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Advanced Core Stability: One Arm RKC Plank

I love the RKC plank ever since learning about it several months ago from my friend Bret Contreras. It's simple to teach, difficult to perform and satisfying in the feel of whole body muscular activation you get with it.  It's one of the only "floor" exercises that gives you the sensation of intense whole body contraction similar to gymnastics open chan movements such as the planche.  As opposed to a regular plank, where whole body tension is often times not very significant and can be held for prolonged periods, an RKC plank relies on developing large amounts of whole body tension and susequent  neuromuscular "irridation", where the whole muscular system becomes a tightly wound spring.

 

 

Credit obvilously goes to Pavel Tatsouline for the genesis of this exercise, which takes a traditional plank and adds "muscle" to it via increased lattissimus, quadriceps, and gluteal contraction.  By doing this, the abdominals are forced to contract more intensly than in a standard plank, with the net effect of increased dynamic stiffness and "pillar stability" around the lumbar spine.  I believe the magic in a properly performed RKC plank is in it's "anti lumbar extension function"- where the force couple of the quadriceps, abdominals and gluteals, along with added isometric tensioning of the latissimus/thoracolumbar fascia really lock down the lumbar spine in an appropriate fashion.  Creating dynamic stiffness and strength in this position transfers nicely to activities on two feet in strength or regular sport.

As I was progressing myself as well as my clients and teams through this exercise, I thought of how I could make a hard exercise even harder.  Not just for the sake of making it harder arbitrarily, but to add another musculoskeletal and performance challenge to the activity; in this case to resist lumbopelvic and trunk rotation.

 

Enter The One Arm RKC Plank

The One Arm RKC plank is a great progression for an already tough exercise.  By removing the support of an arm, you now require your stabilizing musculature of the trunk (internal/external obliques, quadratus lumborum) to work extremely hard to resist falling into rotation.  The natural inclination is to elevate the pelvis to counter the trunk rotation; this is what we are trying to avoid.

Additionally, you will notice a significant overflow of muscular activity of your triceps, as your forearm and fist is the only upper extremity contact with the ground at this point.  In addition, the latissimus fires extremely hard, leading to "tenting" of the thoracolumbar fascia, which further lends to additional lumbar stabilization.

You will find that the quadriceps, gluteals and abdoninals contract even harder than in a traditional RKC plank as a result of the induced instability. This is involuntarily if performed correctly, and another example of "self limiting" exercise. 

 

Setting Up

The one arm RKC plank is performed by first setting up into a traditional two arm plank, then contracting the quadriceps as well as the glutes (into posterior pelvic tilt), which leads to increased abdominal contraction.  When these muscles are set, then "pull" your elbows to your feet isometrically while at the same time isometrically "pull" your toes (your foot contact in the plank position) toward your elbows.  What you will feel is a boatload of whole body tension that we will use to our advantage soon.

Now, while continuing to hold the tension, slowly and deliberately remove one of your forearms from the floor placing your hand palm up in the "small" of your back.This requires an even further intense contraction of the support arm, and can be facilitated by pushing your support elbow and fist into the floor. Intent is everything here-push hard! 

At the same time, you will feel gravity trying to pull your pelvis down on the unsupported side.  This is normal and expected.  To counter this, focus on bracing  your quadriceps and gluteals even tighter on the unsupported side, as well as focusing on keeping a neutral spine position and not allowing your hips to "pike".  At this point, the intensity of whole body muscular contraction increases even further as you fight to keep your trunk and hips parallel to the ground.  This is the crux of the exercise:  Whole body tension from the supporting forearm through the toes, while working hard to keep your pelvis and trunk level.

The video below outlines what you should be striving for in the performance of this exercise:

 

 

 Here is an alternate view of the transverse plane from "top down", again avoiding pelvic and /or trunk hiking:

 

 

Program Placement, Sets and Time

This exercise can be flexible in terms of program placement.  It fits nicely in a warm up/ movement prep, between sets of your main exercises, or at the end of a session.  I have utilized it as a facilatory activity with sprinting and plyometrics, sandwiching a set or two between repetitions as a "potentiation" primer. 

