Master The Windmill Side Plank for Athletic Performance
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
When it comes to mastering movement, muscle function, and body mechanics I use a variety of exercise and movement patterns. In addition I incorporate a variety of core stabilization drills to help stabilize the spine and improve total body rigidity and motor control. One such exercise I consistently employ with my athletes and clients is the windmill side plank.
The windmill side plank represents a unique yet highly effective full body stabilization and core activation drill that targets a variety of muscles from head to toe. It also happens to a be an incredibly effective drill for improving low back pain, hip inflammation, shoulder stability, and general weakness as it targets stabilizers and smaller muscle groups that oftentimes go semi-neglected during more traditional movements.
How to Perform The Windmill Side Plank
To perform the windmill side plank assume a side plank position on the hand instead of the forearm. This increases the instability and difficulty of the movement and makes it more challenging. Stack both feet on top of each other while maintaining a dorsiflexed ankle position in both feet. Keep the opposite arm pointed straight up throughout. Focus on opening the chest and rotating the elevated arm up and back while maintaining a straight line throughout your entire torso.
Key Benefits of the Windmill Plank
The ability to transmit force and coordinate neuromuscular recruitment between the hips, core, and upper torso is vital for athletic performance as well as heavy strength training. The side windmill plank is one of the few exercises that requires the hips (especially the smaller glute muscles), upper torso, core, and feet to work together synergistically in one controlled high-tension isometric.
Essentially what you’re doing during the windmill plank is you’re resisting lateral flexion of the spine and lateral hip collapse as gravity is attempting to drive your hips towards the floor. To fight these forces you’ll be required to fire the glute medius (outer hips), internal obliques, external obliques, and quadratus lumborum muscles of your core. If that still doesn’t make any sense, just think of this as the ultimate exercise for crushing the sides of your hips and stomach/love handles.
In fact the windmill plank targets the same muscle groups you’ll commonly see individuals in the gym attempting to stimulate with side bends and core rotational exercises only this time the exercise actually works. In addition to improving functional movement patterns, posture, and spinal positioning, you’ll be strengthening numerous stabilizers from head to toe rather than just isolating one small muscle group.
Once you’ve mastered the basic variation, you can progress the movement in a number of ways. This includes elevating the feet, abducting the top leg, and holding a weighted object or bottoms up kettlebell in the elevated arm.
However, to truly master this movement often requires even more advanced variations that specifically address various weaknesses and instability issues. Here are several of my favorite methods for mastering the windmill plank
Unstable Upper Body Variations
Many individuals struggle with the side windmill plank due to shoulder instability, faulty postural alignment, and poor upper body positioning. To address this requires proper cueing as well as the implementation of windmill plank variations that force the lifter to employ near textbook upper body mechanics. In this video my client Leslie Petch and I are demonstrating several advanced windmill planks that involve a more unstable upper body base including placement of the support hand on either a foam roller, resistance band (chaos method), or suspension system (Olympic rings or TRX).
The foam roller variation addresses lack of shoulder depression and shoulder packing as the excessive shoulder elevation will cause the foam roller to slide out above the lifters head. To keep the foam roller locked into position requires the lifter to depress their shoulders and scapula by firing their lats.
The chaos windmill plank with the hand on a band requires high levels of stabilization and shoulder centration. If the lifter allows the shoulders to become loose or unstable for even a second the unstable band will produce uncontrollable oscillations to the lifters body and arm.
Lastly the suspension system combines unique attributes of both the foam roller variation and the chaos method albeit in a more subtle fashion.
To successfully complete each of these will require the lifter to optimize their upper body mechanics and core stability. These variations not only expose a variety of core and upper activation deficits but they also help to eliminate them.
Unstable Lower Body Variations
While upper body instability and poor shoulder alignment are oftentimes common issues many athletes experience during windmill planks, lack of lower body stability and lumbopelvic hip control is even more prevalent. While a number of cues including those described in the following sections are critical for addressing this, there are several specific advanced progressions of the windmill plank that will both expose and address these issues.
This includes placing the support leg on an unstable surface such as a foam roller, resistance band (chaos band method), TRX, or BOSU ball as my client Leslie Petch and I demonstrate in this video. These require near precision levels of body control, core activation, postural mechanics, hip alignment, foot positioning, and lumbopelvic hip control. Just be prepared to focus your mind and body like a master Jedi as the level of concentration and near-perfect body mechanics required is incredibly high.
Slide board Variation
Performing windmill planks in an anti-sliding manner exponentially multiplies the extension forces acting on the hips and torso as the feet want to slip out and away from the lifter.
Fortunately the benefits are also multiplied making this one of the most effective movements for targeting the side musculature of your core and hips.
Copenhagen Plank Variation
Side windmill planks can also be performed by placing the inside of the foot on the bench rather than the outside/lateral portion of the foot. This variation is referred to as the Copenhagen side windmill plank and represents a distinctly different variation than traditional windmill planks as it targets the inner thighs and adductors as opposed to traditional variations that target the outer hips and abductors.
These adductors and inner thigh muscles are often neglected by various athletic populations. Essentially what’s happening here is you’re holding a side plank while resisting abduction of both legs particularly the top leg which intensely activates the adductor muscles.
While performing proper squats, lunges, and lateral lunges are effective for working these adductors, for athletes including many lifters who suffer from groin strains or pulls, the Copenhagen windmill plank is a phenomenal drill to include. In addition, for figure athletes and bodybuilders the inner thighs periodically need to be worked to maintain optimal proportionality and physique dimensions of the lower body.
On a side note for individuals who have a tendency to over-externally rotate or over-spread their knees and hips (particularly) at the bottom of the squat as well as individuals who are somewhat bow-legged and supinate their ankles, this can be a valuable exercise to help eliminate these imbalances. While this isn’t a drill that needs to be included on an overly-frequent basis for most lifters, periodically incorporating it into your routine can help ensure optimal hip function and muscular development in the lower body.
Note on Hip Abduction
As previously mentioned, once you nail the form with a basic windmill plank, you’ll want to incorporate hip abduction by lifting the top leg and keeping both feet perfectly parallel to each other. The key is to avoid abducting the top leg excessively high. In reality the top leg should be roughly 12-20 inches above the bottom foot as anymore than this will pull your body out of alignment making it nearly impossible to hold the position on more difficult variations shown above.
Note on Hand Placement
For a majority of windmill side plank variations I recommend placing the support hand directly beneath the shoulder or slightly higher (1-3 inches above the shoulder towards the head). In addition, most individuals find it ideal to place the support hand at a 45 degree angle as this maximizes both stability and shoulder centration.
Note on Foot and Ankle Dorsiflexion
In terms of optimal body mechanics the dorsiflexed ankle position is ideal for most exercises with the windmill plank being no exception. Incorporating the dorsiflexed position not only improves foot and ankle alignment which helps channel greater neural drive throughout the body but it also helps to lock the movement in and make it significantly more stable. Unfortunately basic windmill planks can easily be cheated as lack of dorsiflexion can be overcome with subtle compensation patterns.
However the above variations particularly the unstable lower body variations and slide board version literally forces the lifter to dorsiflex their ankles maximally while stacking their feet in perfect parallel alignment with each other. Anything less will make it impossible to keep the lower body stable as you’ll be unable to resist the extreme extension forces being placed on the hips. In fact if you have significant foot and ankle issues you’ll probably need to remedy them before attempting these to avoid undue frustration and repeated failure. Read more about mastering foot and ankle mechanics here.