Prevent injuries…don’t do the plank

Jul 27, 2017 | Performance | 0 comments

It’s shocking, that in this day and age, the plank still gains legitimacy as THE core exercise that will strengthen your core and even as an injury prevention exercise. It verges on madness.

That said, I think I can see how a conclusion that a plank can prevent injuries is reached. I think it goes something like this.

  • A weak core can cause injuries
  • A plank is a way to stimulate core muscles
  • Stimulating core muscles strengthens the core
  • Planks stimulate core muscles
  • Planks prevent injuries

Questions?

What injuries are we talking about?

There are many different types of injuries. Breaks, sprains, tweaks. These occur for a number of different reasons. Some of them occur due to bad luck. Breaks are an example. Some of them, such as strains and pulled muscles can be avoided. Will being good at the plank decrease your chances of getting injured?

Where and when do injuries occur?

Injuries usually occur as a result of some type of movement that we were not prepared to perform or a force we were not prepared to control. Injuries also associated with fatigue and over-training. They are usually related to sports we perform high-velocity movements or where we land awkwardly. Ankle sprains, for example, are common amongst footballers. Shoulder issues are common amongst boxers. That said, injuries can happen for a huge variety of reasons.

What is a strong core?

One dictionary definition of strength is the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure.

If we’re focussing on injuries, they usually occur when we’re in motion or resisting a force. So forces are an important consideration here. The forces we need to be cognisant of are Gravity, ground reaction and momentum.

So if we want to strengthen the core, we need to ensure that it is able to effectively accelerate and decelerate these forces and in so doing, ensure the spine can remain stable. So do we need to ensure that the spine resists all motion, by training it to remain still in a position we seldom find ourselves in?

How much strength is needed to keep the spine stable?

If we take an example of a simple movement task, such as bending and lifting, this interesting study shows that lifting a weight of about 15 kg co-contraction increases by only 1.5% of the Maximum Voluntary Contraction of the core muscles.

Indeed, the core muscles do not need to be brought under huge amounts of tension or even be thought of, in order to keep them strong. This is one of the main rationales, we’ve come across as a reason for performing the plank. This may even call into question if we even need to stimulate the muscles surrounding the spine as much as we do in order to “strengthen” them.

An Irony?

Causing us to focus on the muscles surrounding the spine during the performance of skills and tasks may actually be dangerous. This study shows that in movement, the stability of the spine is maintained through natural muscular activation and “Conscious adjustments in individual muscles around this natural level may actually decrease the stability margin of safety”.

So proponents of people using the plank to teach us to “use the core muscles” may actually be doing us a disservice and increasing our chance of getting injured through distracting us from executing a movement or skill.

 

We’re over protective of the spine…

The spine can generate power from the smallest and simplest movement (e.g. a small amount of rotation, flexion or extension).

Surely we want it to move and adapt to the environment it is in? We want to achieve this through movement, not maintaining a rigid spine. Indeed, any movement we perform causes a movement of the spine, whether it’s walking or a vigorous activity such as running. Or is the movement of the spine a flaw in our evolution to complex bipedal beings? We don’t think so.

 

What we really need to do to prevent injuries?

Specificity a key concept we need to be aware. Why? As bones begin to move, they change the angulations at the joints. This turns on proprioceptors, that communicate to the body how the body is moving. This then causes muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments to decelerate and accelerate the motions needed to keep us safe.

So, as an example, if we’re footballers, we may want to prevent hamstring injuries, by ensuring that we can perform the skill of striking a football in a huge variety of directions, positions and contexts that ensure we are providing the input to the brain needed, to ensure that no ‘movement shocks’ occur that may result in injury.

To put it simply, we want our training to transfer to our function. At no point does focussing on core strength/stability play a role here, as this is a concept entirely divorced from function.

In this study, it was shown that “strengthening the core” by performing core stability exercise did not transfer to their running economy.

We need to keep our training specific!

When it comes to the spine, we want to encourage combinations of flexion, extension, left and right rotations and left and right flexions in the context of performing [insert your sport here] related skills.

Remaining perfectly still in plank position is a skill in itself, but it’s usefulness is transferring to movement and performing complex skills, to the point where we’re able to prevent ourselves from undefined injuries is something we question. For now, we can’t see how Core stability exercises such as the plank are any more effective in preventing injury than, any other forms of exercise

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