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The benefits of the plank transfer over into just about every aspect of human movement, which why trainers love it so much. /iStockPhoto / Getty Images

“Everything works – until it doesn’t.”

Of all the adages I’ve learned during my time as a trainer, that one sits at the top of the heap. Why? Because those five words grant you the freedom to explore the full breadth of movement patterns that exist under the umbrella of exercise. Even when operating within the framework of basic calisthenics (push-ups, squats, planks), there are dozens of ways to keep progressing as your abilities evolve.

When you’re a beginner, technical mastery is the first step. This means learning how to align your body, engage your muscles and execute with an air of ease. Then, once you can do around 25 near-perfect reps of any exercise, it’s time to level up (for isometric exercises like the plank, where you’re holding your body in a set position for a certain time rather than reps, 45 seconds is a good benchmark).

The easiest way to advance an exercise is to add weight. Maybe you can fire off 25 squats with your butt to your heels, chest high, knees aligned with toes. But what if we add a kettlebell or weighted vest to the mix? The only problem with this approach is that you’re still performing the same exercise. I get bored doing the same things over and over – my preference is to add some complexity to the mix by expanding upon the movement patterns in question.

Here are some variations on classic bodyweight exercises that call into play more than just your ability to move weight. These variations will test your mobility, co-ordination, balance and stability, all while building some serious strength at the same time. Just remember – quality comes first. If you have to grind your way through an exercise, chances are you’re not quite ready for it.

Progressing the push-up

I always laugh a little whenever people tell me they’re too advanced for push-ups. I’ve been working out for more than 20 years, and I still keep finding new variations that pose a significant challenge. Even the regular ol’ standard push-up can be tweaked to make it more demanding.

That said, if you’re ready for a new challenge, the spiderman push-up is my favourite advanced variation. It sounds simple – as you lower your body to the floor, you lift a leg and pull that knee to the corresponding elbow before returning to the top position. But of course, simple isn’t always easy. This movement requires a whole lot of hip mobility, shoulder stability and core strength. It’s one of the most complete, total-body exercises out there – and it looks pretty cool to boot.

Progressing the squat

Some exercises are demonstrations of brute strength – the barbell back squat being a prime example. As much as I love watching YouTube clips of exceptional people squatting massive weights, unless you’re a professional powerlifter, a myopic pursuit of strength isn’t going to get you very far. What’s more useful for mere mortals are demonstrations of strength combined with mobility, endurance and, dare I say, even an element of grace. Enter the hack squat.

At first glance, this movement can look downright dangerous, but that’s only because of the misguided notion that your knees should never push past your toes when squatting. This may be true for absolute beginners who lack the required stability in their ankles, knees and hips, but for anyone who has been squatting with solid form for more than a few months should be able to pull off the bodyweight hack squat. Once you can hit 25 reps, try loading it with a kettlebell and see what happens. I guarantee your knees will end up loving you for it – once your quads stop aching, that is.

Progressing the plank

Another favourite adage: “Everything is a plank.” Technically this isn’t 100 per cent accurate, but it does illustrate the importance of proper postural alignment and muscle activation. The benefits of the plank transfer over into just about every aspect of human movement, which is the reason why trainers love it so much.

If you’ve got the basics down and can hold a plank for more than one minute, try adding some movement to the mix. The commando plank (or the “high-low” plank) starts off in the top position of a push-up; from there, lower your entire body all at once by bringing one forearm to the floor, then the other, making sure to keep your elbows under your shoulders. Bring yourself back to the top by reversing the pattern. I bet your arms will be burning after about 30 seconds – that is, if you can keep your core engaged for that long.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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