To me, core work should be about ANTI- movement patterns. We want to be in positions where we can brace up and resist the forces of gravity/bands/weights. Exercises like planks (anti-extension) or side planks (anti-lateral flexion) are great ways to teach bracing and to develop the muscular corset we want around the abdomen. These exercises are also great ways for us to identify weak links and asymmetries in our athletes.
However, all of these benefits only occur if the exercises are performed properly, and quite frankly, too often they are not. For whatever reason that might be (poor coaching, poor effort/focus) it doesn’t matter, the result is the same – lack of progress accompanied by a nice side of low back pain.
Today, I want to spend a few minutes looking at the side plank and how we might better put our athletes in positions to be successful.
Here is what a proper side plank looks like to me (special thanks to Jason DiBartolomeo for being my model).
Notice the straight line position, from shoulder-hips-heels. Belly tight, hips off the floor. Feet stacked/knees stacked. This is a great exercise. We can load is up with a dumbbell. We can make it unstable by adding a banded press or row. The options are endless, as long as the exercise is performed well.
However, what I usually see when teaching this exercise looks more like this.
Here is what I am seeing. I am seeing an individual who has allowed their tight hip flexors and strong quads to take over the exercises. Watch the feet, how they let their body rotate forward, pushing through the front side of the foot, trying to let the quads control the exercise. The way to correct this is to stand behind the athlete, place your hand on their shoulder and press your knee into their back just above the hips, and make them get a feel for that straight line position they are missing. This will be incredibly uncomfortable for some, they may feel as if they are being ripped apart at the seams, but this is a symptom of the poor muscular balance across the hips and abdomen,
It’s All in the Hips
so, we have poorly performed side planks, and we have poor functioning hips. One of the most important parts of any training program is developing better motor patterns around the hips, specifically learning to fire the abductors and external rotators of the hips. Armed with this knowledge, and tired of seeing so many poor side planks, I made a few changes to how I teach the exercise. Please observe below.
Starting position – Stack the knees, stack the heels. Bend your bottom leg to 90 degrees. Push through your knee cap and bridge your hips up.
It is very important we still have that straight line from our shoulder-hips-knee cap. We can’t fold forward at the hip and avoid our weaknesses. We have to really think about using our hips and using those abductors/Ext. Rotators. Your quad dominant athletes are still going to try to roll forward, but it is much harder to perform this exercise poorly when they don’t have that foot to push through.
This is just one variation I have been using, but I have been having success with it. When paired up with some other hip work, like lateral band walking or any other abduction/extension pattern, those motor programs seem to clean up quickly.