You probably guessed there was another one of these coming sometime in February.
If you remember from my last article on the subject, I had only scratched the surface with advanced planks and had left out key muscle groups like the obliques.
Now it’s time to crack down on them.
To train the obliques we mustn’t only think about creating a rotational force (the way most who train them tend to think) – we should also consider their capacity to resist rotation through stabilizing the spine from outside forces.
In basic terms, that means side plank variations deserve a spot somewhere in your program.
Lucky for you, I’ve got you covered with some of the best.
1. The GHR Pallof
Traditional Pallof press variations are brutal enough to target the obliques, so it’s a good (read, sadistic) idea to up the ante by throwing in a side plank position.
Setting yourself up in the glute hamstring raise machine, with the support under your hip, lets gravity play its role to target the obliques. The external loading of the weight plate moving away from your body also creates a huge lever arm.
This is one of the hardest oblique-dominant exercises you’ll ever do.
Be sure to stagger the feet (as seen in the video), with the bottom leg forward, and the top leg backward. And remember – having your hip in contact with the bench is important. No need to be a hero and set the bench in contact with the thigh.
2. Copenhagen Plank Variations
To attack the obliques and get some added value by tapping into the adductors and abductors, a smart modality to implement would be the Copenhagen plank. In truth, there are several versions of this plank, but in its simplest form, it involves a side plank with the top foot planted on a box, and the bottom foot left free.
For some (especially heavier lifters or lifters with longer levers), this can cause a fair amount of medial knee stress for the top leg. That’s why I prefer using the side-lying adduction exercise instead, to get the best of both worlds.
When doing it, the top leg gets to rest on the shin using a bent knee, rather than the foot and ankle alone. That means a smaller lever arm on the upper leg and a more comfortable resting position. The bottom leg is still responsible for meeting the top leg, creating a huge demand on the adductors and, of course, the obliques to perform the lift.
This is a deceptively challenging exercise that can be a real eye-opener for lifters with weak inner thighs. Focusing on sets of 10 or more reps per side is a smart directive to follow.
3. Anti Rotation: Bear Dogs
Keeping in the same vein, removing bases of support is the best way to train anti-rotation in a plank. Mentally cueing your abdominals and obliques to work hard to stabilize the spine and trunk is often the missing link to creating a strong core, and the exact kick in the pants the body needs to learn how to properly brace during big lifts.
Starting with bodyweight is a good first step. And the bear dog movement combines a classic bird-dog with a bear crawl stance to make a challenging exercise using nothing more than the extremities.
Focusing on contracting the surrounding musculature including the glutes, hamstrings, and upper back will allow the body to maintain a steady posture for the duration of the lift.
Make sure to work for a full extension of both limbs off the ground, and fight to maintain position by holding each raise for a couple of seconds before switching. Speed is the enemy.
One More Thing: Sprint, Bound and Jump!
Sure, it’s not a plank, but at the same time doing an explosive total body movement like sprinting demands that you keep a vertical plank position while your extremities are moving at what may be quite possibly your most all-out effort. There are no exercises in the gym that can replicate this.
Sprinting, however, isn’t just something you can dive into without understanding the requirements and how-to. Because the idea is to avoid the core from twisting in order to get from A to B in an efficient manner, the abs and obliques have to work overtime in what’s essentially a vertical plank.
The sprinters who are best at this are usually the fastest ones to the finish line. Aside from this, there are some important tips worth reviewing when you’re about to hit the track:
- Keep the head focused straight ahead. No looking to the sides or bobbleheading.
- Use a full arm swing. Remember: Your arm frequency and swing will directly influence your leg frequency and stride length. Use your shoulder as your axis point – not your elbow.
- Dorsiflex your feet when they’re off the ground. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a key factor for having the proper foot strike. The foot shouldn’t do anything but propel the body forward, like a wheel rolling smoothly along. Dropping the toes can cause you to “chip” into the ground and block yourself, rather than assist you.
- Use a rolling start – not a start from a dead stop. If you’re not a competitive sprinter, there’s no point in going from absolute zero to a max effort; it’s an easy way to pull a hamstring early on. Instead, start with a couple of jogging strides and turn it into a sprint. At the very least, use a “falling” start.
- Speaking of max efforts, be able to gauge your intensity. Remember – sprinting at 80-90% of your all-out best is still sprinting. You’re still good to receive all the benefits without giving your max effort.
Other explosive power drills that involve a transfer of force form a stable trunk include bounds and jumps. Incorporating these into your conditioning workouts will work wonders for your core strength and athleticism.
So the last bit wasn’t exactly dealing with planks – but you get the idea. If you want a strong core, it’s foundation first, then you can take things to a few more elaborate lengths, putting what you’ve developed as a foundation to the test.
Your body and big lifts are only going to be as strong as their weakest link. For most people, that’s undoubtedly their core.
Doing what it takes by starting from the ground up (literally!) will make your training journey a whole lot more successful.