In terms of sets, 4 to 8 sets, lasting from 6-15 seconds/set is a good place to start.  Obviously, you will do an equal number of repetitions on each side, although you will more than likely have a more dominant side with better perfoormance, so adjust set times accordingly.  At least 1-2 minutes rest between repetitions should be taken; more rest may be needed if technical performance suffers.  Of course, technical failure is the end point for this exercise; learning to judge this is important as well. 

 



Band Assisted One Arm Pushups: A Better Alternative

Filed under: Bodyweight Training,Exercise Instruction,Exercise Technique,Strength Training — Shon @ 5:22 pm February 22, 2012

An often heard knock on the push up is that it is hard to load externally, once proper form and performance have been dialed in.  Weighted vests, plates and (always popular) chains are options to add load and muscular challenge to this awesome staple exercise, but at some point most people won't be comfortable with 150 lb or more. of plates piled on their back.  

This guy is obviously not "most people"!

 

While the traditional one arm push up has been expoused as an option to add challenge and resistance, I usually find that the trainees who best tolerate and succeed with this variation have a pretty straightforward mesomorphic somatotype; more of a "wrestler/gymnast" physique versus a taller, leaner individual who has a generally harder time controlling their longer levers. 

 

One arm push ups are probably out for our friend on the right. 

 

I also don't prefer the one arm variation because it really takes a person out of the position that makes a traditional push up such a great exercise.  To clarify further, let's break it down segment to segment:

Feet to Hips

Two arm push up:  Feet hip width or shades of hip width. 

One arm push up:  Feet wide apart, which also abducts the hips and encourages increased lumbar lordosis (sometimes subtly, and sometimes not so subtle)

 

Trunk to Shoulders

Two arm push up:  Trunk moves in a "straight plane" throughout the repetition; concentration is on maintaining a tight core/ abdominal brace and avoiding the lumbar "sag". 

One arm push up:  Trunk rotation occurs naturally, and must be coordinated with shoulder rotation, you must be able to control both throughout the repetition.  If you have a weak link in the chain, technique can quickly disintegrate.  

 

Shoulders to Floor

Two arm push up:  Upper arm 45 degrees or so from the trunk, a balance of triceps, pectoral and anterior deltoid activity,  and ample scapular mobility.

One Arm push up:  Upper arm essentially parallel to the trunk, with the triceps contributing more so, as elbow extension is primarily driving the torso away from the floor and the glenohumeral joint trends toward a rounded shoulder position within the repetition.  As such, scapular mobility is definitely not optimized, and  may actually may be impaired-something we really want to avoid. 

 

Rocky is grimacing because his rotator cuff is fighting him harder than Apollo Creed!

 

A Better Way

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking for a way to safely load a push up for a group of already strong high school football players. As stated above, too many  45 lb. plates stacked on the trunk of a 16 year old is a recipe for disaster, while the "Rocky" style push up would land 75% of the team in the training room.  From this problem, a solution arose:  The Band Assisted One Arm Push Up. 

 

 

 

This variation of  the one arm push up trumps a traditional one arm push ups on many fronts.  First and most important, the overall body position is the same as in a regular two arm push up, meaning the ability to maintain hip width positioning, an efficient abdominal brace/ core, as well as a safe, appropriate scapulohumeral (shoulder blade to upper arm) position.  Your shoulder will behave here as it does in a regular two hand push up, with the only difference being the increased demand using one arm vs. two.  

Second, because trunk position is so stable in this variation, plate loading across the trunk can be done.  However we needing far less load for an appropriate training stimulus because of  the fact that we are using only one arm.  This adds both safety and resistance to an already challenging exercise. The need for multiple plates is minimized, save for the total freaks. 

Third, progression is as simple as changing band tensions and/or the height you hang the band from as your needs dictate. 

 Here is more of a bird's eye angled view to appreciate how similar to a regular push up this actually is:

 

 

 

Technique

First, loop a mini band from a height between 45-85 inches off the ground;   A power rack works great here (and it's a tough enough exercise that no one will complain that you aren't using the rack for squatting); I am using an old fashioned set of parallel bars, which serves the same purpose.  Place your "free" arm through the loop; the closer the distance the band is to your shoulder, the easier the repetition will be, as leverage is decreased. Optimally, the band should meet  at the wrist.  The shoulder should be in neutral rotation ("palm down") or slight external rotation ("thumb up").  The arm is either perpendicular to the trunk or slightly higher  (My choice in general).

Get used to the feel of the band supporting your arm and make sure that the band tension is such that your arm drops with your trunk naturally through the repetition.  This can be figured out quickly.  Set your support hand in a cambered position, then proceed as a normal two hand push up through your selected repetition range.      

Sets, Reps and Program Design

I prefer to stay in the 5 set/ 4-5 repetition per set range myself for this exercise, but higher reps are certainly an option.  This can be used as the main horizontal push option for a given day in a lower rep/ higher set fashion, or in a moderate to higher rep scheme as a supplementary exercise.  Program placement is where ever you are comfortable; I have found that it pairs nicely with RKC planks and other core work.  A frequency of one to two days weekly is a good place to start.

Progression

Experiment with any mini band tension that allows the free arm to travel with the trunk through the repetition.  This is important, as too heavy a band will "drag" your free arm and cause unwanted trunk rotation and a general loss of flow as mentioned above.  You can progress by either adding load through a weighted vest or plates.  The great thing here is that "a little goes a long way" when using plates in a one arm option.  Below I am using a 10 kg. plate for a set.  With a regular push up, I can easily get 30-35 repetitions; here I am good for about 3 reps (and I am trying to move as fast as possible!):

 

   

 

In Summary 

This one arm push up variation makes great sense on multiple levels, plus it achieves the goal of of intense unilateral loading and the strength gains that come with it.  Unless your last name is Balboa, you should infinitely prefer this exercise over the oft butchered "Rocky" push up.

 

 



Exercise of the Week: Advanced Abdominal Brace

A long time favorite in my clinic, this "anti extension" exercise fits the bill for  aggressive abdominal co-contraction, lumbosacral stabilization, and whole body frontal plane stabilization.  It is also a "self limiting exercise", defined by Alwyn Cosgrove and Gray Cook as one that "requires engangement and mindfulness, and provides an automatic yet natural obstacle that prevents you from doing it wrong, or doing an excessive volume".  In this case, the "obstacle" is the neutral spine position itself- you can either sense and hold the correct position or not.  When you lose the position, it becomes very apparent, as it is easy to sense this quickly.  I refer to this feeling as "fatigue extension" and I have never had a patient or trainee not understand how this is sensed.  

Below, I outline two progressions, using an adjustable 45 degree back raise for both.  Equally as useful for the advanced progression is a GHR machine or Roman chair. 

 

PROGRESSION ONE

The first progression here is at 45 degrees.  This allows a shorter lever arm for the trunk musculature to deal with initially, as this exercise is harder than it looks. 

The key to set up is ensuring that appropriate neutral spine is achieved by guiding the trunk position at first using the arms. This is important at first, as a person with weaker abdominals may end up in too much of a lordosis to start.  Once you have the strength and motor control to understand the position, arm guidance isn't as imperative. 

Another important technique note includes appropriate neck positioning.  You can use the "neck pack" position, or just imagine a tennis ball sitting between your sternum and chin (the way I learned it ~20 or so years ago from Beverly Biondi).  This way, you also get great deep neck flexor activity, which in turn helps reflexively reinforce the abdominal activity (which is why you're here in the first place!). 

