QUESTION: John, what is your recommendation and/or can you explain the different benefits of the high plank vs. the plank while on elbows?
The Elbow Plank VS Top-of-Pushup-Position Plank
ANSWER: The high plank, also known as the “top-of-pushup position,” is identical to the typical elbow plank, except for the fact that your arms are extended and fully locked out. This accomplishes two things:
1) It decreases the leverage disadvantage, thereby making the pose slightly easier to hold. This is because the closer to vertical/standing that you get, the easier the plank position becomes. For instance, doing a plank with your hands/arms placed on a counter-top or against a wall is much easier than doing a plank on the floor simply because of the angle of your body in relation to gravity. On the flip side, if you elevate your feet in relation to your arms, then the angle will get more challenging as more of your bodyweight becomes distributed onto your arms.
2) The top-of-pushup-position plank also places the bulk of your weight distribution on the palms, instead of beneath the elbows. This usually means that the tricep muscles get some relief, but that the larger muscles surrounding the shoulders have to work a little harder to stabilize the position (as a side note: most top-level plank performers that I’ve talked to have considered the shoulders the weakest link in this exercise).
So, in essence, the top-of-pushup position plank is performed at an easier angle and uses larger muscle groups – making it a more efficient exercise. That’s just a fancy way of saying that it’s easier. Obviously, this could be good or bad depending on your training goals. If the positions themselves are irrelevant to your training goals (ie you don’t have incredibly specific athletic or vocational needs that merit the use of one pose over the other), then the decision of which to use comes down to whether you want your arms or shoulders to be the weakest link. Personally, I think the difference is negligible, and I’d actually recommend using both equally.
This is why I often recommend using a variety of plank positions in your training program – even cycling through them in a circuit fashion, as opposed to doing one long plank in one pose (example here). Of course, there are mental training benefits to be had from just holding one static plank for time. This is also considered much more physically challenging than cycling through a bunch of positions. However, from a physical development standpoint, training your core strength with a variety of positions is going to be vastly superior than specializing in just one position, which comes with the risk of over-use injuries and over-training in general. This is the same reason why I recommend switching up your grip when doing sets of pullups, and including odd object lifting in your program once in awhile.
All that said, if I had to choose one, I’d still prefer the top-of-pushup-position plank because I think this is a more practical posture to strengthen for day-to-day activities, but that’s just my personal preference. Your mileage may vary, and ultimately, I’d recommend using the one that you like doing the most.
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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach