Reverse Engineering The Plank

Q: With the Plank, should the elbows roughly be just parallel with shoulders?
It seems like when I put them at shoulder or higher, I’m lengthening better in the spine and hitting a better plank position than when I have them lower down.


This was a very excellent question from a client where we coached up the plank earlier in the day.  The setup piece is one of many important coaching cues, but like everything else, if the setup is sour, lots of other components get thrown under the bus.


This is where Reverse Engineering for the Plank starts.

This is where Reverse Engineering for the Plank starts.


To set up the plank, I would always suggest starting with the elbows directly underneath the shoulders.  The forearms would be straight ahead with palms down, fingers open.  Fists are the second choice, and the reasons are 2: 1)  The Plank to Pushup technique is capable with an open hand, and 2) there is more sensorimotor input to the palms than the volar forearm than the fist and ulna.  There is plenty of irradiation to be had from fists, so it is not a terrible sticking point if someone prefers that.
Arms angled inwards like praying is not something I would coach as it appears to limit the line of pull of shoulder extension that stiffens the thoracolumbar fascia.  In my experience, a lot more planks look good when the forearms are left to be straight ahead than when coached or allowed to be rotated inward from the shoulder.  The shoulder girdle is relatively unchecked into elevation which takes away from best practice of gaining tension.  Wrong?  Probably not.  Unsafe?  Could be.  Efficient for what a plank was invented for in the first place?  Absolutely not.
If you do the plank correctly, there’s no prayer that’s going to save you anyway.

More specifically to the question above, with the elbows set up more cephalad, it is very reasonable to “feel” stiffer.  This is because with the elbows more north, the lever of the body’s breaking points is longer.  For many individuals, making a motor skill harder leads to a more ideal learning environment.  The body senses it will fail and forces you to deliver in a reflexive and successful fashion.  Setting up the lever creates a self-limiting environment where you have to bring it, and you “feel it right,” or you just flop and feel wrong.
This is also the concept where progressions of Roll Outs take us to a longer lever, then back to an easier lever.  This can be done with the arms with roll-outs or the legs with pikes.  The progression grows with toys that allows us to change the lever to something more demanding.


A few years ago, someone who I admire, Nick Winkelman, began his journey on studying not necessarily how we set up exercises or how we ask for loading, sets & reps, and work:ratio.  Through his studies, he among many others, brought to light how what we actually say and how we interact with an individual has just as much a profound affect on the desired results of rehab and training.  He went on at one point to suggest that there aren’t many linear things in our professions (I probably think there’s more than he does…..), but one of those linear things is the use of external cues over internal cues.  At that time, Gabriel Wulf had published 94 studies that compared efficiency of motor strategy or speed of acquiring a particular motor strategy, and 94 times did the study that used external cues achieve a more desirable result.
So it appears that under all circumstances, should we never be using internal cues that have a focus body parts when we coach or cue.  This is something I often fail at as describing what to do with the body part resonates with the person talking, and it simplifies cues across the board.  But in fact, this is not consistent with how the best coaches have always coached or how efficiently strategies gain precision.  It is a challenge because an external focus for one individual may be effective, yet very ineffective for another.  Welcome to pattern recognition and coaching.
It’s not easy to always use external cues, but it appears the juice is worth the squeeze.  If anything, it’s a fun challenge.

Don't tell them high knees...... Tell them run from the Raptors in Jurassic Park 2. They'll throw the knees high. They will.

Don’t tell them high knees…… Tell them run from the Raptors in Jurassic Park 2. They’ll throw the knees high. They will.

For the plank, once the initial position is achieved, there are 4 external focus that I would try to achieve.  And touching the person or demonstrating can be brilliant external cues, although of course not everyone likes to be touched, and not everyone can demonstrate.  The right combination will be achieved with trial and error.  Here is what I currently use………………
1)  You’re Standing and PUSH into the floor.
–This creates dorsiflexion and enteroceptive input at the heel which we expect to drive tension through the posterior chain.
2)  There an open coat zipper at the top of your knee (touch there or the last time I would say knee), ZIPPER it up.
–This drives knee extension and superior not retro- migration of the patella and forces pelvic control to keep the priority of extension in the position where you started.
3)  Your body (touch pelvic rim or last time I would say body) is a bowl of water.  SPILL IT so all the water goes out the back.
–This posterior tilt further irradiates static hip extension and anti-extension of the lumbar spine.  By now the individual is probably shaking without ever intending to do anything in the “core.”  And they’ll realize what Dr. McGill was telling us when paraspinals go hypoxic in properly planked positions in about 10s.
4) Your top half (touch lats or last time I would say top half) is a saw.  PULL against the floor.
–Engaging isometrically of the lats, both further irradiates tension and stiffens the thoracolumbar fascia obviously adding to the core.