 

 

 You can also see that the lower quarter is pretty active as well.  This is important, as your shins, and or feet (as we will see below) are the anchor point for the whole technique, and vital if you want the pelvis to stabilize neutrally from "bottom up" (which, obviously, you do). 

When used in a strength and conditioning program, I start with 10 to 15 seconds per set, with 45 seconds to 1 minute of rest between sets.  5 to 10 sets per session are performed.  We progress up to 30 seconds per set before going "arms overhead", and then start back with decreased rep times (10-15 seconds) until 30 seconds can be maintained  for multiple sets.  Dumbells can be added after this, again decreasing time under tension at first, until good lumbopelvic control can be maintained and progressed. You can also choose to perform this activity between sets of your main strength exercises, as it shouldn't interfere with technical performance of your main lifts.

When we use this clinically for our lumbar spine patients, it is always later in their overall program, usually a minimum of 4-6 weeks after treatment has started.  Symptom control, hip and lower quarter mobility, and good understanding of basic abdominal bracing progressions are needed before moving to such an advanced activity.  Sets and reps can be progressed as outlined above.  The lumbar spine patient population is generally good with the first progression, and does not need to move on to the next progression unless their sport or activity level demands it.  

 

PROGRESSION TWO

Here, we are using a "parallel to the ground" position, increasing the lever arm that the abdominals have to deal with in resisting extension.

 

 

 

 Again, I utilize my arms to set up the "neutral spine" position, both entering and exiting the set.  This is even more important in the second progression, as the abdominals have to work ridiculously hard to maintain a neutral position due to the leverage demands.

Other things to consider with this progression:

1)  Set the glutes by squeezing your butt as well as isometrically externally rotating your hips.  Again, this provides a firmer pelvic foundation for the abdominals to work off of.

2)  Notice that my instep is the base of support for my feet vs. the shins.  This is a subtle way to increase the lever arm, making the exercise more challenging.

3)  Arms overhead should be used ONLY after a good, solid repetition can be held for 10-15 seconds over 5-10 sets.  This goes for dumbells in the hands as well.

4)  The set terminates when the lumbar spine falls into fatigue extension.  Trust me when I say this is easy to figure out when this occurs. 

5)  Remember to use your arms to "rescue" yourself from the, as "sitting up" is nasty for lumbar spine shear forces.

 

 



10/5/1: A Simple Starting Point for Youth Strength Training

 A question from a parent who coaches multiple sports teams, ages 13 and under:

"What are some strength training options for  my kids (who participate in 2-3 sports seasons/ year), as well as the kids I coach.  I have a fifth grade boy age 11 who plays football as well as baseball, as well as two seventh grade girls (twins) who play field hockey, basketball and softball.  I coach basketball (in house recreational and travel), baseball and softball.  Thanks!

Training younger athletes is a tricky proposition.  If they are involved in multiple sports, time is tight, as their schedules are already filled.  Combine this with schoolwork and social/ family time, and you find a kid who is going to be pretty resistant to the idea of "strength training". 

 

"Success Stories" like Those Seen in "Major Payne" really only happen in the movies , not on a U14 soccer team…

 

A few questions to ask here are: 1) Do my (my own kids, as well as the athletes I coach) buy in to my "want" for additional training? 2) Are the parents of the athletes I coach on board with additional work outside the regular practice/ game schedule? 3) Is the strength program going to take time away from my practice schedule?

That said, if the answer to the above 3 questions is "yes", a really simple program can be implemented.  The way to do this is to make sure of 3 key points before starting:

 1) The Program is Simple.

Kids and parents don't want more stuff to do, as sports and family demands are already assumed pretty high, as outlined above.  Simple exercises with simple explanations are warranted here.

2)  The Program is Doable

Allowing a young athlete to experience success in performance of a skill is the only way to go in terms having any hope with long term compliance.  Making a kid think the program is easy either in what exercises have to be performed or or much time it will take will enhance your chances of making the program stick.  

