The plank is one of the best exercises for targeting your core, is easily modifiable for different fitness levels or injuries, and doesn’t take long to measure improvement. Just about anyone can do some variation of it, it can be done virtually anywhere indoors or outdoors, it requires no equipment, and it is effective. There are so many plank variations, that it won’t get boring any time soon. With all of these great reasons to do the plank, why do some people find that they are not getting results?
The plank has been a mainstay in yoga practices for centuries, and is common in Pilates, military training, physical therapy, as well as in mainstream fitness. By holding the plank position for timed periods, you are requiring your body to recruit all kinds of important muscles in your abdominals, back, and shoulders, including deep muscles that support and stabilize the spine. There is so much more to the plank than just these muscles, so let’s dig a little deeper.
If being fit, strong, preventing injuries isn’t motivation enough, how about knowing that the current world record for the plank is he longest time in an abdominal plank position is 4 hours 26 minutes and was achieved by Mao Weidong (China) in Beijing, China on 26 September 2014. (GWR, 2015)!
Where is your Core?
Any discussion about the plank must include a definition of the core, of which there are many. Simply stated, the core consists of the muscles that stabilize your spine in all activities, including sitting, standing, walking, sports, and, even breathing! We consider the core to be those muscles that essentially connect the trunk to the pelvis.
Think of the core as the entire length of your spine and all of the muscles that support and stabilize it. Expanding this concept three-dimensionally, the core consists of deep muscles such as the diaphragm, transverse abdominis and internal obliques, psoas, pelvic floor, and back muscles such as multifidi and erector spinae, and continues outward to the other abdominal muscles (external obliques and rectus abdominis) and beyond, to the neck and shoulder stabilizers, and pelvic stabilizers such as the glutes. Picture, if you will, a sailboat with its masts and rigging that support the sails.
Many people come to learn about their core after suffering from some sort of low back pain. With a weak core, the forces generated on the low back are not supported by the masts and rigging, and the result is often pain, if not disc problems.
What does it feel like to have a strong and stable core?
Let’s just say that in an ideal world, you would not get injured, you would feel strong when participating in your exercise or sports, and your posture would be such that people ask you what you do to have such great posture!
Start With the Basics
One major reason that some people do not feel that they benefit from doing the plank exercise, is the at they are not careful about their form, or perhaps they were never taught what proper plank form is. Form is critical in executing a proper plank, so please start with whichever variation that you can maintain good form.
Here is an example of poor form. When holding a plank, your focus is on three major details, protecting your low back, by maintaining a neutral spine, protecting your shoulders by keeping them un-hunched and away from your ears, and on breathing!
To find your neutral spine in the plank position, you really need to check in a mirror. You want the natural curve in your low back, not exaggerated, nor rounded. You also want the entire spine to be neutral, not just the low back. No excessive rounding in the upper back and head in line with your spine to keep the neck neutral. Think about what a typical picture of bad posture is for someone sitting at their work desk, and you want the opposite!
Another reason that people might not feel results from the plank is that many people breathe too shallow in general, but also while holding their plank position. They either hold their breath (if a short plank) or breathe into their upper chest. Breathing while holding a plank is a requirement! Breathing fully into your belly, or full diaphragmatic breathing, is the next step. Trust me, when you breathe into your diaphragm, you will feel the plank a lot more than when you only chest breathe!
You may be holding a static position with your body, but by no means is your diaphragm static! Many people are not used to doing this, so, if that is your case, integrate it into your planks but beware that you may get a little light-headed at first. As Andrew Schaeffer says in his article, “Core Series Part 1 – It’s Not About A 6-Pack, It’s About That Aching Back”, if breathing is incorrect, then all of the local musculature may not be performing optimally and fail to produce stability to full capacity.
How do you breathe fully into your diaphragm? A great way to practice is lying down on your back. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your abdomen. Inhale through your nose all the way into your belly, which should rise as you inhale. This might be uncomfortable or awkward at first, so you need to start with just a few breaths like this, and practice until it becomes natural.
Another reason some people don’t benefit from planks is that they either start out with too hard of a plank, or, they don’t hold it long enough. Just like any other exercise, you need to build up to doing the full plank before you can try the variations that we show you in the video below. We are going to first describe the full plank to you, then, follow with the modified version. Most planks start with 10-30 seconds and build up from there to one or two minutes. No matter which variation of plank, you choose to do, these three form details are critical (neutral spine, shoulders away from your ears, and breathe).
The basic full plank is done from hands and feet with the body in a long straight line (like a plank of wood). To get into the proper position, you start on your hands and knees. Step one foot back, then the other foot back, balancing on your toes. Hands are placed beneath your shoulders. Your head is extended straight out from your body, versus hanging towards the floor. This form of the plank definitely strengthens the arms as well.
Because not everyone is comfortable with the wrist/hand pressure that this position involves, full planks are frequently done on the forearms instead of the hands.
Watch this video to see the plank basics:
The modified plank is the perfect place to start for most people (men and women). Instead of holding a plank from your feet, you simply start from your knees. The same rules apply regarding form that apply to the full plank.
The Wide World of Planks–Variations
Here are some of our favorite plank variations.
- Alternating leg lifts
- Toe taps to the side.
- Heel presses
- Leg to side at hip height
- Saw plank
- Side plank modified from knees
- Side plank from feet staggered or stacked
- Rotating plank
- Side plank knee toward elbow or ribs
- Side plank adding top leg lift
- Knee to opposite elbow plank
- Ball plank with feet on ball
- Ball plank with arms on ball, adding circles
- V-up to plank, adding leg lifts
- Walk the plank
- Both feet on a medicine ball plank
- Quadruped plank
Watch how to do these variations in this video:
Jump on the Plank Bandwagon
If you are not motivated to start planking, or to try some of these variations of planks, then perhaps you need to ask yourself the question “Do I care about having a strong core?”. The plank is one exercise that has been around literally for centuries, and why is it still such a great exercise? Because, when performed properly, it works.
Grab an exercise mat, or find a comfortable spot on the floor, and see how long you can hold the plank, whichever variation you choose to start with. Time yourself with a watch, or even by counting your breaths. Start with 10-20 seconds or 2-5 full breaths. Keep it up and you will see improvement and better yet, will feel more connected to your abs in a way that is vastly different than doing tons of crunches!
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By Sue Bream yoursimplehealthylife.com