For a long time, sit-ups were the go-to ab exercise. And then, bolstered by concerns for the world’s spinal health, the more gentle crunch took over. But, even that subtle exercise has been replaced. Now, the humble, unassuming plank is the ab exercise of choice for many people.
Is the plank really all that effective, though? What made it so popular to begin with?
Plank’s Secret To Success
To understand why everyone went so crazy for the plank – and was so quick to drop crunching movements – it’s helps to think about the structure and function of your core. Notice, we’re talking about the core here. Not just abs. That’s important.
Your abs (more correctly called abdominal muscles), include the rectus abdominus and the obliques – both of the internal and external varieties. These are the muscles that wrap around your waist to provide structural support and facilitate movement. Oh yeah, and give you a six-pack.
The core, however, is about much more than just these three muscle groups. Instead, this term encompasses the muscles around your hips and lower back, in addition to those ever-popular abs. Functioning as a unit, these core muscles support your posture and grant your torso a huge range of motion.
But why does any of this matter? Understanding the structure and intended function of your core allows you to make a more informed decision about the most effective way to work those muscles. Crunches and sit-ups, for example, which require you to flex your abdomen only work your rectus abdominus. Even worse, they place a pretty unnatural type of stress on those muscles. After all, how often do you do anything that even remotely resembles a crunch in your daily routine?
Planks, however, challenge your entire core. More importantly, the action of planking very closely simulates the primary function of those muscles – that of keeping you upright. According to numerous studies, including a 2016 paper in the journal Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Science, this makes the plank an extremely effective core exercise.
Also of note is the fact that planks are low-to-no-impact, making them a viable option for individuals who are recovering from or at risk for an injury.
Doing It Right
And, for all of those reasons, everybody loves the plank. Unfortunately, the incredibly popular exercise does have some faults. Ignoring these weakness, as it turns out, could slow down your fitness progress and put you at a pretty distinct disadvantage.
Essentially, people both under- and over-estimate the plank. First, let’s talk about the underestimation. Rooted in the apparent simplicity of the exercise, many people just pay a woefully little amount of attention to form.
Yes, planks require proper form. Despite appearances, you aren’t just lying on the floor. During a perfectly performed plank, every muscle in your abs, lower back and hips is contracting isometrically to give your torso rigid. If your form is incorrect, then, you could be placing the stress on the wrong muscles and limiting your core’s ability to do it’s job.
So, what is proper plank form?
- Start in push-up position with your legs straight behind you and your hands on the floor under your shoulders. To make it easier, bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms instead of your palms.
- Tighten your core and focus on keeping your back straight.
Seems pretty easy, right? How could you mess that up? Your pelvis should be in a neutral position, not drifting too high or too low. Also, keep your shoulders aligned and retracted so that your shoulder blades don’t become wings on your back. If you feel the tension on your lower back and arm instead of your abs, glutes and hips, you’re doing it wrong.
A Proper View
Now, what of this overestimation business? The plank, as seen from the research, is a very effective way to strengthen your core. To a point.
Generally speaking, any exercise that lasts beyond 60 seconds is no longer building strength but is now entering into the realm of muscular endurance. Granted, that could be exactly what you’re looking to accomplish.
But, if you’re after a strong and pronounced collection of abdominal muscles, a plankathon isn’t going to get the job done. Once your muscles are stronger enough to hold a flawless plank for a full minute, it’s time to move on to something else.
So, what do you do if you’ve outgrown the classic plank, though? Is it back to weighted crunches for you? Not necessarily. Here are a few exercises to try when you’ve surpassed the requirements of the plank and need to keep progressing.
- Begin in the classic plank position, with your legs straight out behind you
- While keeping your back straight, quickly draw your right knee toward your chest
- Without allowing your right toes to touch the ground, immediately return your leg to the starting position
- At the same time, bring your left knee in
- Repeat, alternating between legs in a movement that should resemble running
- Start in the plank position
- Tighten your core and lift your right leg straight up behind you, as high as you can
- Hold this pose as long as you can
- Repeat with the left leg
Stability Ball Plank
- Begin in a plank position, with the tops of your feet resting on a stability ball and your hands on the ground under your shoulders.
- Hold this position
Please Note: Before following exercise routines or changing your fitness regime, please consult a certified fitness professional. Always talk with a medical practitioner before following dietary advice or taking supplements.