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7 Anterior Core Exercises That Are Better Than the Plank

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 13 February 2021
Hits: 412

One area of the body that attracts a great deal of attention with strength training exercises is the anterior core, otherwise known as the abdominal muscles. The “go-to” exercise for most people to use is the plank as it places enormous tension to the abdominal region the longer you hold the position. As a result people are drawn to this exercise to let their abs “feel the burn” in the belief it is making their core stronger. Unfortunately, the abdominal stabilizers were never designed to work like this and the strength gains people think they have made do very little to influence how the core truly works. While the exercise may not cause them any direct harm, it creates the illusion that they have incredible core stability when in reality it is far from that. There are so many ways to strengthen the abdominal muscles that are more effective than the plank enabling you to move with perfect stability and strength. In this article I will explain what the true purpose of the core is, and seven of my preferred exercises for the anterior core.

What Is the TRUE Function of the Core?

I have covered the topic of core stability and core strength many times in previous articles (see the problem with most core workouts) as it is something I constantly come across every day. Many people have been educated to treat the core stabiliser muscles in the same we would use a bicep curl to make our arm stronger. Unfortunately, the stabiliser muscles do not respond to this type of training and are not programmed to functions in this manner. Instead, they rely more on TIMING and SEQUENCING and are highly dependent on the MOTOR PROGRAM used by the brain for each movement we make. 

"Core control is reflex driven, not conscious driven"

Not only are people wasting their time with exercises that will do little to enhance the way their core actually functions, but they are gradually destroying joint stability and creating postural dysfunctions. It is ironic for the intention of using these exercises is to prevent these very things.

What people fail to understand is that your abs are unable to move you, other than making you wiggle or flop around like a fish out of water. You need your arms and legs to move you for your abdominal muscles are not capable of doing much. Basically the abdominal muscles have very little influence over how you move, for this is not their true purpose.

True core stability is all about being able to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement.

Let’s take a look at two examples of when the core must be switched on perfectly during a movement to prevent injury.  What you will see when we break down the specific demands needed during these movements that the plank will have little chance of correcting the dysfunction.

Example 1 – Core weakness causing back pain

This is the most common injury we see with regards to back pain and the first thing people conclude is that the core is weak and a plank will address this obvious weakness. There are a few things wrong with this assumption.

  1. Lack of mobility - Any stiffness with the hips and/or thoracic region will force the core to sacrifice stability. It does not matter how strong the abs are holding a plank they will instantly give it up to find the lost range of motion during movement if the hips and thoracic region are not mobile enough.
  2. Poor coordination with bending – This is where the person bends at the spine instead of the hips. In this case there is nothing wrong with any of the muscles, it is how they are used that is the problem. This is a brain and coordination problem that cannot be solved by doing more planks.
  3. Poor Timing - Let’s assume the hip and thoracic mobility is fine and the person knows how to bend correctly then we would assume the problem is lack of core strength. This could be playing a part in it, but you must consider the timing that is required of the core muscles during the action of bending. The muscles must respond at precisely the right time and stiffen the spine at the most vulnerable part of the movement. It is not their job to remain stiff for minutes at a time. Their job is to be fast enough to hold the spine and pelvis in the neutral position during the movement but also let go to allow you to move with freedom and full mobility.
  4. Breathing & brace strategy - Whatever strength you gain from a plank is useless to you if you do not know how to brace correctly during the movement. The body will resort to the motor program it has always used until you show it another way. To fully gain the strength into the bending action you must practice bracing in this movement using your breath to engage the muscles at the right time.

Example 2 – Core Weakness During Lateral Cutting Movement

This example is even more complicated than the bending action but is another one that many sporting athletes think a plank will correct. In many of my articles about ACL injuries or agility training I will refer to a common mistake known as shoulder sway.

When you plant your foot quickly to change direction but do not control the upper body by recruiting good stiffness through the core, the shoulders will move you sideways to the direction you are moving. As a result, you will have too much of your body weight heading in one direction and it to change back the other way will not only be slower but risky as you will need to twist over your knee to get back!

While it appears that is core weakness is the main causes there are many factors that contribute to this problem.