PUSH-ZIPPER-SPILL IT-PULL-IT Oh........., and never..........ever look up.

Oh………, and never……….ever look up.

If you do the plank with the proper set up and focus externally on actions at the ankles, knees, pelvis, and arms, it’s going to be pretty clear that the abdominals can contract enormously without thinking about them at all.
I am very, very confident that when that man pictured at the top is sprinting, he is not thinking about doing anything with his core or abdominal muscles, yet they are firing and relaxing with intrepid precision.
In this picture below, where Pavel’s core is being measured by Dr. McGill in his lab and where Dr. McGill anointed Pavel as having the “strongest core he has ever measured,” I am very confident in suggesting Pavel’s strategies revolve around pushing the bell away from the body as well as all the stiffness cues I described above.


And it comes down to Pavel vs. The Giraffe………………..

And as someone who has had 8 and 900 pounds on my back and bent down and tried to get back up, you don’t ever think about doing anything with your abdominal muscles.
You think about the movement.  You think about controlling the movement.  And you think about doing as efficiently as possible.
You don’t actively brace your core.  You “let it brace” as hard as necessary based on the joint positions, the load, the environment.  This way you never use any more resources than necessary to stabilize for the movement or exercise at hand.
In reality, if you stiffen your core maximally out of the context of your movement , you can’t even move, which includes the Push-Zipper-Spill It-Pull It for the plank.
Try your favorite cue of tighten your abs as hard as you can and see if you can squat without releasing some tension.

Yeah, I didn't think so either.

Yeah, I didn’t think so either.


4.  REFLEXIVE CORE – Breathing Behind the Brace
The hardstyle plank, which I am favoring for this article, is all about high-threshold phasic muscles generating as much tension as possible in this position.  And in many of these high-load positions, it is equally as important to be able to demonstrate low load muscle participation particularly for the purposes of cost-analysis of the drill.  If you can’t even get a breath for the purposes of holding it with an ideal stereotype, I’d expect a very high cost to the movement.
In moderately or low externally loaded movements, we can grade low-threshold muscle function with breathing and/or neck motion during the motion.
In the plank, even with the most ruthless of tension, I think we should be able to breath behind the brace as well as rotate the neck freely and easily.  I might suggest dialing back the Push-Zipper-Spill It-Pull It if one can’t move their neck.  Holding the plank for a set number or breaths or neck turns that have RPE under a 5 is also a very good way to grade integrity of holding the plank in terms of endurance.

And you know what hypoxia does to soft tissues, right?

And you know what hypoxia does to neural contractile tissues, right?


Toe Hyperextension Mobility – Dorsiflexion Mobility – Knee Extension/Patella Superior Mobility – Hip Extension Mobility – Lumbar Stability – Thoracic Mobility – Scapular Stability

There’s a lot of components to the Joint by Joint that the plank can speak to.  Not being able to get into the position may not be a commentary on the cueing or strength to hold a lever, but maybe that the individual can’t even get into the position in the first place.  Maybe a 1 in the Inline Lunge was really a toe hyperextension issue, and that is why it’s so hard to stay rocked out in a plank when you coach pushing into the imaginary floor.

Something else to consider in terms of the Joint by Joint is maybe how solutions are had.  Symmetry in holding time of the Side Plank, which is coached nearly identically to the Plank discusse above, has been shown to be a valid predictor of injury.  However, just doing more planks to even out the time will make things worse if any of the above mobility relevant to the side plank is limited or there is pain in loading.  The Side Plank would be a fantastic test, but the Joint by Joint requirements and really a keen movement evaluation will certainly prove that all the time…………………a bunch of planks don’t fix that sh–.

People seem to enjoy doing the plank.  It is very demanding and very satisfying when it’s even remotely close to being executed the right way by the right person.
It is an excellent choice to improve strength, power, endurance of the relevant outer core muscles.
It and all of its progressions check the Anti-Extension box in a great basic training program.

I agree with all of the above.  But the most impactful use of the plank in how I would verbalize my methodology is to acquire the motor skill of trunk stiffness in the vertical.  Everything that we do is built around stiffness from the crown of the head to the bottom of the coccyx.  The plank offers the longest lever to challenge the ideal spinal position to allow for powerful or dexterous volition of the limbs.  Tension and force guides the rewriting of tissues and is exactly how we can gain mastery of our vertical positions.
Life is a standing plank, so all of the precision and mastery that can be had out of the quadruped position is where I might value it the most.

So, all in all, my client moving his arms a little north of his shoulders in the plank could be explained with………….as usual, just about anything.
There are few wrongs, just many reasons.

Just get off the wrongs, please.
Flip Phil 90 degrees, and you’ll see my point.

Anything not the bottom should be coached.

Anything not the bottom should be coached.