I cringe when I see Weighted Side Bends. They do more harm than good, and yet I still see them being done by unknowing folks who think they're getting a great ab/core workout. Weighted Side Bends take a toll on the spine, particularly the intervertebral discs of the spine.
Fortunately, there's a much better way to train and target your lateral core muscles, and it comes in the form of the Side Plank position.
Most people seem to recognize that Side Planks are a great core exercise. I see them being done regularly, but I don't always see them being done correctly. I also wonder if everyone realizes why they're such a good core exercise. It's important to know how to do Side Planks right, what they do, and why they are so beneficial. This will help you to use Side Planks correctly and get the most out of this important core exercise.
Side Plank Benefits
The side plank position targets the quadratus lumborum (QL) as well as the obliques. The quadratus lumborum is the main focus during this exercise. This is a massively important muscle for core function and low-back health.
The QL connects the pelvis, the spine (lumbar vertebrae) and the rib cage. It's a deep core muscle that connects your lower body to your upper body. The QL acts to side bend the spine, but more importantly, it acts to stabilize the spine during actions such as walking, carrying heavy objects on one side, and unilateral pressing. In other words, it prevents side bend when side bend is bad. It's also a key player during breathing due to its connection to the rib cage and proximity to the diaphragm.
If the QL isn't functioning as it should, even basic actions such as walking and breathing will be limited. Poor function by the QL can lead to problems such as low-back pain or even pain above and below the low back.
It's important to consider that the QL should be trained as it functions.
The QL functions to provide stability to the pelvis and lumbar spine intermittently as you perform any and all activities. This means you should train it to be strong and stable for relatively brief bouts.
How to Do Side Planks
When you do Side Planks, avoid the common mistake of trying to hold for record duration. Shoot for 4-6 sets of 8-15 perfect and intense holds instead of 1-3 sets of poor form, low intensity holds.
Let's discuss the three most common mistakes made during any Side Plank variation:
Shoulder Sag: I often see people performing Side Planks by hanging on their shoulder. This puts unnecessary stress throughout the shoulder and diminishes the effectiveness of the exercise. To avoid this mistake, press your upper body away from the ground during the hold. Fight to keep as much distance between your rib cage and the ground as you hold your Side Plank.
Low-Back Arch: Another common mistake is failing to keep the core engaged during the hold. This results in a Side Plank that looks OK from the front but looks tragic from above. When you see a Side Plank from a bird's-eye view, you should see a straight line from the ear to the shoulder and all the way to the hip. When you fail to engage the core as if you're about to take a punch, you end up with an arched or curved low back instead of a straight line.
Hip Drop: The hip drop can come from fatigue, lack of awareness, or both. The Side Plank is an anti-side bend exercise. When you let your hips drop toward the ground, you fall into side bend. This means both your QL and glutes are relaxing and no longer being targeted. Keep your hips up and in line with the rest of your body as you hold your Side Planks.
Side Plank Variations
Here are six side plank variations for you to train your QL and other core musculature to perform at their best:
1. Side Plank with Hip Flexion
2. Side Plank with Alternating Hip Flexion
3. Side Plank with Mini Rotations
4. Side Plank with Leg Swing
5. Side Plank with Row
6. Alternating Front Plank to Side Plank