  1. Poor foot plant angle – This part is critical and if it is not executed perfectly the entire body is placed in a terrible position that forces it to compensate.
  2. Failing to stay low and load the hips – This is the most common mistake we see and the upper body is really exposed when you are moving fast. Basically you become top-heavy and it does not take much to force shoulder sway in the person who does this.
  3. Poor breathing mechanics – Knowing how to use your breathing to initiate core stability during the cutting phase is extremely important. Just like the bending action requires the stabilizers to be turned on like a light switch really quickly before you even move to protect the spine this same timing is needed in these explosive movements where there is no time to consciously activate muscles. The plank has no chance of achieving this for it has no requirement to be turned on and off like a light switch. Therefor, it has very little influence over a movement that requires this very same timing. Breathing is a massive topic in its own right and you must get this right for you to have any chance of your core working correctly. I suggest to read the article - Do you know how to breathe correctly when you exercise for more detail on this.

Can you see how the plank is very limited to addressing these requirements? Staying stiff as a board is not stability at all, and it is definitely not a movement. It is confusing strength with stability.

Watch the video below for more detail on why I believe the plank will make your core weaker.

To train stabilizers correctly you need to train them in the way they are used which means you need to move your arms and legs while learning how to maintain joint integrity and body alignment.

To enhance their function they need quick reflex movements and reactions to force them to adjust quickly to restore posture and balance to the body in order to move efficiently. They do not need you to hold a pose for minutes at a time, for that is not their role. Remember, they work as feed forward muscles to maintain alignment.

Perfect examples of the core at work as a reflex “feed-forward” muscle group is seen when you perform a deadlift or a cutting move on the sporting field. Weakness at the core will result in a catastrophic injury in both instances, but it is not the strength of the muscles that was the problem, instead it is the timing. This is why someone with strong abs can still have chronic back pain.

Either the stabilizers were too late in firing or they did not fire at all as they were inhibited by the outer unit dominant global muscles who thought stabilization was their job.

The inner unit muscles attach to the body at the spine only, meaning that when they activate they generate little or no movement. They can only stabilise not move you. These muscles, TVA, Pelvic Floor, Diaphragm, and Multifidus are often the focus of clinical Pilates training with many researchers showing there is a delayed response with back pain sufferers. The TVA is classified as an "anticipatory muscle" meaning it is programmed to fire when it senses you are about to move, in order to stabilise the body.

Often with back pain this automatic sensory program is either delayed or does not occur at all leaving the person's spine vulnerable to problems. So you can see how people would come to the conclusion - "all I need to do is work these muscles to become stronger and everything is fixed!"

Other great articles to read that with additional information to help you understand this concept are shown in the links below.

Okay, so now you are clear on the problems associated with the plank what are some better alternatives?

My Top 7 Anterior Core Exercises

The video shown above features a quick summary of what I labelled at the time as my 5 favourite anterior core exercise alternatives. All of these exercises are performed in a prone position similar to the plank, but they all have a slightly different element to them that makes the exercise superior to the plank.

I added two more exercises to this video with one being the lower abdominal exercise, and the other being the single cable push. These two exercises have something quite unique about them plays a vital role in providing stability of the spine and pelvis.

1: Lower Abdominal

This appears to be a very easy exercise for how hard can it be to lower your legs to the floor? Yet in our assessment with clients on their first day over 90% of people fail this test! There are many reasons why this happens but the most common cause is due to muscle inhibition where the hip muscles are acting like stabilizers instead of prime movers.

The lower abdominal exercise becomes much harder when hip stiffness is present and compensation is inevitable. Instead of providing mobility for the legs to lower to the floor they do the exact opposite, they contract and stiffen. Every time the hips try to fire up to create the stiffness in the spine they move the pelvis into anterior tilt and as a result of this you lose your lumbar spine stability.

This is seen very easily when the spine lifts off the blood pressure cuff. Below is a screenshot from a video I did years ago with Women's Health & Fitness magazine where I worked with one of their models who could not do this exercise. You will see very clearly her compensation as she lowers her legs.

Click here to watch the full video. Fast forward to the 2:34 mark to see this.

