If you want core strength, the “Fitness 101” answer is that you must do planks. While the plank is a great starting point and should be well established in any fitness program, it is not nearly the end of smart core conditioning. That’s is why there’s a plethora of plank variations—from the innovative to flat-out goofy!
The biggest problem with the plank is that when practicing it, you CANNOT MOVE! The whole point of the plank in the foundational phases of training is to teach the body how to resist movement by integrating the body’s entire chain. But, MOST of the things my clients and I do require movement.
Think of the plank as a reference point. Of course we want to establish strength in the plank, but we also want to use it as a reminder of concepts we want to use in other movement patterns. The beautiful thing about kettlebells is that they allow us to create many different functional variations of moving planks. We need to produce and resist forces at the same time. I will describe three easy ways to use kettlebells to create extremely functional plank variations.
I love overhead pressing because it is basically an extended plank. If we start on the ground and assume a standard push-up position, we have the beginnings of overhead pressing. By simply walking the hands further and further forward, this straight arm plank variation becomes more difficult. And the problem with continuing on the ground is that we will eventually fall on our faces! Instead, by standing and pressing kettlebells overhead we can train that extended plank.
Of course the other beautiful thing about overhead pressing is that it points out any lack of mobility. Both the hips and upper body can cause us to have major compensations because places which lack mobility will usually cause us to recruit stability from an inefficient place. In other words, mobility issues cause compromised movement.
Assuming we have good mobility, there are so many awesome ways to use kettlebells with overhead pressing. I think of these progressions as similar to moving from a standard front plank before adding more side plank elements over time. You will see this progression in how we lift the kettlebells, and how we stand when we lift the kettlebell—or both! Here is a series you can use to progress from easiest to most challenging variation.
|Overhead Pressing Variations||Positional Emphasis||Type of Plank|
|Standing Double KB Press||KB movement||Front Plank|
|Loaded KB Press||KB movement||Front/Side Plank|
|Alternating KB Press||KB movement||Front/Side Plank|
|One Arm Press||KB movement||Front/Side Plank|
|Military Double KB Press||Body Position||Front/Side Plank|
|Half Kneeling Alternating Press||KB Movement/Body Position||Front/Side Plank|
Frequently Asked Questions:
- What about the Turkish get-up? It’s very different from a plank and emphasizes rolling patterns instead.
- Where is the bottoms-up press? It’s a personal preference, but I find that the progressions listed above are accessible for more people.
- Where are drills like push presses and jerks? These are all further progressions of plank training. When you add speed, you must have a more reactive core—which is definitely more advanced training.
One more note about pressing overhead. Some people may be wondering about the side lean that some trainees seem to use with kettlebell pressing. While I understand the idea of using leverage to help press the weight overhead, this approach does not build the core strength we can develop with the overhead press and may explain the lack of carryover these same trainees experience with other exercises or implements.
I have to credit kettlebell training for raising the awareness of the hip hinge pattern. While I had performed deadlifts and cleans in the past, the emphasis on quality of motion was something I really took home from my first RKC way back in 2003.
The hip hinge is actually a more complex plank variation than an overhead press. We can use it to create the pelvic “lock” used in overhead pressing in the beginning phase of the hip hinge. Because the torso changes angles during the hip hinge, the stress on the core constantly changes.
While most people might think kettlebell hip hinging is only for deadlifts, swings, cleans, and snatches, I am really happy to see the re-birth of bent rows with kettlebells! While it’s not nearly as sexy as many of the other kettlebell lifts, it’s probably one of the most important!
The bent row really challenges our core strength and endurance! Most people can’t maintain the proper hip hinge in the bent row without altering their posture. It’s pretty common for people to creep upwards and end their set more upright, or to speed through their bent rows because they don’t have the core integrity to perform them well.
The bent row should be a cornerstone drill for anyone progressing towards ballistic kettlebell exercises. Having the capacity to tolerate multiple sets of the bent row while maintaining the same hip hinge is a great indicator that the lifter really has excellent core strength and endurance.
Having said that, most people will fatigue in the bent row, so combining the bent row and kettlebell deadlift will allow us to introduce more time under tension without causing bad form from exhaustion.
Here is a series of big “bang for your buck” row and deadlift variations for the hips and plank. Again, move from least to most complex…
|Bent Row & Deadlift Variations|
|Bilateral Deadlift and Row|
|Bilateral Deadlift with Alternating Row|
|Suitcase Deadlift with Row|
|Sprinter Stance Deadlift and Row|
|Sprinter Stance Deadlift with Inside Row|
|Sprinter Stance Deadlift with Outside Row|
|Rear Step Deadlift and Row|
|Rear Step Deadlift with Inside Row|
|Rear Step Deadlift with Outside Row|
Manipulating the body position and which side the kettlebell is on allows us to challenge ourselves beyond just loading. These variations introduce anti-rotational forces, lower leg stability, and many more benefits as we progress. These kettlebell variations allow you to eventually progress and succeed with familiar but advanced drills like renegade rows.
You may have expected me address squats next, but I find so much more value in the vital role lunges play in core strength. I know, you HATE lunges, but that’s all the more reason we need to use them. So many of us need MORE lunges in our training. Lunging is much closer to everyday movements like walking, running, etc. than almost anything else we do in the gym. The lunge is a very functional drill!
As soon as we go into the split position, we can almost instantly see where people lose their plank. Remember, the core is not just a fancy word for your abs, but an integration of your hips, and even your feet—one reason that barefoot training became popular.
The popularity of the half kneeling position for overhead pressing should tell us how important lunges are to real core stability and strength. For the sake of this blog post, we will keep things simple and focus on the reverse lunge which is the easiest to progress people. With lunges, we can vary load placement, and direction of the lunge to challenge the movement. For now, we will focus on using different kettlebell loading positions to build some incredibly strong moving planks!
|Lunge Loading Progressions|
|Suitcase Double Lunge|
|Double KB Rack Lunges|
|Off-Set Loaded Suitcase Kettlebells|
|Off-Set Rack Kettlebells|
|Double Overhead Lunge|
This is the REALLY cool part—we are not just building MANY more kettlebell movement variations, but increasingly more meaningful progressions. Changing the intent of familiar, and often underestimated movements gives them new meaning and value.
You will never really outgrow the plank, it evolves over time just like kettlebell training. The purpose of the HKC and RKC are to give you a very strong foundation to kettlebell training. Most people underestimate the incredible value and versatility of kettlebells if they get stuck in the habit of just performing a few movements. But, if you understand that gaining proficiency in one drill opens the door to another, you will find infinite uses and benefits to every drill in your kettlebell toolkit.
Josh Henkin, Master RKC, CSCS has been a RKC instructor since 2003 and has implemented kettlebell programs for major Division I programs, SWAT teams, and many different general fitness programs. Josh is also the creator of the DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training system where he is a highly sought after presenter worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://DVRTFitness.com. Josh Henkin is also the author of DVRT, The Ultimate Sandbag Training System now available in paperback and ebook format.