Fix Your Chest Press and Rows with Chinese Plank Variations

Fix Your Chest Press and Rows with Chinese Plank Variations

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

I’m a huge fan of modifying foundational movement patterns by performing variations that literally force the lifter to use proper body mechanics.  These Chinese plank variations do just that.  Shoutout to awesome physical therapist Dominic Labelle for highlighting the standard Chinese plank recently in his social media posts.  If you don’t already follow Dominic I highly recommend putting him on your list as he always provides very educational and informative content.

Chinese Plank With Chest Presses

Performing chest presses in conjunction with the Chinese plank does wonders not only for recruiting the entire posterior chain, but it literally forces the lifter to assume optimal postural alignment throughout their entire spine.  In fact if you have difficulty producing enough retraction and t-spine extension on chest presses or engaging your upper back you’ll want to incorporate these Chinese plank chest presses into your routine.  You can also perform them in a head-off position as shown here which further instills proper postural alignment by allowing the cervical spine to elongate rather than being compressed against the bench.  This produces ideal mechanics in the glenohumeral joint as the lifter can more easily pack and centrate the shoulders into their appropriate position due to a lengthened and rigid spinal alignment.   

The ability to dorsiflex the feet and ankles during a chest press also promotes enhanced spinal rigidity and improved shoulder mechanics.  There are several reasons for this.  First, aggressive dorsiflexion of the ankles and feet helps to produce greater concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation and ultimately increased neural drive up the kinetic chain (greater activation to all muscles including the working extremities).  The dorsiflexed ankle position also helps place a slight stretch (while simultaneously under tension) to the hamstrings and glutes thereby promoting improved spinal rigidity, which contributes to better thoracic positioning.  Simply put it facilitates a more lengthened spinal position, improved postural alignment, and greater upper back activation.  This helps to reinforce proper shoulder mechanics as the lifter will find it more natural to fire the lats and centrate the glenohumeral joint.  So yes, dorsiflexing the ankles actually translates to improved shoulder function and upper body mechanics.  To ensure excessive lumbar extension does not occur focus on keeping your stomach pulled in as you contract your posterior chain and extend your hips.

Finally, the Chinese plank chest press may look vaguely familiar to many reading this as it holds many similarities to the T-bench chest press I frequently advocate.  The main difference is the lifter is holding a straight leg glute bridge rather than a 90 degree bent leg bridge.  The T-bench chest press with the bent leg bridge (although one of my favorite variations) can periodically promote excessive lumbar extension as the hips can over-extend.  This Chinese plank chest press variation with the legs kept straight makes it nearly impossible to overextend the body particularly when the ankle dorsiflexion and straight leg position cues are employed together.

Oh and in case you were wondering, yes you can do these single leg, but just be ready for some serious cramping in your backside.

Chinese Plank With Barbell Rows

Now that we’ve covered the posterior chain of the lower body and the pressing muscles of the upper body lets move onto the reciprocal muscle groups.  In this Chinese plank variation you’re essentially holding an armless plank while performing barbell rows.  In contrast to the chest press variation, which targets the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors, this one targets the hip flexors, quads, and anterior core. 

Oh wait, did I forget to mention how I’ve been recently highlighting the importance of firing the hip flexors and quads on planks, pushups, and ab rollout variations (or anything that is an ant-extension movement) and not the hip extensors/glutes??? Yeah, well these Chinese plank examples should pretty much put this topic to rest once and for all. 

In essence, if the prime movers needed to hold a glute bridge or supine bridge are the glutes, hamstrings and low back musculature (which no one would deny), then performing the opposite motion/position namely a front plank which is essentially a front bridge requires the exact opposite muscles to fire namely the hip flexors, quads and core.  And just as you would never intentionally contract the hip flexors while performing a glute bridge or anti-flexion position, you would never want to consciously contract the hip extensors when holding a plank or anti-extension position. 

And no this is not excessive extension you see in this video.  What you’re seeing is a neutral spine that’s maintaining its natural lordotic curvature, which is something the world's foremost expert on spinal health Dr. Stuart McGill discusses extensively in his research.  You don’t want to eliminate that natural curvature; instead you want to maintain it. 

And yes I have fairly large glutes, which makes the low back look more arched than what it is.  The key is to look at the position of my hips and pelvis in relation to the rest of my torso and body.  It’s all one straight line.  I’m not talking about drawing a line from the top of my butt to the other segments of my body as the glutes are a muscle and you never want to line up muscles with joints when analyzing joint segments and biomechanics.  Instead examine the joints beginning with my ankles, then knees, then hips (center of the hips at the joint not the muscle), then the spine, shoulders, and neck and they all follow the exact same line indicating proper joint stacking and spinal alignment.  The hips are not in back or in front of the spine or other joint segments therefore we know the pelvis is in the proper position as the spine is simply maintaining it’s natural position, which includes a neutrally arched alignment.

On a final side note, this Chinese plank barbell row is not a rowing variation that you would use to perform heavy loading.  Instead it should be employed to help dial in form and lock in your body mechanics.  In addition, the standard prone row performed laying on a bench can often cause excessive lumbar arch to occur as the individual can essentially over-bow their torso and spine.  This is often a byproduct of compensating by using lumbar extension to help drive the weight up rather than relying solely on the upper back and thoracic extension.  With the Chinese plank variation because there’s nothing under the mid torso helping to support the hips and core, it forces the lifter to fire their anterior core and minimize excessive lumbar extension that can commonly occur on prone or seal rows.  In fact if you don’t fire your core like mad, your hips and low back will literally shoot towards the ground making it impossible to perform this movement.

Additional Variations

If you're looking for a unique and brutal way to crush nearly every muscle in your body from head to toe, try this Chinese plank pullover performed in an eccentric isometric fashion as demonstrated by one of my awesome clients Matt Jordan. It's also does wonders for improving posture. And yes posture is very important regardless of what the latest so called "pain experts"/charlatans might claim. Performing these with kettlebells increases the difficulty due to the hanging nature of the load particularly in the stretched position.  The Chinese plank position can be used for a variety of exercise including chest presses, pullovers, skull crushers, chest flyes, and more.   

Advanced Variations

If we’re looking for a few ways to progress this variation we can perform it in single leg fashion or even have the feet on a band or ball (i.e. chaos version) instead of a bench.  Here’s one of my awesome clients and national level NPC figure competitor Leslie Petch showing how it’s done with 50 pound dumbbells.  

 The single leg chaos band version of the Chinese plank requires enormous levels of posterior chain activation, core stabilization, motor control, glute activation full body tension, and balance, not to mention perfectly dialed in pressing mechanics and postural alignment.  

The Ultimate Full Body Drill

Single Leg Sprinter Chinese Plank Pullover with Bottoms Up Eccentric Isometrics

Here I have NFL athlete and GSP sponsored pro Julian Williams performing a brutally difficult full body exercise with 20 lb kettlebells. This particular variation combines all of the elements previously listed into one brutal single leg variation while also implementing the eccentric isometric protocol. There are 5 reasons why this is so effective.

1. Many individuals struggle to pack and centrate their glenohumeral joint on pullovers. Performing pullovers in conjunction with the Chinese plank does wonders not only for recruiting the entire posterior chain, but it literally forces the lifter to assume optimal postural alignment throughout their entire spine which also translates to enhanced shoulder mechanics. The head-off position as shown here further instills proper postural alignment by allowing the cervical spine to elongate rather than being compressed against the bench. This produces ideal mechanics in the glenohumeral joint as the lifter can more easily pack and centrate the shoulders into their appropriate position due to a lengthened and rigid spinal alignment. And yes posture is very important when it comes to optimzing performance, joint health, muscle recruitment, and overall well being. Read more about the importance of posture here.

