“Don’t be a plank”
When a spine cannot do what it is designed to do (namely provide a strong stable support unit for the arms and legs to move on), it quickly becomes a compromised bony column. Bones which are meant to move fluidly together can be locked open, or closed, they can be rotated, have a partial forward slippage, perhaps even a lateral shift or side bend to them. When the spine is not in its optimum position, it will not work as well or be as durable as it needs to be… a bit like a bent race car.
There needs to be a little common sense in strengthening the spine… unfortunately common sense can be missing from the majority of programmes I see in motor sport. They can be filled with a wide varieties of crunching style exercises which puts the spine into the very same -weak- position of being in continual flexion (bent forwards like in the race car). Otherwise it’s a series of leg lifting/lowering activities which being what is referred to as ‘long lever’ exercises, do nothing but put a lot of pressure on the lower back and pelvis, dragging it forward and out of a position of stability.
If the spine needs strengthening and straightening, let’s start by strengthening it in a ‘straight’ position. Normally, for a lot of people, they would take that to mean ‘the plank’ exercise… an exercise that asks an athlete to be on the ground, with the body suspended off the floor by way of them being on their toes with straight legs, hips and shoulders level and with the elbows directly under the shoulders. I’m not a huge fan of the plank. If any athlete has a poor posture with exaggerated curvatures, or if the shoulders are tight and elbows flared out, all the body weight zeros in on the spine’s weakest points. Additionally, I must point out that the neck should be in neutral, meaning the athlete should not let their head ‘hang’ down towards the floor. For the purposes of Junior Torque, when they came to Porsche Human Performance to do an article on race driver fitness testing, we had the two drivers do a plank. Within 30s, they were both hanging their heads in fatigue (which can be seen in one of the pictures within the article). I would have been within my right to stop the test immediately as they were out of testing position… but for that purpose, for that article, I allowed them to continue enabling a score to be taken.
A much more effective spine strengthening and straightening exercise, which is highly ‘customisable’ to different physical builds, fitness levels, ages and abilities, is the side plank (picture 1). The side plank is a great exercise as it challenges the shoulders, spine and hips in a more comfortable position, and as a coach, for me, it’s much easier to position the athlete into a strong, straight position they can maintain comfortably for a good period of time. For those that have never done it before, I may start them doing it against the wall, in standing. After maybe a session or two, we move to the floor and perform the ‘half side plank’ where the weight is supported between the knees and the elbows. After three to six weeks, when the driver is comfortable and able to maintain simple endurance in that position, we would move on to the full side plank. All through this period the muscles around the shoulders, spine and hips and developing strength and stability in areas race drivers need it the most.
How would a driver measure their progress? Simple. Use a camera phone and film it for the technical check. Next, time it. There is a lack of specific time measures relating to side planking… so make it personal to you; can you side plank (in any of the positions mentioned above) for 30 seconds in the absence of pain and/or technical failure? When you can, it’s time to move forward in the programme.
Full Side Plank
Side Lying. Have elbow underneath shoulders. Ensure body is ‘straight’ by looking over the shoulder and down to the feet. Look to ensure the bottom does not stick out. Place the top foot in front of the bottom (split stance), lift hips away from floor, and ‘brace’ the abdominal wall (essentially tighten the abdominal/waist area as though someone was about to poke you in the stomach). Practice in front of a mirror. You should be able to draw a line through the nose, middle chest, belly button, groin, and down to the feet. ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD. Posture follows eyes… i.e. if you look at the floor, the shoulders with rotate and you will turn towards the floor.
Step away from wall. Elbow level with shoulder. ‘Lean’ at wall, but be strong through the posture, brace the midsection as described in picture 1.
Side lying. Have elbow under shoulders. Bend knees so feet are directly behind knees. Ensure body is ‘straight’ by looking over the shoulder and down to the knees… look to ensure the bottom does not stick out. Press hips away from floor. Practice in front of a mirror. You should be able to draw a line through the nose, middle chest, belly button, groin, and down to the knees.
Rehab Conditioning Coach
Porsche Human Performance
Author: Gerard Gray
Gerard Gray – Rehab Conditioning Coach for Porsche Human Performance. Fitness Editor for Junior Torque