Instead of just trying to make traditional bodyweight planks harder by increasing the duration you do them for, there are simple variations that can instantly up the difficulty.
One such variation is the stir the pot exercise.
This exercise involves doing a forearm plank on an exercise ball, whilst moving your elbows in small circular movements to create more instability.
This forces your core muscles to work harder and therefore makes it a fantastic progression for anyone who wants to upgrade their plank workout.
In this exercise guide, we outline how to perform stir the pot exercise properly, the muscles worked, benefits and potential alternatives (including if you don’t have access to an exercise ball).
How to Perform Stir the Pot Exercise
You’ll need an exercise ball for this exercise, and whilst a challenge to perform, it’s a relatively simple movement to understand.
To do stir the post:
- Step 1. From a kneeling position, rest your whole forearms on an exercise ball, keeping your elbows below your shoulders.
- Step 2. Straighten your legs and get your body into a plank position, with a wide stance (the narrower the gap between your legs the harder it will be), keeping your forearms on the ball.
- Step 3. Make sure you have your toes flexed (balls of your feet off the ground) and brace your core – maintain a neutral spine, tight abdominals and engaged glutes.
- Step 4. Now it’s time to ‘stir the pot’. Rotate your arms at your shoulders in a full clockwise movement. The only movement should be in the shoulder joint – your hips, pelvis, spine and legs should remain stable and not twist. A common mistake is to rotate at the hips, which consequently means your core isn’t stable.
- Step 5. Focus on slow, controlled movements. Between 8-12 repetitions, repeated for 3 sets is a great way to get started (alternating between clock-wise and anticlock-wise). Alternatively, allow yourself 10-20 seconds of clockwise rotations before giving the same amount of time for anti-clockwise rotations as one set.
Coach’s Tip – Remember the focus is on smooth, controlled movements with a stable core at all times. Your back/hips should remain as stationary as possible. We tend to prefer counting for repetitions, instead of performing exercises for a duration of time, simply because it tends to promote better technique (full range of motion) and avoids “lingering” final seconds of each set.
Stir the Pot Modifications and Variations
Decrease the Challenge
Rather than getting yourself into a raised plank position, stay in a kneeling position. Hold your forearms on the ball and maintain a stable core as you perform the rotations as above.
If you are still struggling to hold your core still, you could even start by simply holding your forearms on the ball from a kneeling position without the movement, so that you practise stability before advancing to stirring the pot.
Similarly, you may find simply doing regular forearm planks to build up a base level of core strength is required before attempting stir the pot.
Increase the Challenge
Narrowing your stance will make the exercise more difficult as it requires more stability from your core.
Remember, if at any point you allow your hips to twist or lose that straight line in the plank position, you’re not engaging the muscles efficiently.
The duration of each set will also increase the difficulty, so you could keep trying to progress the time your muscles are engaged for too.
Benefits of Stir the Pot Exercise
One of the great benefits of this exercise is that you are not only building core strength for balance and stability, but also the strength required for anti-rotation, flexion and extension movements.
This ability to create a stable spine by strengthening your core helps in all sorts of activities, from weightlifting to daily chores around the house.
Stir the pot goes beyond just working the “abs” and requires all the muscles around your torso, including back, to help support the movement.
By working all aspects of the core, you become better able at lifting heavier weights, making stirring the pot a great choice for strength training.
This can help improve the performance of other exercises, leading to better overall results in the gym.
Reduce Chance of Injury
Back ache and pain is often attributed to a weak core. A muscular imbalance develops between the lower back and core, resulting in the back taking more of the load during lifts and activities… leading to injury, or at the very least, aches and pains.
Strengthening the core helps to reduce muscular imbalances, improve posture and create better spinal stability.
By practising anti-rotation, flexion and extension movements, exercises like stirring the pot help to stabilize everything around your back to improve the core strength required to combat common causes of lower back pain.
This also applies to hip and pelvic MSK problems too.
Time Under Tension
There is no opportunity to rest during stir the pot… your muscles need to be heavily activated throughout (otherwise you risk losing balance).
This means that even just doing 8 repetitions can be a challenge, because the muscles have no time to rest.
TUT (time under tension) training is gaining popularity for its effectiveness at building muscle in quick workouts (that also don’t require you to lift as heavy weights).
The regular plank is an incredibly effective exercise, even for those who go to the gym frequently… but the movement isn’t too exciting, and you may find you want a more dynamic movement that feels more engaging.
Stir the pot helps target the same muscles, but adds another layer to the movement which is likely going to need 100% of your concentration.
It’s also a great exercise to include in fitness challenges.
Muscles Worked During Stir the Pot
Stirring the pot is a great way to engage and strengthen your anterior core muscles, primarily the abdominals and obliques.
The lats, lower back, shoulders, chest and glutes will also be engaged to help provide stability in your torso during the movement too.
Stir the Pot Without a Ball (Alternatives)
Fundamentally, the stir the pot exercise really does require an exercise ball… this is how to target the core muscles so effectively. If, however, you don’t have one, we’ve outlined some alternative exercises that largely work the same muscles.
Cable Stir the Pot
You could try and perform stir the pot using a cable machine (which would look similar to the “pallof press” set up). This involves setting the cable attachment to roughly shoulder-height and pulling it out in front of your chest. You can then perform a “stirring” motion with the cable attachment. The cable machine will naturally be pulling the weight back, so your core has to work to keep you balanced.
Compared to doing stir the pot on an exercise ball, using a cable machine like this will put more emphasis on the obliques (which may be an additional benefit too). However, you’ll probably also find your shoulders, arms and chest need to be more engaged compared to doing it on an exercise ball.
You could also use a resistance band for a similar outcome.
Lying Banded Stir the Pot
This alternative involves pulling a resistance band out from a sturdy object in a supine (lying face up) position and doing small “stirring” circles with your hands together.
The supine position will be easier than being in a prone position (i.e., like a plank), so you can really focus on engaging your core.
This is a good exercise to include in warm-ups and mobility drills. It also doesn’t engage the lower back like plank variations do, so for some, this might be a preferred option.
It’s a nice variation to weighted dead bugs.
Similar to the standing cable machine alternative, this will engage the arms, shoulders and chest more than doing it on an exercise ball… but your core will be undoubtedly challenged.
Stir the pot is a variation of the plank exercise. With that in mind, there are other types of planks that also leverage instability to increase the challenge.
Plank up and downs or plank shoulder taps are two variations that are worth trying if you want to create some instability during planks to force your muscles to work harder.
As you’ll see when you try, stir the pot is an advanced variation of the plank so make sure you’ve mastered that first. If you cannot keep your core stable, and lose your posture whilst performing the rotations, this exercise becomes totally redundant. Consider the variations that allow you to build up slowly before diving straight in.
Once you are able to perform the movement with proper technique, it’s a fantastic exercise as a stand-alone activity or as a warm-up or cool down as part of a circuit. Our top tip would be to keep your core fresh for this, so if you’re using it as part of a circuit, bear in mind not to overwork that core before or after.
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