These mistakes you WILL NOT see when you complete a plank. The plank will hide this problem for you do not see the legs move. In addition to this the lower abdominal exercise mimics the hip action we use when we walk and how we need to control the pelvis and lumbar in neutral to avoid postural dysfunction and pain. The plank has no movement whatsoever resulting in no change in the motor program of walking.

You can read more about the lower abdominal exercise in this article that includes progressions and regressions to use depending on your ability.

Why 90% of people fail the lower abdominal test

2: Horsestance

This is another highly under-rated exercise yet anyone who works in the rehabilitation field with back pain will know exactly how powerful this exercise can be. World leading back pain researcher Dr Stuart McGill lists this as one of his big 3 exercises for back pain!

This beauty of this exercise is that not only does it target the anterior core but also the hip extensors, which in many cases is the main problem associated with back pain. The lack of hip mobility forces the lumbar spine to sacrifice its stability and move too much with simple movements like bending and squatting.

The spine is saved from high compressive loads in this four point position and allows people to work on creating stability and good extension of the back without risk of aggravating their problem. This is one reason why it is such a great exercise for people with bulging discs. Dr McGill has found from his research that this exercise is a major contributor to desensitizing back pain!

Once again when you compare this to the plank this exercise is far superior as it forces the reflex driven stabilizers to fire to maintain joint alignment and position in perfect sequence and timing. To enhance this function I like to add a BOSU under the knee to drive further instability and create a stronger reflex feeling with the movement.

You can see an example of this in the video above and you can read more about the horsestance in the article below.

Is horsestance the best exercise for back pain?

3: Forward Ball Roll

The kneeling forward ball roll with a Swissball is an awesome exercise for learning great core stability and control. Its true purpose however is often confused with being an exercise to burn your abs where I see it as an exercise to improve spinal stability during movement. While it definitely does have the potential to work your core abdominal muscles by giving you “the burn” it is so much more than that.

The main reason I rate this as superior to the plank is all to do with TIMING and SEQUENCING of joints and muscles to provide extension of the spine. This exercise mimics the stability requirement when we perform the task of lifting our arms overhead and how we need the anterior abdominal muscles to control extension of the spine. As this exercise is performed in a horizontal prone position it allows for maximal strengthening of the abdominal muscles with minimal compression of the spine. This makes it an excellent low intensity choice for a beginner or a person with back pain to learn better ways of sequencing legs and arms together in perfect timing.

It is not about making their abs burn, it is all about teaching them WHEN to stabilize and how to use their breath to create the necessary stiffness they need when the spine extends. This can be an invaluable tool for the person with Sacroiliac joint pain from excessive extension.

In the video shown above I demonstrate how close the timing of the squat press exercise is to the segmental timing of the forward ball roll to give you a great visual of its effectiveness at changing a functional based movement.

4: McGill Side Plank to Rotation

I first saw this exercise way back in 2007 when I first read Dr Stuart McGill’s books “Low Back Disorders” and “Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance” and this was a real game-changer for me working with several back pain clients at the time.

Once again this exercise is superior to the plank in that it teaches how to brace during a movement. Unlike the horsestance and forward ball roll that move in a forward and back action, this exercise moves with rotation! This exercise teaches you to rotate as one entire entity by locking the rib cage to the pelvis using a bracing strategy to prevent damage to your discs and lumbar spine.

One of the most difficult movements to learn and control is rotation of the trunk, and poor movement can easily create back pain as often seen with many golfers. Many back pain experts will tell you should never perform rotational exercises in the gym as they are too dangerous. But if this were true you would see no tennis players, golfers, baseball, hockey and we would never be able to vacuum our floor!

What you need to is prevent twisting of the lumbar spine and learn how to use the thoracic spine and hips to do the work. Dr Stuart McGill recognized this and developed this clever way of training the rotational movement but protecting the spine at the same time.

The beauty of this exercise is it teaches you how to use the hips to do the work. The thoracic mobility is more easily obtained with other exercises which you will find in this article – How to improve thoracic mobility.

This exercise is a great way for a beginner to learn how to control rotation before they attempt to progress to more difficult and challenging exercises. The plank does not teach you how to do this at all for it never moves.

