To Plank or not to Plank? – Why Runners Shouldn’t Do It

Once again we welcome back the very talented Mr. Andy DuBois for some more ultra training goodness. The reception to Andy’s articles has been fantastic, so we thought we’d share this little gem with you about the ‘plank’. I’m sure we all have friends who’ve posted their various ‘planks’ on Facebook that are perhaps a little far-fetched from the core exercise, but Andy goes into a little more scientific detail as to why runners shouldn’t be doing the plank.

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 effect on running performance or in preventing injuries.

Having no positive effect 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 every one 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.

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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 to 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.

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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 to 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.

Thanks again to Andy for allowing us to post his valuable insights. Andy has written previously on the types of exercises that are more beneficial for runners to strengthen the core. Have a look here for more information and go like his Facebook page here as well while you’re at it :)

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Author: Dan

Obsessed runner

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26 Comments

  1. the logic seems flawed here. Having a strong and stable core does not necessarily equate to inflexibility. In an interview, World-class Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglass stated that she does a three-minute plank daily as part of her training. Does not a gymnast need even more flexibility than a runner?

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    • The logic that is flawed is that holding a static position improves function in a dynamic position like running. Gymnasts are a different story , there may be some moves they do where the body is held still whilst they are rotating and therefore a plank may be a good idea. Train specifically for your activity is the key.

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      • i plank precisely because it has helped my distance running, bro. I have had poor posture my whole life and that translated into deteriorating form over greater running distances … until i began adding planks to my training. increase core strength and stability has helped me maintain good running form. Results may vary, but I’m a planks fan based on my personal experience, just sayin.

  2. Wow this explains a lot thanks! I am training for 100k trails and consider myself reasonably fit, however doing a plank excercise last week that was too hard, debilitated me for about 5 days. I couldn’t even walk and was having back spasms. I have recovered this week but now cannot hold a basic plank. I was thinking how bad my core was but your blog makes sense – for my body anyway!

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  3. Awesome article and totally agree. As a coach you need to see the sport they perform in a functional view. And from what I see we walk, jog and run in an upright position.

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  4. Well, not to stir the pot too much, but i have never done plank training nor do i plan to and i’ll leave it up to individuals’ experimentation w/ core training to decide if it is beneficial or not to them. that said i think it would be sad if people stopped posting goofy planking photos. i do believe a sense of humour is very beneficial to all runners and when we get so serious as to avoid a bit of silliness perhaps we’ve gone a step too far.

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  5. Hi All, stronger core muscles……… & the plank, has helped me better all my distance times of half, full & Ultra’s.TRX Suspension training, whereby every single move you make, engages your core muscles is what did it, for me…….do whatever works….well……for you!!

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  6. Craig Mottram loves planking.

    Planking (among other things) has helped me maintain a core strength that has improved my posture and taken pressure off my lower back (when sitting or standing). Maybe it doesn’t help my actual running, while I am running, but it helps my running by eliminating a recurring lower back problem that has in the past stopped me from running for up to a week at a time.

    I have found side planking (holding on one elbow and one foot) has helped with my hip and ITB tightness.

    Although there is no “evidence” that planking helps runners, my own experiment of one over 30 years says it does.

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    • exactly what i was trying to say, but you said it more eloquently; i know unequivocally that planks have helped me, even if i have no group stats to support this.

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  7. A plank is effective at improving the strength of the core muscles which allows us to control and manipulate the position of our spine and other aspects of our body longer… especially as we fatigue. Just because it is a static exercise doesn’t mean that it only helps maintain a neutral spine. It strengthens the muscles and allows us to maintain whatever spine position or change in position that we want over the course of a long run. It may be that there are non static core exercises that would be even more effective than the plank but I haven’t found them yet.

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  8. The author seems to be missing the point of the plank. You need to have a strong, stable set of ab and back muscles (core) to allow LIMITED CONTROLLED MOVEMENT of the pelvis. You’re not trying to lock down your pelvis but keep it supported during running and also to allow transfer of energy generated by a good arm swing to the legs. I think this article is hogwash and as stated above, the logic is flawed. I have especially felt the benefits of my core work on fast downhill running. Engaging my core keeps me stable and keeps my back from being overworked. Why would I want a loose flappy pelvis going all over the place??

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    • David G – as someone who has prescribed planks for many years until my understanding of the human body improved I am very well aware of the point of the plank. It teaches the abdominal muscles to contract and maintain a neutral spine in a supine position . A correctly performed plank should allow no movement of the spine.