2. Pullovers are an incredible exercise for targeting the upper back, lats, triceps, core, chest, and shoulder stabilizers. Unfortunately most individuals allow their shoulders to over-elevate when performing the eccentric phase of the lift. This also tends to lead to excessive range of motion rather than a crisp and more compact position. Besides minimizing stress to the lats, over-stretching on the pullover and excessively elevating the shoulders can be highly destructive on the glenohumeral joint and rotator cuff as it’s essentially destabilizing the shoulder joint. Fortunately the bottoms-up protocol helps to correct this as excessive elevation and or range of motion will cause the lifter to lose control due to the instability of the movement.

In addition, the further instability of the bottoms-up position helps to ensure the lifter centrates and packs their shoulders throughout the motion (even when moving into the overhead position). Simply put it helps to eliminate excessive range of motion commonly used by lifters as the bottoms up technique will punish faulty mechanics.

3. By incorporating eccentric isometrics (slow negative followed by a pause in the stretched position) this not only maximizes the strength and hypertrophy stimulus of the exercise but it also teaches the lifter to use somatosensory feedback to fine-tune their body position and movement mechanics. In other words, each of the various factors previously discussed in terms of optimal range of motion and ideal shoulder mechanics can be more easily adhered to. That’s because emphasizing the stretched position causes the lifter to have a better sense of his or her body position through improved kinesthetic awareness and enhanced proprioceptive feedback. Read more about eccentric isometrics in my new book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.

4. Besides instilling strong biomechanics, the longer lever arm produced from the bottoms-up position creates an enormous amount of tension in the lats, triceps, and upper back particularly in the stretched position. Additionally, the grip, hands, and forearms get pulverized as you’ll need to squeeze the daylights out of the kettlebells to keep them from collapsing in your hands. Besides improving grip strength this provides further stabilization of the shoulder joint through irradiation and concurrent activation potentiation (greater full body tension through increased neural drive). To Read more about bottoms up pullovers here.

5. The single leg position combined with 90 degree knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion does wonders for instilling proper lower body alignment that also transfers exceptionally well to sprinting mechanics for athletes.

Longitudinal Chinese Plank Chest Press

Here I have one of my awesome athletes Ben Lai performing a deceptively brutal longitudinal Chinese plank chest press variation with eccentric isometrics.

As shown in the prior videos, you would typically set up 2 benches width wise (similar to a t-bench chest press or hip thrust position). However in the variation shown here, the bench that you’re anchoring your shoulders on is setup in a lengthwise or longitudinal position. This provides 2 unique benefits.

First, the lifter can’t rely on the bench to stop their arms at the bottom. Instead the lifter must rely on their own muscle activation to terminate the end range of motion at approximately 90 degree without collapsing any deeper. The only downside is you can’t produce a head off position like you would with a traditional t-bench setup.

The second benefit of this longitudinal Chinese plank chest press setup is that when performed in a single leg fashion not only does this pulverize the glutes & hamstrings but it also produces intense instability & rotational forces the lifter must resist in order to lose his or her balance. As a result the entire core musculature as well as just about every muscle from head to toe must be fully engaged to maintain balance without falling off the side.

Chinese Plank Leg Curls

Here I have MLB pro baseball players Parker Meadows and Austin Meadows performing a brutal posterior chain superset with trap bar deadlifts and a Chinese plank single leg hamstring curl.

The trap bar deadlift with accommodating resistance (i.e. chains) not only crushes the legs with heavy overload but also blasts the upper back, traps, & lats with serious tension. And yes, this represents a rare scenario where I didn’t actually employ eccentric isometrics as I wanted to focus more on overload & max effort exertion while also relying on the leg curl to blast the lower body with concentric & eccentric stress.

This was also several weeks before their baseball season began & I wanted to make sure they weren’t too fatigued or sore from the training as they were ramping up their actual hitting, throwing, & running volume. Performing the leg curl before the deadlift also helps wake up the posterior chain to ensure it’s activated during the deadlift.

If the single leg version is too advanced, simply regress to a double leg version. The unilateral variation also involves significant core stabilization to maintain balance. Several sets of 3-5 reps on the deadlift & 6-8 reps on the leg curl will do the job.

Find out more about how to program this and other similar exercises into your routine Here.