I’d rather walk the plank than do the Plank
This is what somebody said to me in class last week.
It’s a funny quip, and is a great soundbite but it’s more than that – it encapsulated a widely held view – that Plank exercises are really hard and unpleasant.
So this all got me thinking:
What is the point of doing a Plank & are they really that bad?
A Bit of History
The first time I ever heard the term plank was not long after I qualified as an Exercise Instructor in 2007 and someonetold me that they had heard on TV about a hot new abdominal exercise that was “the best exercise” for your abs and better than abdominal curls. Ever since then they have become ubiquitous in the gym and in Group Exercise Classes
What Are They For?
Primarily to work the Abdominal muscles with the Side Plank version working the oblique (side) abdominals. The raison d’etre of the Plank is to maintain a stable, neutral spine, using the abdominals to support the trunk, once the knees are off the floor.
It works the abdominals without flexing (rounding) the spine and doesn’t involve the neck.
We have a habit of sitting, slumped a little in our chairs in daily life – So the spine is chronically rounded. One of the great things about the Plank is that rather than reinforce that shape , which happens during abdominal curls, you are attempting to keep a long, straight body shape – a much more functional one.
You have the opportunity to work loads of other muscles: the shoulders and arms, back, buttocks and back of the legs. In other words the Plank is closer to being a Full Body Exercise
However, I know of no other exercise that I have observed over many years that is done so badly by so many people
What Are They Not For?
In the moment, to feel absolutely terrible.
To feel dreadful but, hey, no pain no gain, so it must be working, right? (Spoiler alert, in case you haven’t realised – absolutely not)
To observe others doing them and feel that you can’t, thus making you feel inadequate
Bear This In Mind
Definitely don’t just leap in where angels fear to tread. Take it carefully and master the basics. This is as true for mastering the Plank as it is for baking a cake, learning to drive or speaking French
And bear something else in mind, and this is so important and largely ignored in the fitness world – just because something is ubiquitous and bandied around like tweets about Love Island,
it doesn’t make it easy!!!
Plank Exercises are not easy, they are demanding, and if I’m brutally honest, most people don’t do them correctly, so don’t simply copy other people.
How To Do a Plank – the Five Point Plan
The Plank is a static (in the lingo -Isometric) exercise. You aren’t going to move during your Plank, so if you start wrong you’ll stay wrong. Set Up is Crucial.
- Start on all fours and take a few seconds to get it right
Shoulders: wide. No sagging. this matters. You want your shoulder muscles (Deltoids) and back of the arms (Triceps) to be working to stabilise your upper body. Not only is this crucial, but why on earth would you pass up an opportunity to work the arms?
2. Spine straight. In the lingo of Pilates – neutral. More simply – upper back straightish and definitely not rounded to the ceiling. Lower back softly curved to the floor. Put your hand in the small of your back – is there a gentle downwards curve? This is crucial. How can you maintain neutral during the exercise if you aren’t in neutral to start with. Ideally look in a mirror.
3. Your Rib Pelvis Connection. Some of you will not know what on earth I’m talking about here, but I mean the abdominal contraction. So why don’t I say that? Because I want to really get across the fact that the abdominals attach to the pelvis at the bottom and ribs at the top and they sustain that gap by means of their dynamic, energetic length. When you take your knees away to create your plank (regardless of whether you are on your elbows or hands) you want that dynamic length to be sustained, with no sagging. Imagine that your body is placed on top of a gigantic tea try which is lengthened and spread underneath your trunk. Become aware of your abs underneath you, even before you start
4. Use your legs. Your abs are going to work from underneath but the legs hold you up from above, via their connection through the feet. Once your initial set up is sorted, send one leg back and make sure that it is really straight. Do not bend or sag the knees. So often people go wrong here, fail to use the legs and end up slumping the body. Or they try to substitute sagging legs by bum squeezing, however, no amount of bum gripping will stop the legs sagging. Once the first leg is in place, send the other one back.
5. Now you are in position! Check that your Rib Pelvis Connection is still working, and working much harder now. Really feel that the abs are strong in length, to maintain the supported strong sheet-like structure underneath you.
What often happens? Sagging! When did you ever see a sagging Plank of Wood apart from in some kind of Medieval cottage? Save that look for the National Trust.
If your body sags downwards, the abs are stretched to the floor and the back muscles are desperately trying to stabilise the body from above. If you do this the you will feel this as compression in the lower back. Before you even start your plank, sense the abdominal connection, sheet like underneath you and lean to feel how you maintain it thus maintaining the rib pelvis distance
What about an upwards curve in the lower back? What has happened here is compression. People think that they should pull or suck in the abs. When this happens the abs and trunk are compressed and the lower back curves upwards slightly. This will work the abs but not properly, because the spine is no longer neutral. And the ab work is uneven and will disrupt the breathing, and, because the spine is curved, the upper body and head/neck will be displaced. Work on sensing dynamic length underneath, creating strength and support across the front of the body, not just a hot spot of compression – that cannot stabilise the whole trunk. Again, feel the abdominals sheet like and stable. Throughout the exercise the spine and abs do not change their shape
It is so easy to forget the other muscles! Keep long and straight in the legs – this is vital to keep your form and shape. Likewise stay wide in the shoulders, with the head up.
Good news! If you’ve cracked the set up and sustained the shape. You are practically at the finish line.
Now it is simply about timing. Ditch all that 30 seconds, 60 seconds nonsense. The time you hold your Plank for is the time you can maintain the body shape properly. You might start by counting down from five to zero, and possibly doing 2 or 3 repetitions.
Should it be painful? Well it depends upon what you mean by pain. Take an exercise that you feel confident with, that is demanding. Consider how that demand feels – a sense of work but with control. Not exactly sipping cocktails but tolerable in small doses. To sustain a poor plank position requires you to override the correct strength mechanisms and “hang on” despite how you feel. That is a different feeling: unpleasant, compressive, painful, awkward.
Three Levels to Chose From
I have written from the perspective of a hands/knees plank, working from a starting point of All Fours. This is my level 2
Level Two: Here is a really useful tip if you are not wearing shoes: To stop the feet sliding, either use non slip matting or a yoga mat. The Plank is easier in shoes though, so if you are struggling, keep them on. Don’t let your pelvis sink. Sense that it is “held up” by invisible threads hanging from the ceiling.
Level One: Tuck the toes and hover the knees about 5cm off the floor. If you have toe/feet issues you can simply hover without tucking the toes, but do bear in mind that it is harder, because you lose the stability of the toes pushing into the floor
Level Three: Go down onto one elbow, and then the second. The shoulders do less work now, hence the exercise feeling and being more challenging, as per the pictures above
Take the Sideways View
Oh joy – a whole other world of Side Plank.
Same principles – use the shoulders properly and avoid sagging
Start on your bent elbow and pelvis with the knees bent. Check that your elbow is below your shoulder and sustain your shoulders wide across your back. Initially, most people in this position tend to curve the spine downwards, in the shape of a smile. So sagging again! Lift the spine up so that it is straight – that way your Oblique Abdominals are sustaining a straight neutral spine. Watch that your head is not poking forwards (and do bear in mind that this is a tricky neck position at the best of times)
Level One: Lift your pelvis off the floor but keep your feet down. Watch that you don’t roll forwards. Your feet and elbow will support you – they press down, you “reach” up. If your elbow digs in to the floor uncomfortably, put extra cushioning underneath it.
Level Two: Start with straight legs. The spine will curve a little but you’ll soon straighten up. To reach up into the Plank position: send your elbow down, really use your legs to give you length (this matters) and send your pelvis up. This is very demanding. If you think about it, you have only one half of your upper body help you out – one arm/shoulder etc, so it is harder than the normal Plank.
Here is a video clip of how to do a Plank