      You say the logic is flawed – when studies show planks neither reduces the risk of injury or improve performance and you have the American College of Sports medicine saying vertical dynamic exercises would be better than traditional core exercises such as the plank can you explain where the flawed logic is?

      We certainly dont want a loose flappy pelvis but doing planks isn’t going to teach the muscles that control the pelvis how to keep it stable and only allow the most effective range of movement.

      For example do planks train the hamstrings and glutes and hipflexors? They all control pelvic movement and unless the body is trained in a way that co-ordinates all of these muscles in a running specific way the exercise wont be effective.

      If you think the logic is flawed please give a detailed argument why?

      If you can show any evidence that a static exercise can improve dynamic movement in a completely different body position I’d love to see it . If I am wrong then I’d rather know about it then stick my head in the sand and say I am right. But the countless hours of research and study on human anatomy and running biomechanics I have done llead me to conclude that planks are a waste of time

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      • i think you mischaracterize what a plank does. it does not simply “teaches the abdominal muscles to contract and maintain a neutral spine in a supine position”

        A well executed plank gives sets of muscles tone and some strength. it activates the core area nervous system(s). It can improve kinesthesia and proprioception.

        The whole “neutral spine while running” bit in the original post seems to be a specious straw man argument.

        Are planks the best exercise for runners? No.

        Are they useless, detrimental, a waste of time? No.

        Planks are a simple, practical exercise that can be part of an effective core routine.

        To answer your question: “For example do planks train the hamstrings and glutes and hipflexors?”
        Directly, not much. But it is easy enough to progress to movement(s) from a plank position that do target, activate, and train all 3.

  9. A few things I’d like to say here…

    In the simplest terms, planking helps strengthen the core by way of contracting the abdominals, the lower back and the stabilizers. I, being a goaltender and goalie instructor in ice hockey, use the plank to help stabilize my posture and balance in certain save situations and positioning.

    How does this apply to trail runners? In the same way as a goalie must shift his weight/body quickly into a new direction, his core is activated much like a safety measure to stabilize the body and keep your balance while you readjust and engage. This is MY theory.

    Not to undermine coach Dubois but, if you are going to write an argument to imply why a certain movement or exercise is, in your opinion, not proper for said activity, please make it a point to counter with your own suggestions so we may make a well educated decision (or argument) towards the information displayed.

    Keep running!
    Rich
    Canada

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  10. Most of you are missing the difference between static and dynamic movements and also missing the point that the core musculature is controlled by Central Nervous System rather than the brain. This makes the “core” a group of muscles that are far more a reactionary group of muscles than a “hold it tight for longer” group of muscles. They work harder and produce more powerful contractions when they are decellerating movement to then accelerate movement in a different direction.
    Yes a gymnast will have an extremely strong core through the work they do (as an ex gymnast I know) doing the pommel horse requires static and dynamic deceleration and acceleration of the limbs via a stable upper body. It’s movement of the limbs that makes the core work hard by stabilising everything else while another body part moves.
    It’s totally unfeesable that a static exercise will make for a stronger dynamic activity. I would suspect that speed work and increased demand from the actual training of running would have made your core stronger as the demand from sprinting or speed work is far higher.
    As a Tri coach I have had far better results with athletes doing dynamic medicine ball and Swiss ball and BOSU work rather than static planks as there’s two things wrong with planking

    1) it’s in a prone position, in running one is standing up
    2) it’s static and running is dynamic with lots of 3dimensional movement thrown in the mix.

    Try doing 20 jumps up and down and throw your arms up and down hard whilst jumping, your core muscles will work hard to decelerate your limbs.
    Try doing 20 medicine ball slams…now try it on one leg for maximum running transfer of skill as running is on one leg not all fours
    Try doing 10 Swiss ball Jack Knifes

    All of these are dynamic, think about it and apply the logic.

    :-)

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    • absolutely agree, thanks for explaining in such an understandable way. I’ll make the girls I traing with read that. Thanks again

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    • “It’s totally unfeesable that a static exercise will make for a stronger dynamic activity”

      That statement is totally false and undermines the rest of your weak argument.

      (also, the word is “in/unfeasible’)

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      • You argue with my logical professional scientific researched and practiced with professional athletes, argument with a correction of a spelling mistake, that’s your comeback…with nothing else…!
        Where is your argument and how can you back up your claims of my falsehood…I expect not!
        I’ve trained world champions in lots of sports using these methods and have seen rapid improvements performing dynamic functional movements using transverse plane. If you have nothing to add to the argument then please don’t comment just sit and read quietly and maybe you’ll learn from the professionals!!!

