Ask Stew: Combining Plank with Push-ups Is Difficult but Not Impossible

Changes to the exercises used for the military fitness testing are here to stay. It will take some time and practice to get used to replacing sit-ups and crunches with more static exercises like plank poses.

Building a strong core is a requirement for plank poses and push-ups. Doing these exercises back-to-back in a fitness test will require extra core muscular endurance.

Here is a question from someone struggling to do the plank combined with push-ups during a test.

Stew, The Navy recently changed their Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) from crunches to plank pose, and my age group needs close to 4 minutes (3:40) to max that event. My push-ups are usually pretty good (near max) and my plank is not horrible, but I did push-ups and planks back-to-back the other day and it affected my plank time, which was not failing but nowhere near maxing. Any recommended training program you have that will help with this new challenge?

Removing sit-ups and crunches was not a bad idea for regular military members. The Army decided to upgrade the challenge by adding leg tucks, which require hanging from a pull-up bar and bringing your knees to your elbows. These are much more challenging than sit-ups or crunches.

Planks are optional in the Marine Corps, which still tests crunches. The Navy and Coast Guard also have added the plank pose in place of crunches. Changes are still under review in the Air Force.

Some military special ops tests still require crunches or sit-ups. If you’re taking those tests, you should balance those exercises with a variety of plank poses anyway (regular forearm plank, and left/right side planks) just to work on your core stabilization. LIfting weights is another solid way to develop core strength (deadlift, squats, kettlebells, TRX movements).

Death by Push-ups (Pyramid Version)

This may be a little on the hardcore end of the training spectrum, but this workout is an effective way to improve both push-ups and plank poses. This is also a fun group challenge for any military group PT program.

Here is how it works:

Get into plank pose. This is a 5- to 10-minute plank challenge!

After one minute, do 10 push-ups. When you’re finished with push-ups, you have to stay in the plank pose. It is fine to move from regular plank to side planks, but the goal is not to drop your knees at all.

Every minute on the minute, you do push-ups in descending order (9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) until the full 10 minutes is complete in the plank pose with push-ups every minute. This will equal 55 push-ups when you are done and 10 minutes in some form of plank pose.

Of course, this is a scalable workout routine. Start out at five minutes (really — try it) and do the descending amount of push-ups every minute on the minute (10, 8, 6, 4, 2). This will equal 30 push-ups when you are done and five minutes in the plank poses.

Another option is to do a set number of push-ups every minute on the minute until you fail at the plank pose. Stay in the plank pose and perform 5-10 push-ups at each minute mark until you no longer can do push-ups or plank poses.

It is recommended to try this every other day on your normal upper-body training day and mix in a variety of other exercises like hanging knee-ups, leg levers and flutter kicks just to work the core system in a variety of ways.

One of my favorites will be a good way to improve in both plank poses and push-ups. Use TRX suspension bands to do an exercise called the TRX atomic push-up with feet elevated in straps doing knee-ups and push-ups together.

Another way to make the plank harder is to add the TRX. You either can put your feet in the straps as above and hold a plank pose or put your forearms in the straps and hold the plank pose. Both will challenge you and make the regular plank feel a whole lot easier.

With every exercise, you have to practice them to see results. Showing up unprepared and not knowing how you will perform in a new exercise is a recipe for failure or poor performance amongst your peers.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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