5: Push-Up

Not many people would associate the push-up as an anterior core exercise as they would often rate it as an upper body strengthening movement. While it definitely does build some strength in the chest, shoulders, and triceps you cannot ignore the role it plays in providing pelvic and spinal stability.

This exercise cannot be done correctly without almost every muscle in the body participating. The abdominal muscles must stabilize your torso to keep your hips from sagging or lifting up too high, and various other muscles such as serratus anterior play a role in assisting the stability of the head, shoulder and spine.

Once again the main reason this is superior to the plank is to do with the fact it moves. Just like the previous exercises this exercise teaches you how to correctly sequence movement of multiple joints at the same time. Even your breathing must be right to be able to execute this correctly.

The value this exercise provides to stability of the shoulder and the rib cage itself by strengthening of serratus anterior is another reason I feel it is important to include as an anterior core exercise. Weakness of the serratus anterior can cause a multitude of problems and the strength of the abdominal muscles will be compromised due to the effect it has on holding the rib cage in position.

You can read more about the push-up here – Why the push-up is arguably the best upper body exercise

6: Prone Jackknife

This is a unique exercise that is similar to the lower abdominal exercise we discussed at the beginning in that it has a great effect on hip mobility and pelvic stability. Normally this exercise is known for its value to the core, and while this is definitely the case the exercise is great for the person suffering with anterior hip weakness and instability.

Weakness at the anterior part of the hip is very common with people suffering from FAI (femoral acetabulum impingement) otherwise known as hip impingement. This exercise is a fantastic way to strengthen this area that can be very difficult to do with other movements. The key to getting this right is the ANTERIOR PELVIC TILT needed throughout the movement as I explain in the video above.

The fact that you need to hold your abdominal area tight while the hips are moving is what makes this a better choice than the plank for it will teach you how to do the same thing when you really need it during movement. This is a lot harder than it looks and many people who can hold planks for minutes find this very difficult to execute perfectly.

Also weakness in the serratus anterior that we discussed with the push-up is also very easily detected in this exercise too.

7: Single Cable Push

Last but not least is the single cable push. Before I go on I can already hear you say, “this is not an anterior core exercise, it is an upper body strength exercise”, but once again you would be wrong if you assumed this.

The single cable push is one of the best exercises for developing what is known as the Anterior Sling. This system tells us that the obliques help provide stability and mobility in the action of walking or running. This is important in providing that initial stability during the stance phase of gait and then contribute to pulling the leg through during the swing phase.

In this movement the obliques and the contra-lateral adductors work in perfect sync to create movement. Many people will find this movement really trains the oblique muscles more than their arms for strength to control the rotation element is significant.

Training this system is essential for the sporting player who use multi-directional movements as it enhances stability as speed increases in activities such as sprinting, and also when needing to brake or change direction.

Out of all the exercises listed this one has the greatest chance of changing the strength of the anterior core the most for it is identical to the way it is really used in daily life. The other exercises can greatly assist you in developing the strength with simpler and less complex movements that can definitely help you, but it is with these integrated standing movements that you make the biggest change.

You can read more about the single cable push in this article – Why the single cable push is so much more than a simple strength exercise

Do You Need More Help?

For all the information you need to know about core training and abdominal exercises you will find the two reports featured below have everything you need. The Little Black Book is suitable for those without injury and looking to get into great shape and tone up the abdominals. The back pain secrets programs is more suited to the person who recognizes they need to improve their core stability to get out of pain. The way in which abdominal training is used will vary depending on the person's needs. 

Click on the image below of the program you need to get your instant copy.

  

Summary

This concludes our detailed look at the plank, and some of the exercise alternatives you can use to strengthen and improve the function of the anterior core muscles. The main thing you need to understand from this article is that to correctly train your core you must be moving.

The timing and sequencing of the joints and muscles are more important to you than how long you can contract a muscle in a static pose. Training the joints and muscles in the way they are designed to function improves their reflex timing which is of more importance than the strength of the muscles. Spending time training with this philosophy will not only protect you from injury, it will dramatically improve overall performance.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can organise a consultation or Zoom online program if you live overseas.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions for the Hip & Shoulder - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist