Even if you’re the most disciplined triathlete when it comes to strength training, it can be tough to make the humble plank exercise fun. Many would even argue that nothing makes time go by more slowly than holding a plank. There’s also a common misconception that the indicator of a solid plank is simply being able to perform them for a much longer period of time – and that notion couldn’t be more wrong, particularly if you don’t use proper form.
The static plank and other isometric exercises are anaerobic, meaning “without oxygen.” (And no, that doesn’t mean without breathing, although breathing is something people sometimes forget to do when holding an exercise!) You probably do many forms of anaerobic training in your tri-specific work: exercises like weight training, sprints or plyometrics tend to be done in short bursts, because the body uses glycogen stores as its main energy source during these moves. That’s why you’ll find your muscles will start to fatigue and technique will break down no matter who you are — even if you already have great muscular endurance from your long swim sessions, bike rides, and runs.
For that reason, a 10-minute plank hold would serve little purpose in properly training the body during typical workouts. It makes more sense to keep planks shorter in duration and add variety depending on your skill level. That’s why the following plank progressions can be worth their weight in gold as you bring your plank game to the next level and build a super strong core to support your triathlon training. Plus, they do a great job at killing the monotony of classic planks.
Looking for more information on strength training for triathletes? We’ve got everything you need to know: getting started, mistakes to avoid, swim/bike/run-specific routines, and plenty more. Visit our Strength Training for Triathletes page.
The Basics: How to Plank Properly
The plank is an exercise that places all hands — or should we say muscles — on deck. Your hands or forearms are positioned on the floor, with the only other points of contact being the toes. The body should form a generally straight line from shoulder to heel, with little to no arch in the lower back for a neutral spine. Squeezing your glutes as hard as possible and keeping your abdominals engaged will help you achieve this.
A good plank should be hard to hold — 30 seconds, in truth, should be plenty to make your muscles tremble if you haven’t been regularly training for it. If that sounds laughable to you, then you’re probably ready to move on to something bigger and better, like the following variations.
6 Ways to Pump Up Your Planks
The only thing that makes the iron cross plank different from a standard plank is the fact that your hands are now facing outward and the distance between them is twice as wide as a typical push-up or plank. That wider base of support seems innocent, but it’s a game-changer when it comes to difficulty level of the plank, and immediately incorporates the chest, shoulders and arms into the picture (along with even more demand on the core to keep proper positioning).
Not to mention, it takes you one step closer to the coveted planche – one of the most rockstar movements in all of calisthenics.
Making a simple change to the levers of the plank is a great way to train a key component of abdominal strength: anti-extension. The truth is, your core isn’t only responsible for creating motion, it’s also responsible for resisting unwanted forces, too. That’s the main reason planks are a recommended movement in to begin with and the reason why this variation takes things to the next level.
Set your feet up in a TRX or suspension system, keeping your body straight from shoulders to ankles and allowing your legs to hang while your arms push your body away. Even a six-inch range of motion is a massive ask for your abs to keep this position and prevent your spine from overarching or extending. The second you let that tension go, you’ll feel your back get too involved – and that’s your sign to tighten things back up and reduce the range of motion to one you can control. Focus on sets of 10 slow reps.
For this variation, you’ll get set up in a typical plank on your forearms, except with your feet pressed into a wall. Then, slowly perform a mountain climber movement one foot at a time while maintaining the tension with your other foot. (Check out a demonstration here.)
The simple addition of pressure with your feet pushing into a wall instead of the flat ground drastically changes the plank and gets more muscles involved. Not only is it harder on the abs since the feet are now elevated and in motion, but it requires isometric tension from the shoulders, chest, and traps to maintain pressure so your feet don’t slide down off the wall.
Of course, this movement is meant to be performed slowly and under control so the core remains engaged, the spine remains as neutral as possible, and the foot placement maintains precision. It’s easy to let the feet creep upward on the wall to make the lift easier. Don’t let that happen. Start with sets of 8 strides per leg.
This is probably the most accessible progression to the plank on this entire list: Simply remove one base of support from your standard plank and be sure to remain strict with the form. That means no twisting or leaning to the supported side, keeping the hips square. It’s surprising and amazing just how much of a challenge this can be when done with purpose.
If that’s a piece of cake for 30 seconds per arm, up the ante by using a BOSU ball for a little extra stability work.
Many core exercises place most of the focus on the front of the body, and maybe the sides. Abdominals and obliques receive all of our attention, but that’s not the full picture when it comes to a strong core. Truthfully, the core includes the muscles on the back side of the body like the spinal erectors and the quadratus lumborum (QL), which is your deepest abdominal muscle.
Flipping things over into a Chinese plank, in which you place your shoulders and feet on raised surfaces (demonstrated here), forces the entire posterior chain to hold the body up without any sagging at the hips. It’s very easy to lose form on this humbling exercise, so pay close attention while you execute it. Adding a pullover pattern to this exercise adds anti-extension into the mix.
As your arms move further over your head, the tendency will be to extend your spine, and it asks a whole lot of the abdominals to brace and keep the spine neutral and the stomach from flaring. Focusing on the reps performed if you add a pullover helps distract from the focus on time here, so doing sets of 10-12 reps is a good place to start.
Similar to the single-arm plank, the plate transfer plank removes a base of support from a typical plank while asking the body to remain square. The only difference here: Now you have a load to move from one side of the body to the other while doing it.
Piling up 3 to 5 light weights on one side of the body is all you need; 2.5 pound plates work best. With the hand furthest from the weights, reach across, grab a plate and pile them to the other side, one by one. Then, repeat with the opposite hand. Once you put all the weights back where they started, that counts as one rep. Make it your goal to perform 3 reps without losing form or touching the knees down to the floor for a break. Rest for 60 seconds after each set of 3 reps, and perform 3 to 4 sets.