All About Planks: Are Planks a Good Ab Exercise?
Chances are you have heard of the plank exercise. If you train with me, you know that I like them (because you are probably doing at least one in every workout session) and if you look at my Instagram, you’ll see I have a picture of me planking at just about any vacation spot we have visited. So why do I like a plank so much? It’s a great way to strengthen many muscles in your body, focusing on your entire core which includes your abdominals (abs). No equipment is required, and it can be done anywhere, anytime! I’ll share here the basics of planks and hopefully by the end of reading this you will be a fan too!
What is a plank? A basic plank is an isometric hold of the abdominals that strengthens your entire core and works your shoulders as well. It involves maintaining a difficult position in which one’s body weight is held up by the hands (high plank) or forearms (low plank), elbows and toes for an extended period of time. It works many muscle groups; it is low impact and there is a version right for just about every fitness level. Also, it can be safer for your spine than crunches if you have disc issues.
Whether you want to have a six-pack or improve your balance, there are many reasons to strengthen your stomach muscles and the other muscles around your mid-section that make up your core. Having a strong core will help with your balance, your posture, reduce the risk of injuries, supports your spine, and can even reduce back pain! Your core muscles power all our day-to-day movements. Having a strong core will help you move safely and more easily. Please note that exercises that work your abs and other core muscles will strengthen the muscles but will not spot reduce body fat from that area. You also need good nutrition, full body strength training and cardiovascular exercise (cardio) to lose weight. If you have extra around your middle, check out my post with 5 tips to lose belly fat.
When performing any type of plank or other core exercise, it is important to remember to engage your core. To engage your core, your abs should be tight and pulling in, but you should be able to breathe and move normally. It is NOT sucking in your stomach and holding your breath. You can practice engaging your core at any time by feeling your ribs expand to the sides while you inhale, then as you exhale contract and visualize zipping up your abs, thinking about pulling your navel up and in toward your spine. Keep breathing normally while you continue to hold your abs in.
How to do a High Plank - Lie face down with legs extended and hands flat directly under shoulders. Feet should be hip-width apart, and hands should be shoulder-width apart. Contract your abs, then tuck your toes to lift your body and straighten your arms. You should be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 30 seconds.
How to do a Low Plank - Lie face down with legs extended and elbows bent and directly under shoulders; place your hands flat. Feet should be hip-width apart, and elbows should be shoulder-width apart. Contract your abs, then tuck your toes to lift your body (forearms remain on the ground); you should be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 30 seconds.
Never hold the plank longer than you can with good form. How do you know if your form is faltering? If you are holding a plank and feel it in your lower back and/or arms only you should take a break. You should feel your abs, glutes and front of legs working primarily when performing a plank with good form. Always stop if you feel it in your lower back.
While the classic high or low plank are great go-to exercises, planks can also be modified and movement added to suit your fitness level and to focus on what muscle groups you want to work. Increasing the length of time you hold the plank pose is the basic way to maximize the exercise and keep gaining strength. Start with a 15- to 30-second hold and increase your time from there. If that feels like too much, bring your knees to the floor instead of your toes. Keep a straight spine from the top of your head to your knees, your pelvis neutral and in line with the rest of your body. Come up onto your toes as you get stronger.
Research doesn’t show benefits from holding a plank longer than 2 minutes. A goal of reaching a 2-minute plank can be motivating to work toward or you can incorporate multiple 10-20 second holds as part of your workout or throughout your day. Even better is to add a variety of movements from a plank position into your routine as you get stronger. The intensity of a plank can be varied greatly by the choice of your plank type.
A side plank is a variation that focuses on your side (your oblique muscles) and helps to stabilize the spine from side to side.
How to do a Side Plank- Lie down on your side, leaning on one hand or elbow, your chest facing out instead of toward the floor. Make sure your hand or elbow is aligned with your shoulder. And don’t let your hips sink—keep them in line with your head and feet. Lift your hips off the ground and raise the top arm straight up to the sky. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds, then lower the hips back down. To increase the difficulty, lift your top leg as high as possible.
Plank jacks add movement to the plank which challenges your core even more.
How to do a Plank Jack – Start in a high plank position, then jump your legs out and in. If this is too difficult, step your feet out and in. Keep the rest of your body as still as possible while moving your legs and feet.
Adding instability to your plank can increase the challenge as well.
How to do a Stability Ball Plank - This can be done either with the forearms on the ball and feet on the floor or the tops of the shins or feet on the ball and hands or forearms on the floor. Follow the directions for a regular plank with the change of either your arms or feet on the ball.
To build core strength and spine stability, do planks two to three times a week. Focus on holding the plank only as long as you can do so without arching your lower back and keeping good form. Working up to holding a plank for 30 – 60 seconds is a great foundation of strength in your core. As you get stronger, add plank variations to keep progressing and improving your strength. A stronger core will increase your athletic performance and function for everyday tasks.
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