extension. this means at least 3-11 degrees that must come from an anterior pelvic tilt. This is the very thing you try and avoid when doing core exercises that emphasise maintaining neutral spine. In practice the pelvic tilt would be more as it is unlikely the hip joint would be allowed to go to extreme end range during a dynamic activity like running.
 

So when you see that elite level runners never maintain a neutral spine you either have to agree that maintaining a neutral spine is not desirable when running or try and argue that elite athletes have all got weak cores and need to do the plank.

Just in case you are leaning towards the second option you should understand it is physically impossible to walk or run effectively with a neutral spine.

The movements of the pelvis into rotation , side tilt and anterior/ posterior tilt are essential for effective loading of the core and hip muscles and to allow movement of the extremities during walking and running.

If an exercise such as the plank is designed to keep the spine and pelvis still and in running we need a spine and pelvis that is able to move in three directions then it makes no sense to do the plank or any other neutral spine type exercises. You are teaching your body to limit movement that we need to have when we run.

I have written previously on the types of exercises that are more beneficial for runners to strengthen the core. Have a look here for more information.

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  21 Responses to “Why Runners shouldn’t do the plank”

  1. Hello Andy,

    Thank you for your article. It is interesting to get different points of view.
    I don’t necessarily agree however, as I also have a different point of view on the benefits of this exercise.
    The plank, while it does assist in strengthening the core while in a neutral spine position, it does not force the spine to stay in that position while running. What it does do is build muscular endurance in the lumbar and pelvic stabilisers while the spine is in a neutrally loaded position. To build endurance in postural muscles it makes perfect sense to do this in while the spine is in an optimal position so as not to produce adverse stresses. This will then build a solid foundation from which to then train more functional exercises including the phasic muscle groups which produce power and the gross movements involved in running.
    Lack of postural control when running is the reason why so many runners end up with back pain and the ability to move into and out of a neutral spine position without fatiguing those postural muscles is critical.

    Thanks once again for your article and I look forward to more in the future.

    Regards,

    Shaun.

    • Hi Shaun
      Thanks for your comments. I agree with your last sentence regarding the ability to control the spine as it moves in and out of neutral. However neutral spine is never a position the body holds only a position it goes through so it makes more sense to train it dynamically ie rather than statically.
      A good analogy is wall sits. Sitting leaning against a wall in a squat position might work your legs but won’t help your running at all as it isn’t dynamic and is building strength in one position rather than developing strength controlling a range of movement. To me it makes no sense to train our body to be strong in one position when we never hold that position for any more length of time than we hold any other position. Training the body to control the range of movement that we use in whatever activity we do (in this case running) makes far more sense to me.

  2. Hi Andy,

    I also love the differing opinions and completely agree with your opinion on most of the ‘unnecessary exercise’ posts, but also agree to some degree with shaun. Having that core and abdominal to spine stability, by increasing the strength and influence of the core stabilisers does not dictate that that section then becomes inflexible or less dynamic. for instance your first example of the 20 degrees of tilt and sideways rotation may indeed be ideal for efficient and strong running, but i believe the return of the neutral spinal and abdominal angle or position is critical for the efficiency of the next stride (which hopefully is a rotation and tilt equal/opposite to that of the first stride). Having the activated (not a fan of that word) core stabilisers may mean a more economical running style (passive muscular influence), and act as a buffer to hip, spine etc alignments caused by other biomechanical issues.

    regards,

    matt

    • Thanks for your comments Matt but neutral spine in running is simply a position your spine moves through from one stride to the next. It NEVER remains in neutral spine. Training the body to become efficient at maintaining neutral spine is contradictory to what happens when running. Why would we train the muscles to maintain a position that we don’t maintain when we run. Why would we ignore the effect of the hips legs and arms in activating the core muscles? Muscles react when dynamically loaded – something that doesn’t happen in a plank. Why would the American college of Sports medicine advocate vertical core training as a more effective means of training the core than horizontal core training exercises? Why would studies show that traditional core training has no effect on performance or injury prevention in running?

      How does a plank teach the body to “activate ” the core muscles in a position and load completely dissimilar to running

      The core stabilisers are no more important than any other muscles and teaching them to co-ordinate their action with the rest of the body makes far more sense than training them in isolation in a position not specific to running.

      The benefits of any exercises follow the SAID principle – specific adaptation to imposed demand. The demand on the core during the plank is different in weight, load , speed, joint angles, body position to the demands on the core when we run so why do we continue to recommend the plank when there is no scientific justification of it? When it doesn’t follow the SAID principle which is a fundamental principle in exercise?

      I’m afraid that the plank would decrease the dynamic activity of the core because it becomes more and more used to immobilising the spine – how can an exercise that promotes an immobile spine not have a detrimental affect on training the muscles to be dynamic as is critical for running?

      In a few years we will look back at the plank in much the same way we look back on sit-ups and wonder what we were thinking in doing them as a means to strengthen our core.

  3. Great discussion guys!
    ACSM have recommended the use of the plank and also the side plank for core training, In fact, it was the ACSM that first published the correct method for performing the side plank in particular.
    I recommend static core exercises as a foundational approch to core stability as they develop muscular endurance in the postural muscles that will fatigue on longer runs. More functional exercises should then be added to the program to develop control during dynamic activities such as running. This is the perfect time to incorporate your vertical core training approach, which I love.
    Muscle firing patterns of the pelvic stabilisers are critical for good pelvic and low back control in runners and the best way to prevent the phasic muscles from becoming dominant and inhibiting the postural muscles is to train those postural muscles specifically. As soon as we start moving, without good postural muscular endurance, our phasic muscles begin to take over and dominate.
    I think the best approach is a combination of static and dynamic exercises, especially for beginners. As someone becomes more advanced, their daily training (and good posture – hopefully) will take care of the postural control anyway.
    Cheers,
    Shaun.

    • Shaun ,thanks for your comments as they raise some of the most common misconceptions with regards to core training.

      The fundamental difference in our approach is that I believe that static core exercises have no place or benefit for runners, beginners intermediate or advanced. For beginners doing static core exercises simply sets them up for bad habits when more dynamic loads are applied. Why should beginners do static exercises ? They are not in a wheelchair – they still walk and run so their core still has to work dynamcally. Your inference is due to your belief that dynamic exercises are too difficult for beginners. This is simply not true as there are numerous ways to change the intensity and loads of vertical core training exercises. The exercises I have shown in my blogs use zero weight initially and then when co-ordination has improved adding a weight of 1-2 kg. In a plank you are asking them to hold up their body weight. Surely holding their body weight against gravity is more challenging than the rotational force of their arms?

      ACSM may have said the plank and side plank are good for core training but I’m not interested in exercises that work the core , I’m interested in exercises that improve the function of my core when running. There is a BIG difference. Just because an exercise works a muscle doesn’t mean it will have ay benefit for another activity that uses the same muscle. The body is far more complicated than that.

      ACSM have said for a dynamic activity like runner vertical core training is a better approach.

      I agree muscle firing patterns are critical but completely disagree that static exercises are the best way to train them. In movement our muscles respond to a dynamic load so why would we want to teach our muscles to activate in a static position through conscious activation of our core muscles? We don’t consciously activate our core muscles when we run so why would we teach that in training? Why wouldn’t we ask the body to perform an exercises that subconsciously switches on the core muscles?

      In terms of isolating our postural muscles and training them specifically , i think we are kidding ourselves if we think we can train our muscles in an isolated static horizontal position and expect them to function in a dynamic vertical position. It violates every part of the Specific adaptation to imposed demand principle.

      Static core training ignores many basic principles of anatomy and physiology and there is simply no benefit for them if you are trying to improve a dynamic activity. There are plenty of ways to modify vertical core exercises to make them easier or harder to make sure postural muscles are loaded.

      What you need to ask yourself in static core training

      – does my core operate by consciously, statically contracting muscles in running? No.
      – is the load on my core similar enough that there will be a carry over benefit into running? No
      – is there any research that supports the use of static core training in improving performance or reducing injuries in running? No
      – can training my core in isolation teach it to integrate with the rest of the body in running? No

      For the argument that static core training is good for runners to have some merit you would have to agree that training a muscle in a way that uses different loads, different body position, different joint angles, different speed of movement to your main activity would be beneficial. As the Specific Adaptation to Imposed demand is a fundamental principle of the response of the human body to exercises it is a very hard argument to make that doing exercises that work the core in a way that is so dissimilar to running can be of benefit.

      Training any muslce in isolation and expecting it to work when integrated with the rest of the body in a dynamic movement is ignoring the basic principles of neuromuscular control of movement.

      The concept of training in isolation first and then integrating it is another argument I hear. But why would you train a muscle in isolation and use static holds and think that was a good way to progress to a dynamic movement in a full body movement.

      Ask yourself would wall sits (static contraction of leg muscles in an isolated position) be a good exercise to improve your vertical leap? Would you start a beginner who says they want to improve their vertical jump by doing wall sits?

      Obviously not, so how could an isolated core exercise be a good exercise for improving a dynamic activity like running?

      To improve a jump you would start with a dynamic exercise like a squat as it is similar to your goal activity and then you would make the squat easier or harder depending on the person. Why wouldn’t you do the same with the core?

      For runners static core training is a waste of time that could be better spent doing something that will actually help their running.

  4. Andy

    What do you think of sprinter crunches?

    Laying on your back, bring one knee up and touch the opposite elbow, raising the upper body up slightly into a crunch position.
    This results in some rotation of the core. Repeat with the other side alternating as if in a running motion.

    • Unfortunately even though they do have some rotation of the spine, they are performed lying on your back so there is no involvement of the feet and hip muscles and the rotation comes from a concentric contraction rather than from a subconscious eccentric loading as it occurs in running. So the demand on the abdominals is totally unlike that faced when we run.

  5. Just weighing in with my 2 cents!

    I agree with most of what you say – the plank isn’t a functional core exercise for runners, and I don’t believe having a kick-arse plank technique is going to help you run any better.

    The point I disagree with is that I don’t think doing a plank (correctly) is going to hurt your running in anyway. Sure, it may not help, but it’s not going to make you a less efficient, or technically poorer, runner.

    So I agree for the most part that:
    For runners static core training is a waste of time that could be better spent doing something that will actually help their running.

    But I disagree that:
    (With an exercise such as the plank) You are teaching your body to limit movement that we need to have when we run.

    • Hi Matt

      Thanks for your comments. Re planks not hurting your running – during running you need to have a spine that can move in all three planes and have muscles to control that movement.

      So an exercise that teaches the body to prevent movement would seem to be contradictory.

      Teaching muscles to do the opposite of what they do in running may in fact make your core strength worse in running.

      Remembering that muscles are neurologically driven, the more time we spend doing one activity the more the brain becomes efficient at performing that activity. Time spent doing the plank is teaching the brain to become better at a completely different neurological way of activating core muscles than is required in running.

      That can’t help your running at all so the argument becomes does it harm your running or have no affect.

      There is no research to validate either option but to me anything that teaches my brain to activate muscles in a contradictory way to the way the muscles work in running can’t be good for your running.

  6. Makes complete sense! Have been doing plank for years – time to change! Wondering if my latest hip problems have been caused by my super strong but rigid core!

  7. What do you think about sprinters… I know that Lance Brauman trains world class athletes and one of the main routines are planks. Do you think those are detrimental to the sprinters or just runners. Sprinters run technically in a different way, but i’m not sure if that has to do anything w/ rotation on the body.

    • I think planks are a waste of time for any runners. Yes several top class coaches get their athletes to do planks but with all due respect to the coaches I dont think they understand the biomechanics of the human body properly in terms of how the core works – its great they are recommending core exercises but there really isnt any evidence or logical reasoning for doing planks

  8. Hi Andy.
    Great article to stimulate debate. Though I agree the plank is a reminder of a time in which we all over prescribed the use of ‘rigidity’ exercises, I do feel that there is no need to do a total 360 degree turn and avoid it entirely. In moving on from structuralist theory and embracing instead the governing role of the brain in production of both movement and pain, I would argue that encouraging ‘variety’ over-rules the idea that a particular exercise should be avoided due to it not being ‘specific’. As a builder of ‘core strength’, research has indeed shown that the plank is not the king of exercises as once believed, but it does have a carry over and in my opinion can compliment a routine just as indeed any exercise that stimulates the brain can.

    • Thanks for the comments Matt, great to have your input.

      I understand your thought process and argument but still not sure of the benefit of doing planks even from a variety point of view – there are many other ways to stimulate and load the core that are more applicable to runners that fit the criteria for variety

      Andy

  9. Interesting concept. Here is something to add to the conversation. The plank or any neutral spine exercises can add value in building neutral spine endurance that can be up-regulated to control neutral “range” control if the athlete can transfer the increased endurance into the respective activity. This up-regulation often needs to be trained and integrated with the most important factor to control while running, which is hip / knee control. We have a wealth of information, largely out of the research for Patello-femoral Pain, that clearly demonstrates that knee adduction moments / dynamic knee valgus/ hip adduction, internal rotation lead to nearly all the anterior knee, hip, and low back problems that occur in 79% of the runners that become injured annually. This includes ITB, pes anserine bursitis, trochaneric bursitis, PFP, shin splints, medial compartment syndrome, mechanical low back pain, etc. all related because of how we interact with the ground. That being said, neutral spine control is one component of running that needs to be address. But we need to look at the hip. In many cases, poop hip control leads to compensatory trunk lean that leads to a cascade of events that lead to MSK problems. This concept is derived from Chris Powers work. Therefore the plank is one exercise to use, the most important consideration is how the systems interacts with the ground during ground contact at peak loading rates. The movement away from neutral spine occurs as the athlete toes off, way after peak vertical loading rates have occurred in mid-stance. This is very important because this is where injuries are most likely to occur. Therefore, the plank is not a bad exercise, especially for many cases recreational runner’s do not have sufficient neutral spine endurance. We need to look at what is happening at peak vertical loading rates. When we analyze elite runner’s they are neutral in this position.