    • Regarding your “…two things wrong with planking…” comment:

      Why is it okay to say a plank is wrong because it is prone and running is upright, but then provide 2 example of core work done bilaterally (with both legs) when running is performed unilaterally?

      Also, isn’t a swiss ball jack knife bilateral and prone?

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  11. Flawed logic. Been doing planks since high school and increased the intensity and time spent planking exponentially in college and my times have never been better.

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    • Nobody is saying don’t do planks, what they are saying is that research has taken training beyond the plank. In running, we need to not only stabilize the spine and pelvis but also activat the POS AND AOS (Posterior oblique System and Anterior Oblique System) these systems give the opposite and equal effect on the “right arm left leg, left arm right leg” scenario as we run and balance forces across the core musculature. This is super dynamic and a plank DOES NOTHING for this.
      Yes you may get faster when implementing planks Vs doing nothing else but if you were to implement dynamic exercises whilst standing upright (in the same way running is vertical) then the stability and motion control would be far better longer term for endurance athletes and shorter term for speed athletes.
      If you don’t want open your mind to new research and elaborate on your training with new proven ways that’s fine but I will tell you now, if you work in isolation, like a plank, it will not give you the same benefit that dynamic functional movement patterns like the AOS/POS system training will as the transverse abdominals are controlled by central nervous system and to train them statically is limiting them and not using them the way the body intended. They are more powerful as a reactionary mechanism…the AOS/POS system is a powerful system. Google it and research it and give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
      The body was designed to move!!

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      • “Nobody is saying don’t do planks” Really? did you read the headline? .”…Why runners shouldn’t do it.”

        but from there on, you do much better in this blurb. indeed, there is nothing wrong with planks, but you are correct, there are much better exercises for runners.

        as for the static/dynamic dichotomy. you offer no support (other than some braggadocio about your alleged experience) for your claim above: “It’s totally unfeesable (sic) that a static exercise will make for a stronger dynamic activity” i know from personal experience – working with exercise physiologists and physical therapists – that it is false. it is precisely “feasible” that is, it’s easy, convenient, and practical. Is a static exercise always the optimal exercise to increase dynamic strength? probably not. but does that make the static exercise useless or detrimental? hardly.

        would you argue that planks could not affect/improve one’s proprioception?

        would you argue that planks do not recruit and activate the central nervous system?

        (and don’t be so thin skinned about a spelling correction – any argument is weakened by sloppy rhetoric or poor spelling)

    • Summerruning – please explain the flawed logic – and also please explain what the researchers did wrong when they looked at planks and the correlation to improved performance and injury reduction.

      The argument of one isnt a valid argument to disregard an article based on scientific research

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  12. Thanks for your contributions guys, keep them coming. To echo Paul’s words, if you’re going to comment, keep it respectful and present some reasoned argument to your point. This is not a troll bulletin board – and yes I have read the derogatory comments from some people on the Lets Run forum about this website, myself and author Andy DuBois. I couldn’t careless about those, as barely any of them can articulate a reasoned argument – we’re not concerned with tit for tat rubbish. I won’t however accept them on this website. I operate a two strikes and out policy. If I feel any comment is inappropriate, I’ll issue a first warning. Do it again and I’ll delete the comment and you’ll be barred.

    It’s pretty simple, respect other people’s views, try to open your mind to other people’s views and add something to the debate. Above all, remain respectful to one another.

    Dan – Ultra168

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    • I left this comment on a friend’s fb page, but I thought I’d also share it here for the sake of discussion.

      I believe the major flaw both with the argument as well as with those who disagree with the article is the bias that runners should all be trained the same way, or at the very least, similarly, especially when it comes to “core” work. An absolute statement such as “runners should not plank” is way too simplistic. Current research can not remove this bias, so a study looking at the effects of planking on running performance does not effectively answer the question it set out to answer. If a runner comes to me for help with their running performance and I find they have an excessive lordotic curve in the lumbar spine and an excessive anterior pelvic tilt due to overly facilitated and shortened hip flexors, then prescribing long lever planks (or posterior pelvic tilt planks) may be EXACTLY what they need to improve their running. However, if a runner comes to me with a relatively neutral pelvic tilt or a posterior pelvic tilt, then prescribing planks may be detrimental, or just a waste of training time. This is why length-tension assessments must occur before exercises are prescribed or avoided. If you make a blanket statement that everyone should do this, or no one should do that, you have turned the human body, a blank canvas, into an over-simplified “paint-by-numbers” or “one-size-fits-all” premise that will only address a specific portion of the population.

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