Ah, the plank exercise. The bane of existence for some, the holy grail of fitness for others. If you're someone who loves planks, then congratulations - you're a rare breed of masochist who enjoys holding a static position for an extended period of time, essentially turning your body into a human plank (ha ha, get it?). But for the rest of us mortals, the mere thought of holding a plank for more than a few seconds elicits a mixture of dread and eye-rolling. "Why on earth would anyone subject themselves to this torture?" we ask ourselves. But alas, the plank remains a popular exercise, with hordes of fitness enthusiasts claiming it's the secret to a stronger core and better posture. Love it or hate it, the plank is here to stay.
Of course, as with any exercise, the benefits of the plank are what keep us coming back for more (or, in some cases, begrudgingly dragging ourselves to the mat). A strong core is essential for everything from lifting heavy objects to simply standing upright without toppling over. And let's not forget about that elusive six-pack. Who wouldn't want a washboard stomach to show off at the beach? Plus, the plank can even help improve posture and reduce back pain. So, when you're struggling to hold that plank for what feels like an eternity, just remind yourself that it's all worth it in the end.
The plank exercise (its essentially a pose, but there are amazing variations that incorporate movement... we'll cover those below) works to develop core strength and stability by forcing the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, and hips to work together to maintain a static position. These muscles must contract and remain contracted for the duration of the exercise, which helps to build strength and endurance. The static nature of the basic plank pose helps to improve balance and stability, as the body must remain still and controlled in order to maintain proper form.
In addition to its effectiveness at developing core strength and stability, and it can be modified to suit different fitness levels by adjusting the duration of the hold or by using different variations of the exercise, such as the side plank or the plank with alternating leg lifts.
To perform the plank exercise start by getting into a push-up position, with your forearms resting on the floor and supporting your bodyweight, not your hands! Raise your torso up off the floor and engage your core muscles to keep your body in a straight line, with your feet hip-width apart and your toes resting on the floor. Once properly in the plank position, the only body parts touching the floor should be your forearms (and side of your hand), and your toes! Hold this position for as long as you can, focusing on keeping your body straight and your core muscles engaged. Breathing is probably the single most important part of performing this pose for a long duration of time. If your muscles aren't supplied by a continuous flow of oxygen, you will feel them get tired, sore, and they'll start to shake far sooner than if you are breathing at a normal pace! No need to breath differently than normal, just make sure you aren't holding your breath!
The plank primarily works the muscles of the abdomen, glutes, lower back, and hips. Specifically, the following muscle groups are engaged during a plank exercise:
- Rectus abdominis: This muscle, commonly referred to as the "six-pack muscle," runs down the front of the abdomen and is responsible for flexing the spine. It is active during the plank exercise as it helps to maintain a straight, neutral spine position.
- External obliques: These muscles are located on the sides of the abdomen and are responsible for rotating and tilting the trunk. They are active during the plank exercise as they help to maintain proper alignment and stability of the body.
- Transverse abdominis: This muscle is located deep within the abdomen and is responsible for compressing the abdominal contents and stabilizing the spine. It is active during the plank exercise as it helps to maintain proper alignment and stability of the body.
- Erector spinae: This muscle group, located along the back of the spine, is responsible for extending and rotating the spine. It is active during the plank exercise as it helps to maintain a straight, neutral spine position.
- Gluteus medius and minimus: These muscles, located on the sides of the hips, are responsible for stabilizing the pelvis and supporting the body's weight during movement. They are active during the plank exercise as they help to maintain proper alignment and stability of the body.
In addition to these primary muscle groups, several other muscles throughout the body are also engaged during the plank exercise to act as stabilizers. These muscles include the deltoids in the shoulders, the triceps in the upper arms, and the quadriceps in the thighs. These muscles work to keep the body in a straight line and maintain proper form during the exercise.
One of the key benefits of the plank pose is that it is a bodyweight exercise, which means it can be performed anywhere and does not require any special equipment. This makes it an accessible and convenient option for strengthening the core.
There are several other similar core strengthening exercises that the plank pose is more effective or safer than. For example, sit-ups and crunches can also work the muscles of the abdomen, but they may put excess strain on the lower back and neck and can be more difficult to perform with proper form. Sit-ups or crunches carry with them the possibility of tweaking your neck or pulling a muscle in your back or shoulder due to the tension that can be forced on these muscle groups if the crunch is performed too quickly, or if the back of the head is pulled forward by the hands. Planks, on the other hand, are generally easier on the lower back and neck and can be modified to suit different fitness levels. A tip for lowering stress on your neck while planking is to simply avoid looking forward, at a mirror for example. Looking forward forces the neck to support the full weight of your head and quickly results in neck tension that can lead to headaches or even a pulled muscle.
Other similar core strengthening exercises that the plank pose is more effective or safer than include:
- Russian twists: This exercise involves sitting on the floor with the knees bent and the feet flat, and then rotating the trunk from side to side while holding a weight or other object. While this exercise can work the muscles of the abdomen and lower back, it may put excess strain on the lower back and neck if performed with improper form.
- Leg lifts: This exercise involves lying on the floor with the legs extended and then lifting one or both legs off the ground. While this exercise can work the muscles of the lower abdomen and hips, it may not be as effective at engaging the full range of core muscles as the plank pose.
- Bicycle crunches: This exercise involves lying on the floor with the hands behind the head and the knees bent, and then alternating between touching the elbow to the opposite knee and straightening the leg. While this exercise can work the muscles of the abdomen, it may not be as effective at engaging the full range of core muscles as the plank pose.
There are plenty of reasons why a person might prefer to experiment with the different variations of the plank exercise, the most obvious being to help prevent boredom and keep things interesting. Nobody wants to do the same exercise over and over again, day in and day out. Mixing things up can also help challenge your body in new ways and prevent plateauing.
Another reason to try different plank variations is to target specific muscle groups and improve imbalances. For example, if you find that you struggle to hold a traditional plank for very long, you could try a plank on an unstable surface, such as a bosu ball or foam pad, which will require your core muscles to work harder to maintain balance. Or, you could try a plank with a single arm or leg lifted, which will challenge your obliques and other stabilizing muscles.
Botton line, experimenting with different plank variations can simply be a fun way to mix things up and add some creativity to your workouts. So here’s some of our favourite plank variations to try out. Your core (and your brain) will thank you!
- Side plank: This variation of the plank exercise involves holding a static position with the body held in a straight line on one side (lower forearm bracing against the ground), with the feet stacked and the upper arm extended.
- Alternating leg lift plank: For this plank variation, hold a regular position with the body held in a straight line, and then lift one leg off the ground, holding for a few seconds before switching to the other leg. Forces core to compensate for unbalanced position. A great beginning variation that forces you to balance but doesn’t overwork a plank newbie!
- Plank with arm lift: For this variation, start with a regular plank position with the body held in a straight line, and then lift one arm off the ground and hold for 20 - 60 seconds before switching to the other arm.
- Plank with alternating arm and leg lift: This variation starts with a regular plank posture, and then lifting one arm and the opposite leg off the ground and holding for as long as you can, before switching to the other arm and leg. This one is a staple, and one of the most popular variations of the plank pose. Perform the movement as slowly as you need to at first! Smooth is the name of the game in order to get the most from this one.
- Plank with leg lift and rotation: This one starts from the basic plank position with the body held in a straight line, and then lifting one leg off the ground and rotating it out to the side before returning it to the starting position. This forces the hips, hip flexors, obliques and glutes to compensate for the imbalance. Very tough but absolutely worth it!
- Plank with shoulder tap: This variation begins with the same basic plank posture. From there, you tap one shoulder with the opposite hand before returning to the starting position and repeating on the other side. Once you get the balance of the movement down pat, this is a perfect variation to use as a mix of a cardio/muscular endurance exercise. Simply boost the speed of your alternate shoulder taps and go for as long as you can!
- Plank with "mountain climbers": This variation of the plank exercise involves holding a static position with the body held in a straight line, and then bringing one knee up towards the chest and back to the starting position before repeating on the other side.
- Plank with lateral shuffle: This one can be a bit much at first, but with the proper footwork (toe work technically), it’ll be a great addition to your repertoire. Start in a static position with the body held in a straight line, and then shuffle your feet laterally to one side and back to the starting position before repeating on the other side. For this, your forearms should stay relatively still on the ground, with your legs rotating back and forth. Two shuffle steps sideways to your right, followed by two more which brings you back to your basic plank position… then shuffle to the left side… you get the picture by now! Again this is one that can quickly turn into a heart pounding cardio exercise once you work up the speed! Of course, slowing down the movement will also cause a nice burn, and will allow you to really feel it in your hips/hip flexors!
- Plank with leg lift and pulse: Here’s one of the more advanced variations - it requires balance and coordination! Start from the regular plank position, and then lift one leg off the ground and pulse it up and down before returning it to the starting position and repeating on the other side. For this movement the leg should stay relatively straight which will allow your hips, hamstrings and glutes to do most of the work. Be careful not to lift your leg too high - this can lead to hyperextension and possibly tweaking a muscle in the lower back or hamstring! Raise the leg until you feel muscle contraction, and then bring it back down to the resting position. We like a set of 10 reps with each leg, either doing them one leg at a time for all 10 and then switching, or alternating with every rep! Do your best to keep the rest of your body still, which will force all of your stabilizer muscles to do their jobs. These smaller muscles often get overlooked, so any chance you get to include them in a workout is always a good thing!
Planks may seem like a simple exercise, but they can be deceptively difficult and require a lot of core strength and stability to hold for any length of time. However, the rewards for sticking with this workout are numerous. Not only will you improve your core strength and stability, but you'll also see improvements in your posture and balance. Plus, let's be real, who doesn't want a strong, toned midsection? So don't get discouraged by the difficulty of the plank pose, keep at it and you'll be reaping the benefits in no time. Good job, plank master!
This workout routine has been designed for general informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding your health and fitness goals. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop immediately and consult your healthcare provider. The creator of this routine is not responsible for any injuries or adverse health effects that may result from the use of this information. Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program.
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