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Plank and Bridge Progressions
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By: Jackie Wright

Two of the most effective inner core unit exercises are the plank and the bridge. These exercises concentrate on engaging and strengthening the inner core unit muscle group which is primarily responsible for the stability of the torso/spine. The plank/bridge exercises have dozens of variations and modifications and consequently, may be performed safely and effectively by most exercisers. However, the plank/bridge exercises are often misunderstood and poorly performed.

Therefore, regardless what your current core strength ability may be, if you have never performed a plank/bridge, begin with the basic plank/bridge exercises initially, mastering those exercises first, then progressing to the next, more intense variations of these exercises. Below are a few guidelines/tips for safely and effectively performing planks/bridges and then the following two weeks, six plank/bridge exercises will be highlighted so you might add these to your exercise repertoire. As always, prior to beginning any exercise program, please consult your physician.

Plank and Bridge Basic Guidelines/Tips

  • Always perform a thorough, general body warm-up for 5-10 minutes prior to performing any plank or bridge exercise.
  • Begin with the most basic plank/bridge position first and gradually progress to more challenging variations and intensities.
  • Remember, that a plank/bridge is generally a static position, so your goal is to hold the position for a few seconds without breaking form.
  • The length of time you should hold a plank/bridge is varied. However, it will generally be dictated by your ability to maintain your core engagement safely and effectively.
  • Prior to performing the plank, master the less intense modified versions such as an elevated position or with one or both knees remaining on the floor before you perform the full version in a prone position and master supine bridge positions with both feet on the floor prior to attempting to lift one leg or add stability equipment, such as BOSU Balance Trainers, TRX Suspension Systems, mini or stability balls, etc.
  • There are dynamic movements that may be performed while a plank or bridge position is statically held; however, you should always master the plank or bridge prior to attempting a more complex or intense dynamic variation (i.e. think crawl, walk and then run!)
  • In the preparatory phase of the plank or bridge exercise, begin by keeping the head, neck and shoulders in neutral, maintaining a natural extension of your spine and place the shoulders in your "back pockets". Avoid permitting the head from sagging toward the floor.
  • Engagement of the inner core unit muscles, which includes your pelvic floor muscles being pulled up and inward and drawing your navel toward your spine, compressing the abdomen, is essential prior to performing a plank or bridge. Visualize a line from your breast bone to your pubic bone and then encircle your entire torso from those points, 360 degrees as though you have a corset strapped around you.
  • Use the 'corset" analogy to prevent your belly from spilling out over the edges of the corset and preventing the lumbar spine from hyperextending as you maintain your plank/bridge.

Five Plank Progressions - Great Core and Stability Exercises

Choose the progression that is right for your ability level, hold it for 5-15 seconds, take a break and repeat it two-four times. Perform the progression of your choice three to six times per week following a thorough warm-up of 5-10 minutes.

Elevated Plank - Typically, the elevated plank position is appropriate for those who have never performed a plank exercise before or for those with lumbar spine or shoulder instability or weakness.

  • Begin at a kitchen countertop or Smith Machine with the bar adjusted to the approximate height of a kitchen countertop.
  • Place the hands more than shoulder distance apart, directly under the shoulder joint.
  • Rise up on the balls of the feet with the feet far enough back from the countertop so that the body will be a straight, diagonal line from the top of your head to your heels.
  • Shoulders in the back pockets, rib cage lifted, core engaged by drawing the navel toward the spine and the knee joints relaxed and hold this position.
  • After you master this position, lower the elevation by a couple of inches, mastering each new elevation level prior to moving to the next elevation.

Modified Elbow Plank - May be the next progression once you have mastered the elevated positions. This position may be performed with both knees on the floor, or one or both knees off of the floor, depending upon your core strength level.

  • Begin lying in a prone position with the elbows under the shoulders, the toes tucked under, shoulders in the back pockets, rib cage lifted and the core fully engaged by drawing the navel toward the spine.
  • Then, rise up onto the knees and either hold this position*, or lift one or both knees to create a straight line from the top of the head to the heels and hold that position.

*If the knees are down, make certain that the buttocks are not elevated. Even in this position, there should be a straight line from the top of the head to the tailbone.

Full Plank - This is the most challenging position of these three progressions and should only be performed when you have mastered the other two progressions first.

  • Kneel down on the hands and knees.
  • Walk the hands out until you have created a modified pushup position (i.e. the knees are down and there is a straight line from your head to the tailbone).
  • Hands directly under the shoulders, shoulder distance apart, shoulders in the back pockets, rib cage lifted and the core fully engaged.
  • Tuck the toes under and lift the knees, holding this position.
  • There should be a straight line from the top of the head to the heels.

Basic Glute Bridge

  • Begin supine with knees bent and the soles of the feet on the floor, hip distance apart, and the arms extended along side the body with the palms facing the floor.
  • Pressing your heels into the floor, engaging the glutes, lift the hips straight up toward the ceiling without hyperextending the lumbar spine, keeping the head, neck, shoulders and upper thoracic spine on the floor.
  • Hold this position for 15-30 seconds, and then lower the hips down to the floor.
  • Repeat two-four times.

Variation of Basic Glute Bridge - Hip Extensions - Dynamic

  • Begin in the "up" held position described above.
  • Then, lower the hips toward the floor without touching the buttocks to the floor, lifting up and down with control; two slow counts up and down; 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.

Basic Side Bridge

  • Begin lying on your right side with the right elbow directly under your right shoulder; palm on the floor.
  • Stack the hips, thighs parallel to one another, the left leg is straight with the inside of that foot on the floor and the right leg is flexed back at a 45 degree angle with the side of that knee on the floor.
  • Drive the hips up toward the ceiling distributing the body weight evenly from the right elbow to the lateral side of the right knee, holding the torso and hips off of the floor.
  • You are engaging the entire core muscle group to stabilize the body in this position; however, you will be experiencing the "pulling" action from the right lateral side of the torso (i.e. bottom side).
  • Now, extend the L arm and fingertips to the ceiling at the shoulder joint, keeping the body "open", and hold this position 5-15 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
  • Repeat two-four times.

Variation of Basic Side Bridge

  • Same position as described above, but instead of keeping the right knee on the floor, lift it too with the legs straight and "scissored" so that that the left leg is in front of the right.
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