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Core and abdominal strength training have evolved over the years. From sit-ups to crunches to bodyweight exercises, the plank is currently one of the most popular core strengthening moves.
It’s a great addition to a fitness routine for a lot of reasons, including its simplicity and the fact that it doesn’t require any equipment. And, you can vary it to make it easier or more challenging, and to hit different muscles. Here’s why—and how—to start planking regularly.
If you have been into fitness at all in recent years, even a little, you have seen or done a plank. It’s a simple bodyweight move that involves holding a position similar to a pushup for a prescribed period of time.
The origins of the exercise aren’t perfectly clear. Joseph Pilates used similar bodyweight exercises, but the more modern iteration might come from a Canadian professor and researcher of spine biomechanics.
Dr. Stuart McGill’s work on lower back pain led to the development of spine-friendly abdominal strengthening exercises. These include some of the plank variations we use today.
Sit-ups used to be the gold standard in ab-strengthening workouts. These evolved into crunches, which are still often found in core routines.
There are a couple of problems with these older-style ab exercises. One is that they only target a small number of abdominal muscles. The other is that they put stress on the spine, which can cause pain or even injury. Planks, when done correctly, are spine-neutral and activate more core muscles.
Most fitness experts would agree that planks beat old-fashioned sit-ups. Even when not compared to other core exercises, there are plenty of reasons to do planks regularly, even daily.
Most of the benefits of regular planking revolve around the fact that this is a core-strengthening move. This includes many muscles of the back, around the spine, and most of the abdominals (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques, and internal obliques). A stronger core from back to front has numerous benefits, such as better functional movements during ordinary daily activities and reduced injury risk.
The core muscle group supports the whole body. It is the foundation of every movement the body makes, including daily functional and athletic movements. You should strengthen all muscles, but if you can only do one thing, make sure you build strong core muscle.
Planks allow for maximal muscle tension without extra stress on the spine. The exercise targets muscles in the lower and upper back that assist with good posture. Clients must maintain posture and spine alignment while performing planks. This produces proper muscle activation throughout the entire body. Tension stems from the hands and forearms all the way through the knees and feet.
The core is the midline of the body. It is responsible for all movement and rotation. In fitness and sports, clients aim to improve stability and balance. Planks can assist any routine to help with sports or just daily activities. The core connects the upper body to the lower body, so whether your client is an elite athlete or simply needs help holding their body in a standing position, core strength will help them maintain that stability.
As a full bodyweight exercise, a simple plank activates nearly every muscle in your body. The core gets the most benefit, but other muscles worked include those in your arms, shoulders, pectorals, and legs.
This makes the plank a great exercise for all-around strength and for an efficient workout. If your time is limited, you can at least get in a few planks on a break or before bed. The small effort rewards you with a short but full-body workout.
Add glutes to the muscles worked list as well. When performing a plank, it is crucial to tell clients to squeeze their glutes. This helps activate the core and protects the lower back. Strong glutes support the lower back and alleviate any extra stress it could undergo. Clients who experience lower back pain tend to have a weak core, but also underactive glutes. Strong glutes provide the hips with more stability and pelvic floor strength.
A simple way to make a plank more challenging for clients is to increase the time they hold it for. Muscular endurance is built through the body's ability to perform exercise for an extended time. This helps improve endurance throughout the entire body.
Lower back pain is a common complaint, and one potential trigger is instability in the spine. If you can strengthen the muscles along the spine and in the core, you can reduce pain. A stronger core means your lower back doesn’t have to work so hard to hold you up. It also improves functional movements, which also reduces pain.
The plank isn’t a typical stretch, but it does stretch your muscles and improve flexibility. Full plank position elongates your legs, especially the hamstrings. It also lengthens the hip flexors, in which most people have a lot of tightness from sitting most of the day. Depending on variations, you can also get a good stretch in your side muscles, spine, and feet, ankles, and calves.
You don’t need any equipment to do a plank. You don’t need a gym either. In fact, you can do it while you watch TV or look at your phone. A plank is also accessible in that it is modifiable for beginners. If you have a client who cannot yet hold a full plank, they can start on their knees or use a chair or bench to elevate the upper body.
Another accessible full-body exercise that is easy to modify is the burpee. Here are some of the many benefits of burpees.
With planks being modifiable and easy to implement that leaves us with one more benefit to using them. You have many different plank variations to choose from. Between regular forearm planks, push-up planks, side planks, weight planks, and plank walks, there is no shortage of exercises. Leaving you with lots of exercise variability.
Try these plank variations to focus on different muscles and for a greater challenge as you progress:
Lift one leg at a time and hold for several seconds. You don’t have to lift the leg very high to get a benefit.
Lift one arm at a time and hold for a similar challenge. By balancing on only three limbs, your muscles work harder.
When you’re comfortable lifting one arm at a time, try walking planks. Start in forearm plank and lift up into plank on your hands. Drop back into forearm position and repeat. Move slowly and deliberately as you focus on engaging your core muscles.
Do side planks to put more focus on the sides of your core. Make sure you stack one hip on top of the other when doing a side plank. You can do it on your forearm or hand, as with a standard plank.
To progress in a side plank, lift and hold the top leg on each side.
Work your core even more and get a little bit of cardio with mountain climbers. From plank position, bring your right knee toward your right elbow. If you don’t have the flexibility to touch the knee to the elbow, that’s OK. Alternate each side and increase the pace for more cardio.
Holding a weight in each hand, perform alternating rows while in plank position to add more back resistance training.
Here are even more variations on the challenging side plank.
The basic plank is a simple exercise, which is what makes it so accessible. And yet, it’s possible to do it wrong. Proper form ensures you can do this movement optimally without causing injury or pain. Keep these factors in mind when performing a plank or instructing clients:
Place your forearms and palms of your hands flat on the floor with your elbows aligned directly under the shoulders. If doing a high plank, your hands should be under your shoulders.
Create a straight line in your body from your heels up to your shoulders.
It’s especially easy to break the straight line with your hips and back, so pay attention. Don’t let your back sway down or your butt lift upward.
If you struggle to find that straight line, do a plank in front of a mirror or have someone watch and tell you if you need to adjust. With practice, you’ll be able to feel whether or not your line is straight.
Focus on engaging the core to hold your body in the correct position.
Don’t let your shoulders creep up to your ears. Push them back and down.
Keep your head level with your spine, your gaze down at the floor.
To make a plank easier, put your knees down on the mat instead of your toes. Alternatively, use a gym bench or sturdy chair to elevate your arms or hands. Work toward doing a full plank pose as you get stronger.
When your client performs the plank use these cues to help them improve and stimulate the right muscle groups.
Squeeze or contract your glutes
Squeeze or contract your quadriceps
Keep a straight line from head to toe
Shift or distribute your body weight evenly between your forearms, core, and feet
Tighten your core
A plank is a fundamental exercise worth mastering and varying as you get stronger. Implement it in client workouts to provide a simple yet effective full-body strength move.
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Heffernan, C. (2021, August 20). The history of the plank exercise. Inside Bodybuilding. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://insidebodybuilding.com/the-history-of-the-plank-exercise/
Selkow, N. M., Eck, M. R., & Rivas, S. (2017). Transversus Abdominis Activation And Timing Improves Following Core Stability Training: A Randomized Trial. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 12(7), 1048–1056. https://doi.org/10.26603/ijspt20171048
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