    • Hi Thomas

      Thanks for your comments

      WHilst I totally agree that poor hip strength/ mobility / stability is a big problem with almost all running related injuries I still disagree re the plank

      Reasons being as follows – you make it sounds like neutral spine is a position we hold for a period of time during the run gait whereas thats not the case it all if you look at studies that measure the movement of the pelvis – the pelvis tilts anteriorly and posteriorly through the whole gait cycle – it never stays in neutral spine except momentarily passing through it .

      I think neutral spine endurance is not something we should even aim to develop as ( unless you are a guard standing motionless for long periods of time) when walking and when running the spine never holds in neutral – it moves throughout the whole cycle .

      I agree that dealing with peak loading forces is an important consideration which is why I would progress these vertical dynamic core exercises to add in a landing force .

      I disagree that neutral spine control needs to be addressed but if we rephrase it slightly to say we need to develop better control of the spine as it moves in 3 planes throughout the gait cycle then I could certainly agree on that.

  10. Hi Andy,

    Just came across this article. A couple of years have past since it was wrote and I’m sure you have even more illumination regarding it. Here’s my own experience as a running coach and the plank. When you look at the movement involved in running, there is a moment when you are in the air and are weightless. During this time an efficient and relaxed runner will have no muscle activation until the moment of impact when their postural (core) muscles should then automatically kick in. So to recap..when you are in the air your muscles are ‘off’ and when you experience Ground Reaction Force during landing the muscles are ‘on’. So the question is how do you replicate this ‘on, off, on, off, on, off’ in strength training. As well as olympic lifting and plyometric exercises a la old school Russian style training I use a dynamic plank a.k.a. the ‘bouncy plank’.

    How to execute the bouncy plank:
    1. Assume standard plank position, legs dead straight and weight up on big toes.
    2. Keeping legs straight, attempt to sharply ‘lift’ hips quickly from the ground. If the legs are indeed straight the big toes should come off the ground slightly (getting some airtime) and gravity brings you back down requiring you to fire central postural muscles and catch yourself.
    3. Follow a 180bpm rhythm.

    So when you lift the hips off the ground the postural muscles briefly switch off and when your toes hit the ground postural muscles fire, this is quite similar to ‘on, off, on, off’ experienced while running. The key executing to a rhythm similar to running (175-185bpm) and good form so as not to damage lumbar. Counting to 60 bounces is a good place to start. I find this particular exercise of great benefit for fast downhill mountain running where the core is required to work very hard.

    BR,
    Jason

    • HI Jason

      Thanks for your comment
      Whilst I think your version of the plank may be an improvement of the normal plank it still doesnt address some of the loads that occur when we run – i.e. there is no load in the transverse or frontal plane – its a pure sagittal plane load – unless you train all three yo uare really limiting any improvement you may gain from doing core exercises

      I also don’t entirely agree that muscles are off when we are off the ground – in fact many muscles switch on again before we hit the ground and adductors are actually activated pretty much throughout the whole gait cycle , rec fem is also active in the floating phase – hamstrings glutes quads and calves all kick in before landing and given the pelvis moves in all three planes during swing phase I cant see how it can be totally inactive during swing phase

      If we want to train our core to help our running we must train in all three planes in a position that is simlar enough to running that the strength will transfer

  11. Everyone in the field talks about the problems of pelvic drop. But when I’m reading your point of view the pelvic drop could be a part of the natural movement every runner makes? Or do I not understand your theory very well? It is interesting to read your article and fits in my experience. I always got injured when I fit in the planks in my training. High knees with the opposite arm high too, did the opposite. I became stronger by doing them and released my back. I think your article explains why.

    • There is a normal pelvic moment both forward and back side to side and rotation left and right that occurs when we walk or run – the idea that the pelvis remains in neutral spine when we walk is incorrect. Of course you get problems when there is too much movement and when there is not enough movement so training to encourage enough movement but with suitable control is essential

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