by: Robbie Durand
Planks The Best Abdominal Exercise, You Are Not Doing! Most people spend time doing crunches and sit-ups to work their abdominals, but an interesting finding reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research stated that crunches may not be the best exercise for abdominals. Exercises that involve balance (i.e.planks) generally activate the abdominals better than an exercise like the crunch in which you are lying on your back.In a previous study that compared abdominal and erector spinae (lower back) activity during exercises with and without a balance component. For example, the participants completed a bridge exercise with both feet on the ground and with one leg lifted.
Bridge with Feet on the Ground
Bridge with One Foot Lifted
The average EMG amplitude was also at least 20% greater in the abdominal muscles with 1 leg lifted and was 200% greater in the external oblique muscles. This means exercise that require balance generally activate the abdominals more than stationary abdominal exercise. There are countless exercises that target the primary core trunk muscles (abdominal and lumbar) with the aim of providing these benefits. However, it is unknown as to which exercises elicit the greatest activation thereby maximizing functional gains and peak performance.
Researchers examined 7 core exercises: the crunch, an oblique crunch, prone back extension with forward arm elevation, bird dog with resistance and hover with contralateral arm reach, side plank with arm raise, and mountain climber with alternating hip flexion to the opposite elbow. Twenty participants completed 16 randomly assigned exercises (e.g., crunch, upper body extension, and hover variations). The electrodes enabled the researchers to measure how intensively the exercises activated the subjects’ muscles. The more electrical activity in a muscle, the harder it’s working.
The researchers found that the activation of the abdominal and lumbar muscles (lower back) was the greatest during the exercises that required shoulder and gluteal recruitment such as the plank. In fact, the abdominals and lower back were generally 20% greater during integration exercises (i.e. plank exercises) compared with the isolation exercises (i.e. crunches). In summary, a comprehensive, core-strengthening program would incorporate a unique combination of both isolation (i.e. crunches) and integration exercises (i.e planks).
Suspension TRX Ropes makes Planks Harder
A previous study reported that a TRX pushup is more effective at activating the chest exercise than a traditional pushup, so this got researchers thinking, is a TRX plank better than a regular plank? Researchers examined differences in abdominal muscle activation across 4 plank variations using a suspension training system.
To determine the effect of suspension training on muscle activation, the degree of suspension was varied by using 4 exercise conditions:
(a) stable plank with toes and forearms on floor,
(b) plank performed with forearms suspended and toes on floor,
(c) plank performed feet suspended and forearms on floor
and (d) plank performed with feet and forearms suspended using 2 suspension systems (Full).
The results of the study found that abdominal muscle activation was higher in all suspended conditions compared to the floor based plank. The highest level of abdominal muscle activation occurred in the arms suspended and arms/feet suspended conditions, which did not differ from one another. Surprisingly, planks performed with upper and lower limbs simultaneously suspended did not seem to have any additional benefits.
Key Points: Planks using a TRX suspension system either using the arms or legs suspended results in increased activation of the abdominals, more than planks performed on the floor.
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Ratamess NA, Rosenberg JG, Klei S, Dougherty BM, Kang J, Smith CR, Ross RE, Faigenbaum AD. Comparison of the acute metabolic responses to traditional resistance, body-weight, and battling rope exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):47-57
Gottschall, Jinger, Jackie Mills, Bryce Hastings. Integration Core exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation than Isolation Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013
Byrne JM, Bishop NS, Caines AM, Crane KA, Feaver AM, Pearcey GE. Effect of using a suspension training system on muscle activation during the performance of a front plank exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3049-55.