A sound foundation of bodyweight strength is an asset to anybody that lifts weights, and we’re not just talking about pull-ups. (Though pull-ups are awesome.)
It’s no secret that many of the world’s best weightlifters and CrossFit® athletes — from weightlifter Mattie Rogers to two-time CrossFit Games Champion Katrin Davidsdottir — have backgrounds in gymnastics. The sport’s focus on relative strength, mobility, midline stability, and proprioception have solid carryover to strength sports, plus many gymnastics skills don’t require any equipment, so they can be practiced anywhere.
That brings us to the planche, probably the most brutal and effective exercise for building core strength and stability.
“The planche is really the ultimate exercise, it’s the epitome of exercises for bracing the core,” says Roberto Arza, a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer and USAW Level 1 coach who has trained competitive gymnasts for six years. “The ability to brace in that position carries over really, really well to any movement, like squatting, pushing, and pulling, but especially to overhead movements like snatches and jerks.”
Plus, it looks cool as shit. Here’s how you can work up to a planche.
Two Ways to Build to a Planche
There are two ways to build to a planche: upward and downward.
Although they’re similar stresses, Arza recommends combining these two approaches in your quest for a planche. Practicing three days per week is the fastest way to reach your goal, but remember to take time off if you’re starting to feel beaten up; the fastest Arza has ever seen a recreational lifter attain a planche is six months. (Note that the advice in this article may not work for sedentary folks, and is aimed at those who can strict press at least half of their bodyweight.)
The first option is to start your journey from the ground: the ideal starting point is a solid crow pose.
This is an intermediate yoga pose that’s great for strength and stability in the shoulders, wrists, and core. Once your crow becomes easy, start practicing a straight-armed crow, also known as crane pose or bakasana.
Then, you want to try stretching one leg out behind you. People normally start by doing this quickly, kicking their leg back and then bringing it right back in. Practice doing this one leg at a time, until eventually, you can hold your leg, and ultimately legs, out behind you. Ta da! You’re in a planche.
The second approach is to start vertical and work your way downward. That means getting really good at handstands.
Tips like these will help to perfect a handstand, but the real benefits aren’t so much shoulder and core strength as they are balance and proprioception – specifically, learning where your shoulder is in relation to your wrist.
Start in a handstand facing a wall, and while making sure your hands stay under your shoulders, try slightly bending your arms and supporting yourself in a crooked position. (It’s OK to have your feet rest against the wall.)
If that feels OK, try gradually walking your hands to anywhere from a foot to a foot and a half from the wall, and see how long you can comfortably stay in the bent-arm position before you fall. Keep practicing as your body moves, workout by workout, degree by degree, toward a more horizontal position. Don’t exceed five sets of attempts at this exercise, and stop as soon as discomfort becomes pain. Remember, getting a planche is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Some folks make these handstand progressions easier by using resistance bands to hold themselves up by the hips,” says Arza. “But I think using a wall gives you more realistic body awareness, since the bands make you feel lighter.”
Three Problems That’ll Mess Up a Planche
The biggest limiting factors in a planche are shoulder strength, core strength, and wrist extension.
Planches require strength in a particular degree of shoulder flexion, so if you find yours keep giving out, Arza recommends straight arm accessory exercises, particularly frontal raises.
For core strength, sit-ups ain’t gonna cut it. It’s important that your core exercises involve bracing in an extended position, so a lot of hollow bodies and supermans are in order, or you can try your luck at holding a front lever, which Arza describes as something of an inverse planche.
Lastly, wrist extension is hugely important.
“The wrist is the primary joint that experiences the most stress here,” says Arza. “It’s in a really high degree of extension, and it also needs to be strong – a good range of motion is useless without strength.”
He stresses that the forearms need to be stretched and mashed out by a barbell or a kettlebell before attempting the following exercises. ( “Otherwise you’re just pulling the knots tighter.”) He then recommends a classic gymnastics warm-up to improve wrist flexion: plank at the top of a push-up movement, externally rotate the arm so that the fingers point toward the feet, and rock backward for thirty to forty-five seconds to open up the wrist. Three to five sets is plenty. Stop if it hurts.
The last piece of the puzzle is wrist strength, which can be improved with a variety of push-ups. One recommendation is wrist push-ups: start at the bottom of the movement on the back of your hands and the fingers pointing toward each other. As you push up, move your hands into a fist so that you finish the movement on your knuckles. (You can start off on your knees to make this easier.)
A final movement to strengthen your fingers, grip, and wrists: start on your hands and knees with your palms against the ground. Press through your fingers so the palms come off of the ground, supported by your thumbs and fingers. Try three to five sets of ten to twelve reps each.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the planche is an extremely advanced strength move that takes months, and maybe even years, to master.
“You need to really, really listen to your body,” says Arza. “Don’t rush it. The absolute minimum amount of time this takes is six to eight months for a recreational lifter, but for most people, it’s more like a year.”
So ask yourself: is elite strength worth it? Do you like the thought of improving your stability, your lifts, and your appearance? Do you want to put in the time to achieve one of the rarest, most jaw-dropping feats of strength in the book? If you answered yes to all three, pursue the planche. Let’s face it, it’s probably worth it.
Featured image courtesy @flyer_barstrike