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 :)

Author: djbleakman

Obsessed runner

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15 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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  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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