The Plank has long been used to strengthen core muscles and define the abdominal region. This isometric exercise is quite popular, but is it possible that too much focus is placed on the Plank and its variations?
The benefits of the Plank are undeniable. However, let's consider adding more to our core strengthening programs. Let's add movement as opposed to static holds. Two underused types of programs are offset loading and unilateral training.
What are Offset Loading and Unilateral Training?
- Offset Loading—Use weight on both sides of your body but use uneven loads.
- Unilateral Training—Use weight on only one side of your body.
These types of training are used to disrupt your body's stability, forcing your core muscles to contract to protect your spine and maintain balance. This is referred to as having a neutral spine, which basically means your spinal column remains vertical and straight.
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You disrupt your body's stability by having a heavier load on one side of your body. This can be accomplished three different ways:
- Using resistance on one side of your body (unilateral)
- Holding resistance in both hands, with heavier weight on one side (offset)
- Holding a barbell with heavier weight on one end (offset)
The barbell method is more advanced and should be employed only with a spotter, or after you have become accustomed to the first two methods.
Your core muscles will work hard while you learn to move your body properly under unbalanced resistance. Planks teach you to focus on core muscles, but not necessarily how to move functionally in the standing position with resistance.
You can also use the dual weight method to equalize the energy distribution in your body. Strength plateaus often occur not because the training program is wrong, but because energy is not distributed properly within the core area. Teaching your body to move with weight on both sides can possibly correct this problem.
The other reason is to equalize muscular strength and possibly size. People often have more strength on one side of the body than the other. The main reason usually has to do with which side of the body is more dominant.
Here's a helpful scenario. Using your right arm for nearly everything generally transfers over to training. During Double Hammer Curls, you properly perform the movement with your right arm, but for some reason your left arm cannot perform as many repetitions. Using dumbbells of unequal weight corrects this issue, and unilateral training also works. In this scenario, you would use higher weight to encourage strength gains in your left arm while using a load that maintains strength in your right arm.
Only one exercise like this is needed per training day, and you would continue until both sides are equal. This concept can also apply to other exercises such as Dumbbell Squats and Dumbbell Chest Presses.
How to Implement Offset Loading and Unilateral Training in a Program
Use them alongside a properly established strength program. They are not a replacement for main lifts or bilateral lifts. The Plank can still be used if desired. You need to switch only one or two exercises per workout session. For example, instead of performing regular Farmer's Walks with equal weight on each side, hold 20 pounds more on one side than the other. Then switch the hand that carries the heavier load and repeat.
Offset loading and unilateral training are used for strength gains, so sets of 6-12 repetitions are most beneficial. Don't perform an exercise at 95 percent of your 1RM with unbalanced loads. It's unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
These types of exercises should be performed as your third and/or fourth exercises of the day. Remember, they do not replace your main lifts; they supplement them. Ease into them with light load settings to gauge the coordination of your unbalanced body.
Consider using the Plank for only 2 or 3 sets. Hold the position properly for 30-45 seconds, then move on to other exercises that help your core muscles warm up for loaded resistance training. Consider Bodyweight Glute Bridges or Hip Thrusts. Tight joints and muscles can reduce your max energy output during weight training, so it's imperative to get increased blood flow for better results.
Exercises to Consider
You can choose from several exercises. Below are some good examples for core training in addition to the Plank. They are the same ones you have been performing, but the loads are unequal. Offset loading with weight in both hands will be covered here shortly.
- Offset Farmer's Walks (weight in both hands, 25% weight difference)
- Single-Arm Suitcase Deadlifts
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press (Incline and Flat)
- Single-Arm Standing Overhead Dumbbell Press
- Offset Dumbbell Step-Up (weight in both hand, 25% weight difference)
During exercises like the Dumbbell Press, offset loading with both hands can be used for different purposes. You can of course use the dual weight method, which some prefer because they mentally need to grasp something in both hands to maintain coordination.
Consider Different Training Techniques
The Plank is still a great core-strengthening exercise, but trying different training approaches improves your performance level and gets your body out of a routine. Established routines that never change can strand you on a plateau, simply because you're not doing anything to change the way your body moves. Give offset loading and unilateral training a month of use and see what results come from it.
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