Moving beyond the plank

There is a tendency within the education and scientific world to measure things. We benchmark things or test things, create an intervention, and then measure again to see if progress has been made. As the human body is immensely complex, we can’t measure everything, so this process requires us to isolate and reduce to simple measurements. What starts out as in innocent project can quickly become a dogmatic approach to training or education, where we “teach to the test” and lose sight of what our original aim was.

Rethinking the plank

The plank is a perfect example of this. In itself it is a relatively harmless bracing exercise. Very simple to teach, most people can execute it quite quickly and it requires no help. For some reason, it has become a ‘go-to’ exercise for physical education teachers and some National Governing Bodies. As a result, core training is simplified to this one exercise in order to pass the arbitrary test.

The benefits of having a standard test can also become its downfall when it comes to children adhering to the program. Or, in NGB speak, ‘engaging.’ There is no decision making, no discovery, no choice and no progression except time. In order to get a better score, the children have to spend longer in this fixed position. At one point, the Rugby Football Union was asking its Academy players to aim for 7 minutes to get a maximum score.

If I were to spend 7 minutes doing ‘core training’ I might spend 30 seconds in a fixed braced position, but then I would move and do different tasks. Dr. Ed Thomas told me a simple mantra for exercises that can be applied to core training:

  1. Precision
  2. Progression
  3. Variety

When working with children, I might reorder these to:

  1. Variety
  2. Progression
  3. Precision

As long as they are safe we are less worried about precision. Near enough is good enough. The variety of exercises and the progressions within them are what keep children interested. If they are interested and challenged, they practice. If they practice they get better. Rather than blame the child, change the exercise.

Here are some ideas that I use, taken from various sources and GAIN colleagues and my own exploration. I have put arbitrary labels on them to help with ease of reading, but I use these with gymnasts, weight lifters, sports people, from 5 years old to 50 years old.

Bracing without realizing

Once you can hold a plank or front support (press up position) for 10 seconds, it is time to move on. Children will start moaning if asked to hold one position for too long. Rightly so. One progression we use is a simple plank sequence, that you’ll find is quite hard to execute:

  • Front support
  • Side support
  • Back support
  • Side support
  • Front support

Each held for a count of 3. You can do this on forearms instead of hands to give a bigger base of support and to lower the centre of gravity.

This sequence can also be further progressed. Just use same sequence, but each time move your bottom towards your heels and then return to straight legs five times. The side support movement on one hand is very hard for taller young people who have gone through growth spurts. They curve like a banana rather than straighten like a carrot. I use this regularly as a weight lifting warm up, it helps develop shoulder mobility.

Prone series

Another staple at our club is a step up from the previous two sequences.

Starting in front support, do the following:

  1. Lift opposite hand and foot off the floor and extend limbs away from the body until they are parallel to the floor. Return and swap sides (Can be done one limb at a time to give better balance, or from kneeling to reduce the lever length).
  2. Bring opposite hand and foot together under the torso, return and repeat on the other side.
  3. Slide your left hand underneath your right arm as far as you can go (left elbow past your right hand ideally). Return and repeat on the other side. This is hard for beginners due to a lack of upper body strength.
  4. As above, but slide your left foot under your right leg as far as possible perpendicular to your body (until your left hip is 1cm off the floor ideally). If this is easy, lift the left foot slightly off the floor during the whole movement. Return and repeat on the other side.
  5. Half turtles. As above, but as your left foot passes under your right leg, point it towards the sky, lift your right hand off the floor and touch your left toe (preferably with the leg straight). At this point you will be balanced on your left hand and your right foot only. Return to the start and repeat on the other side.

Partner challenges

If children work together they make connections. If they make connections they make friends. If they make friends they return to training. If they return they get better. Therefore a key element in all aspects of our training is partner challenges. I find it preferable to have the children create and share tasks rather than they listen to me talk.

  • Partner challenge: A task I tried this week was to have partner A in front support and partner B to balance a tennis ball on the back of their hand and crawl under A without losing the ball. They then had to go over A. Partner A then attempted the same task, and then they both repeated in back support or bridge. We spent about 5 minutes on this, with much laughter, failure and talking.
  • Partner balance: Partner A is in front support (knees down is the regression), Partner B makes front support with their feet on A’s shoulders. Either hold for 5 seconds then swap. Or have B walk around A on their hands maintaining the support position. Or have B roll out of the support and go into a jump or support position- making a sequence of moves.
  • Partner obstacle: Partner A is in front support (kneeling is the regression), Partner B puts both hands on A’s shoulders and jumps over A’s feet. B then crawls under A (who will have to lift their hips up). Do this 5 times, then swap.
  • Partner lowering: partner A braces himself while Partner B stands behind and places his hands on A’s shoulder blades. B then takes a step back and lowers as far as he can under control before returning A to upright. This can also be done from the front and both sides (a lot harder). At first the children will move about 5-10 degrees from vertical, but then they will gain confidence and strength and be able to lower to the floor.

Other ways to measure core strength

All of the above tasks develop some aspect of core strength, but the end result can be difficult to measure. Timed planking is often used as a measurement simple because it is so easy to measure. As an alternative, why the plank is so often timed as a measurement of core strength. I never time the plank as a measurement, but do use 3 physical competency tasks I obtained from Thomas Cureton’s classic book Physical Fitness and Dynamic Health.

  1. The frog balance: Cureton used this as a balance test, but I think it requires strength. The centre of gravity is low and directly above the hands. Start in a squat position, put your hands on the floor close to your feet, fingers splayed. Your elbows should be touching your inner thighs. Slowly tilt forward until your feel your toes leave the floor. Hold for 20 seconds and return.
  2. Side leg lifts: Get into side support, arm straight, resting on the edge of your bottom foot. Lift your top leg up to slightly higher than parallel and lower under control. Top score is 25, so stop then. I use this a lot because many athletes get a decent score on one side, but not the other. They immediately realize they need to improve. The other good thing is that it takes less than a minute and has a finite end.
  3. Head elevated plank: Lie in the back support position and place your head on your partner’s knee, or on the edge of a sofa. Take your hands off the floor and lift your hips up until your body is in a straight line. Hold rigid for 30 seconds.

Summary

By creating challenges and progressions I find that the children are more likely to practice than if they are just given a simple task and told to do more of it. The strength tests I have highlighted are enough for a basis. Why do more? We can do these at the end of a session and no one feels like they are being measure, yet they all try to do a bit better.

If I can get children to enjoy their training, work together and come up with ideas that help improve their core strength, then I think my job as a coach is being done. Otherwise we are in danger of just issuing pointless busy work, and no one likes that.