3)  The Program is Scalable

Even a simple program will be for naught if a coach/ parent doesn't have the ability to scale the program to each individual athlete.  A 70 lb. 11 year old male swimmer will probably be able to perform a chin up sooner than a 14 year old  female lb. soccer goalie.  Both should be given the tools to succeed.  

 

The  3 Exercises:

1)  Bodyweight Squat– Simple to do, and able to be performed anywhere.

 

2)  Push Up- Again, simple, portable and scalable.

 

 

 

3) Chin Up/Pull Up- The one "challenge" for many young athletes, we will scale this appropriately to allow compliance and success.  If a proper chin up cannot be performed, a flexed arm or dead hang can be performed for a legitimate 10-to 15 second count.

 

 

The Program

Each athlete will perform once daily, a total of:

10 squats 

5 push ups 

1 chin up 

The key to this program is the "daily" part.  Keeping the overall volume low helps fulfill our first 2 requirements- "simple" and "doable" and will be more palatable to a young trainee in maintaining compliance. One chin up (or one flexed/ dead  hang for 10-15 seconds) no big deal to most athletes, but  ten reps might as well be one hundred the same kid  .   Daily compliance allows "greasing the groove" of these basic motor patterns/ activities, which can be progressed in various ways over the athlete's lifetime as they get proficient with the basic movements. I strive for 90% compliance in such programs, so in one year a person can take 37 days off from the program. 

Rounding up to 40 days off  (roughly 3 per month) makes it more palatable to all parties involved (athletes and parents).  In the course of a year, assuming 90% compliance, a young athlete will have performed:

3,250 squats

1,625 push ups

325 chin ups (or over 3,500 seconds worth of flexed/ dead hanging). 

You are simply having the young athlete train a "strength skill" on a daily basis, much like swinging a bat, shooting a free throw, or dribbling a soccer ball.  Not bad, considering the alternative- zero, zero and zero for all three exercises, at ages where establishing great strength specific motor patterns can pay huge dividends.

The Progression

If your young athlete(s) are motivated to do more, there are several options.  You can double the numbers of each exercise, so now the athlete is performing 20 squats, 10 push ups and 2 chin ups (or 2 sets for flexed arm/ dead hang). Another more advanced progression I like to perform after ~3-6 months of consistent (90% compliance) 10/5/1 performance:

30 squats

10 Push Ups

6 Chin Ups

Again, this is a daily progression, shooting for 90% compliance. Laying it out to make it "doable" might look something like this:

15 Squats (1 min. rest) – 2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) – 5 push ups (1 min. rest) – 2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) – 5 push ups (1 min.  rest)  -2 chin ups (30 seconds rest) -15 squats.

Doing the math, our young athlete, in one year would perform:

9,750 squats

3,250 push ups

1,950 chin ups. 

This is pretty significant, especially for a young trainee over the course of a year.  The overzealous parent and/or coach would be wise to see if their athlete can successfully handle the 10/5/1 progression for 1-2 months prior to advancing.

Who This is  Is For:

The young athlete who:1) plays multiple sports, in multiple seasons. 2)  who hasn't really participated in any "formal" strength and conditioning in the past. 3) who would probably be overwhelmed with anything more complicated.

Who This Isn't Probably For: 

A young athlete with significant experience in bodyweight training (i.e. a gymnast or wrestler) may not benefit from this type of program,as basic and advanced bodyweight strength movements are a significant part of these programs.  Also, anyone who is involved in a more formal prolonged  training program with a competent performance coach may not need a daily program.  However, most young athletes don't fall into this category, so daily practice in these basic movements will benefit them greatly.

What Happens After A Year or Two?

Your young athlete(s) will have "greased the groove" for three fundamental strength patterns, and should be ready for more aggressive loading parameters and exercise.  My advice is to first get to the one year mark and see what positive changes have occured in the athletes you coach- they should be stronger and more stable in fundamental stances and quicker with dynamic movements. They should also be more disciplined and confident, as such a program builds a positive kinesthetic habit gradually over time.