Harness the power of planking in your fitness routine
Whether you want six-pack abs or content for your social media channel (#PlankChallenge, anyone?), plank exercises are equal parts fun trend and health mainstay.
“A plank is when you hold your body in a straight and in-line position like a plank of wood,” says exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd. And when done correctly, it leads to a host of health benefits.
5 plank benefits
While the promise of getting a six-pack from planks may be overblown (Lawton says that’s more diet-related), they still offer many benefits, including:
Planking is free and takes only a couple of minutes — no gym membership or special equipment required. “You can do it anywhere,” Lawton says.
2. Protects your back
The ability to brace your core is important for many everyday activities. “Our core needs to be strong to protect the spine when doing things that can cause back pain, such as lifting your child up or leaning forward to unload the dishwasher,” she says.
3. Prevents exercise-related injuries
Squatting, dead-lifting and pressing overhead without injury is hard to do without a strong core. “We need to keep our spine straight to do these exercises. Planking provides you with better core strength to be able to brace during these movements,” Lawton says.
4. Improves posture
While Lawton says planking alone won’t improve your posture, muscle memory might. “If you can remember to brace your core throughout the day, it can help keep your lower back in a position where you’re standing or sitting up straighter.”
5. Boosts mental health
“Exercise can have a positive effect on our mental health,” Lawton says. “When you see yourself getting stronger, it can be encouraging. It’s also important to breathe while you plank to further engage your core muscles. Some breathing techniques can help boost your mood.”
What muscles do planks work?
Plank exercises work your core muscles, which are located between your pelvic floor and diaphragm. The area is also known as your trunk. These muscles support your movements and stabilize the spine.
Core muscles include:
- Rectus abdominis (referred to as “abs”).
- Obliques (run along the side of your abdomen).
- Transversus abdominis (a deep abdominal muscle that wraps around your sides and spine).
“Plank exercises generally strengthen your ability to brace your abdominals,” notes Lawton. “Planks can also activate other related muscles, such as your glutes (muscles in your buttocks), hamstrings (muscles in the backs of your thighs) and lower back.”
How to do a plank
To do a traditional high plank, get in a pushup position and hold, with your body lifted off the ground. For proper form, make sure your:
- Elbows are directly underneath your shoulders.
- Glutes are engaged — slightly tilt your pelvis forward.
- Core is tight. Hold in your belly muscles. “If someone poked your abdomen, it should be firm,” says Lawton. “Slightly rotating your hips backward can help you do that.”
- Back and butt are straight, not sagging or sticking up in the air.
If you try to do a plank exercise and feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, Lawton explains how to build up to the real deal:
- Modified plank: Start in a pushup position. Drop your knees to the floor and hold your position. “You’re still bracing your core and abs and challenging — and strengthening — those muscles,” Lawton notes.
- Low plank: Once you master the modified plank, you can upgrade to a low plank. Just lift your knees and rest on your elbows as you hold a plank position.
From there, the sky’s the limit. In addition to the traditional high plank, try to:
- Add movement, such as rocking forward and backward with your feet.
- Incorporate weights with different plank variations.
- Do leg lifts while planking.
“You shouldn’t have any back or shoulder pain. If you do, your form may be off,” warns Lawton. “To correct your form, take a picture or video of yourself while you plank to see what you need to change.”
How long should you hold a plank?
“Hold a plank for about a minute before you start advancing,” Lawton says. “Once you can do three sets of one minute in a modified plank exercise, then progress to the low plank. If you start off at three sets of 30 seconds in a low plank, try to hold it longer and longer as the weeks go by. Same thing with the high plank.”
To reap the maximum benefits, Lawton recommends:
- Plank two to four times a week.
- Increase your time in increments of five to 10 seconds.
- Once you can hold your position for more than a minute, progress to a new movement, like reaching overhead while planking.
“These movements often mimic our everyday activities, such as reaching to get something out of a top cabinet. By working on bracing the abs when we do these movements, you can help prevent common back injuries,” says Lawton.
What about side planks?
Not to be neglected, your obliques have a plank exercise designed just for them. To do a side plank:
- Lie on your side.
- Prop yourself up on your forearm.
- Raise your hips off the ground so your body forms a straight line.
- Put your free arm on your side or in front of you on your abdomen.
Just like the high plank, you can start on your knees and then progress to:
- Straight legs.
- Forearms off the ground.
- Your free arm straight up toward the ceiling.
Side plank benefits
Side planks also help develop core stability. “Side planks help stabilize the spine and improve spine and oblique strength,” Lawton says. “For most people, one side is not as strong as the other. Another benefit of side planks is that they help you with that strength imbalance.”
Need help with planking?
Plank exercises provide an almost endless variety of ways to strengthen your core muscles. But with so many options, you may wonder where to start.
“Personal trainers are a great resource when you start an exercise program. They are well-educated about planks and how to progress people to more challenging movements,” Lawton says. “If you have a history of back pain, your physical therapist is another great option. They can give you good guidance about how to do a plank safely.”