This article first appeared in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.
By Stephen R. Santagelo
The most popular “core” exercise is the plank and the most popular bodyweight exercise is the push up. So, which one is best for athletic performance and overall structural improvement? First, you have to analyze what the returns are for any given exercise for the time invested. This is smart business. And, will you continue to improve performance by choosing specific exercises which will support your sport-specific strength?
The plank has been touted as the king of trunk stability for nearly two decades. For the most part, this is true; however, it has limitations for athletes. When any of us first began introducing the plank into our training regimen, we felt an incredible sense of structural weakness and thought, “WOW, this is a killer exercise! I had no idea!” We began getting results in our “six packs” and noticed an improvement in several of our strength exercises, as well as in running. After a while we realized time invested was not giving us the returns we experienced in the early stages. The reasons are threefold. After you were able to hold the plank position for 3 minutes, there is virtually no more improvement in trunk strength, even if you doubled the amount of time. Certain exercises will only get you so strong and translate well to sports performance. Second, the plank’s horizontal position does not replicate the upright vertical position of running; therefore, it has a weak translation to sports performance. Third, the plank is an isometric exercise whereas in running, the trunk rapidly fires several times per second. Sprinters who compete at 100m/200m will have a contraction rate of 5-6 per second and distance runners will have a rate of 2-3 per second. Isometric exercises, such as the plank, do not train the deep trunk muscles to fire rapidly and do not prepare the body for dynamic full-range movements. Also, there are limiting variations of this exercise and a variety is essential for athletic improvement. So, why do the plank in the first place? It’s an easy exercise to learn and initially, the results are fast and you get great results in a short time.
Pushups, on the other hand, with their infinite variations, provide static strength as well as intermittent firing of the deep trunk muscles. These muscles are the spinaodorsal, semispinal and musculus multifidus. These are the “real core” muscles which stabilized the spine and connect the vertebrae. Pushups have a much greater carryover with their dynamic and ballistic nature. Pushups can be trained in the conventional horizontal position, incline, decline and vertical, as well as angular and unilateral. Secondly, pushups teach you how to move the body in multiple ways, developing not only strength, but, flexible strength as well. Developing movement patterns, such as these, increase the connection between the brain and nervous system due to full body coordination, which translates well to trail running. Third, pushups develop force production. This is the ability to accept impact and functionally operate during a race; and trail running has a tremendous amount of impact on the body with its variety of terrain, uphill, downhill and zigzag patterns throughout geographical locations. Last, pushups provide both concentric and eccentric strength, planks do not. During trail running, eccentric and concentric muscle action is continuous with every stride, so train for this by introducing pushups into your weekly training.
The benefits of pushups far outweigh what your returns are from doing planks. With all its variations, it’s easy for any runner to go from novice to advance and never get bored. This allows the body and the mind to continually get stronger. There are several ways to introduce this method of strength training into your schedule. You can add 4-5 minutes as part of your dynamic warmup or use it as an active rest day. On strength training days, you can do 10-15 minutes of three different variations for timed sequences or you can take just one variation per workout or one variation per dynamic warm up. Find what works best for your training. Do not over think it or over work it. Make it fun and something to look forward to by setting goals every week, month, per training cycle and each year. Most importantly, taper off three weeks before a competition and completely remove them from the week prior to your race. Adding this will spice up your training as well as setting new PRs!