Consider the plank. Not the pirate variety, not the kind into which you hammer nails, not the kind on which salmon rests while being grilled. Instead, the plank: The looks-easy-but-isn’t exercise that — for all its anticipatory cringing and in-action quaking — will make you healthier.
What is it about this seemingly simple exercise — this frozen-in-time push-up, if you will — that makes it such a good addition to any workout regimen? Well, we’re about to tell you. And in the time it takes to read each of the following tidbits, you can do a plank.
WHY EXPERTS LIKE THE PLANK
Sylvia Bernal, personal trainer who teaches at Texas Family Fitness: “It’s measurable. It’s something you don’t need anything but your body weight to do. You can get rid of the excuse I don’t have time. Well, you do have time and you don’t need to go to a fancy gym to do a plank. You just need your body weight.”
Mary Edwards, director of fitness at Cooper Fitness Center: “Of all the core exercises like crunches and back workouts, the plank is the most important.”
Juliet Kadleck, head trainer and studio manager of OrangeTheory Fitness in Frisco, Texas: “It’s a full body exercise. It engages the core, shoulders, quads, back. It’s a lot of muscles working to hold the body weight up.”
Debbi Levi-Rothschild, yoga instructor and corporate personal trainer: “It’s quantifiable. With some things, you don’t know if you’ve got it or not. This is simple strength-building. I love it for its simplicity and because it makes you so strong.”
WHAT GOOD DOES A PLANK DO?
This may sound surprising because (other than that annoying shaking) your body isn’t moving. Nevertheless, a plank is an all-body workout.
“It engages the core, shoulders, quads, back,” Kadleck said. “It’s a lot of muscles working to hold your body weight up.”
“I think it is surprising for some people,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, a plank. It’s just core work.’ Your core is not just abs; it’s abs, low back, hamstrings, glutes. They’re all connected to your lower back.” It also works your shoulders and thighs, too.
More specifically, Edwards says a plank uses these muscles:
Rhomboids and Trapezius (neck and upper back)
TVA (transverse abdominus)
Rectus Abdominus (six-pack)
Obliques (specifically when doing a side plank)
Adductors (inner thigh)
A high plank (elbows straight) works your shoulders more; if you have shoulder or wrist issues, try a low plank (sphinx-like on your forearms with palms flat), which will work your abs more.
HOW TO DO ONE
“Imagine your body in an upright position with the neck pulled back, ears over the shoulder, shoulder blades retracted, and belly pulled, not sucked, in,” Edwards said. “That’s the same position you want to be in when you’re in a horizontal plank position.”
To get there, start by kneeling, then lean your body forward till your hands touch the floor. Adjust your arms for a high or low plank. Raise up on your toes and straighten your knees. If that’s uncomfortable, keep your knees bent and on the floor.
—Spread your fingers.
—Think of your body as a straight line from the top of your head to your toes. No shoulder rounding, please; no sway back or piking either.
—“Don’t hang your head,” Levy-Rothschild said. “Look just past your hands.”
—Relax your neck. Without a “neutral neck,” Edwards said, “you’re putting compression on the cervical spine.”
—Push back on your toes to give your hamstrings a good stretch.
—Keep your ears in line with your shoulders.
—Remember to breathe. That may sound in the well-duh category of advice, but holding your breath is quite common.
HOW TO GET BETTER
Time yourself. This gives you a baseline.
Add a few seconds each time.
“It’s one of those you can really build up quickly,” Levy-Rothschild said. “You can put your iPhone right in front of your face and set ‘timer’ and go. Ten seconds feels like a lot in a plank, but that increases quickly and you get proud of yourself. Almost anyone can press for five more seconds, one more breath.”
“I tell people three sets of 30 (seconds) to start off,” Bernal said, “and then go from there.”
“Try to challenge yourself to do an extra five to 10 seconds,” Kadleck said. “You’d be surprised; day in and day out, you may be able to go from 10 seconds to 30 or 40 seconds. Our muscles have memory. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Holding elbows to the side of the shoulder. That’s “putting too much pressure on the shoulder joints and making the weight disperse too much, thus giving rotator cuff issues,” Bernal said. In a high plank, “your elbows and wrists should line up directly underneath your shoulders. In a low plank, elbows should be directly under shoulders.”
Having your glutes up in the air. “If your bottom’s in the air, you’re not contracting your abs,” she said. “You’re overcompensating somewhere else. You’re probably putting more weight in your shoulders or your feet.”
Fanning your arms out; not having them directly under your shoulders.
Letting your hips sag. “That’s bad for your back,” Levy-Rotschild said.
Changing your base of support — that is, lifting a foot or an arm and thus going from four points of contact to three — will help improve balance, Edwards said.
“Alternate foot marches. Lift one leg, bring it down, lift the other,” she said. “Just by changing, you introduce a whole new challenge to your system; specifically, core muscles which help stabilize you and prevent rotation.”
Your body, she explains, wants to fall into that unsupported space. “You have to work on engaging your obliques and getting all your core muscles to fire.
A side plank works the oblique, or side, muscles. “You have one forearm on the ground, your body extended out, your feet on top of each other,” Edwards said. “That’s isolating lateral stabilizing muscles, abductor and adductor muscles as well as stability.”
To make the move dynamic, that is, moving, lift your hips up and off the ground. Or lift your top leg up and down. “Do that 6 to 12 times,” she says. “If you’re new to it, it’ll be hard and six is all you’ll want.”
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