No one would argue that physical fitness is crucial for long-term wellness. The fitness industry reflects this consensus, raking in over $87billion a year worldwide. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to achieve and maintain fitness, strength, and mobility. There are effective exercises you can do at home that cost nothing and return substantial benefits. The simple plank is one of these.
What is a plank?
As its name implies, a plank is an exercise in which you keep your body straight and stiff as a board. It’s important to keep core muscles strong, as they help to maintain balance and whole-body mobility. Whether it’s conscious or not, direct concentration or indirect engagement, your core muscles are involved in virtually every movement your body makes.
Core muscles are those that attach to the spine (your body’s core). These are comprised of primary muscles that control movement and secondary muscles that assist and stabilize movement of the primary muscles. The primary core muscles:
- Rectus abdominis
- External obliques
- Erector spinae
- Latissimus dorsi
- Hip adductors
- Hip abductors
Secondary core muscles:
- Transverse abdominis
- Internal obliques
- Lumbar multifidus
- Pelvic floor muscles
- Gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus
- Quadratus lumborum
Why is your body core important?
Your core muscles protect your vital organs and are the root of body mobility:
- back support – because all core muscles are by definition attached to the spine, strong abdominals and obliques balance the weight and burden of the back muscles. Back pain is an extremely common experience; it’s the second-most common reason people seek medical treatment.
- posture – unfortunately, most of us completely ignore our postures. How you hold your body during movement and at rest is critical to prevent long-term injury. A strong core supports a healthy posture.
- routine movements – reaching with your arms, bending, sitting, standing, walking, and turning all are directed by the trunk of the body. Studies of core strength as it relates to mobility have shown that they directly correlate. This becomes especially important as we age and activity levels decline. (1, 2)
- stability and balance – the center of your body is the largest determinant of whole-body stability; the density of core muscles is an indication of risk for falls and age-related muscle loss. (3)
Core exercises can be done without special equipment and should be part of a well-balanced fitness program. From basic posture and balance to everyday functions like vacuuming and gardening to participating in sports, a solid core maintains mobility and prevents injury to every other part of your body. (4)
Why “Planking” is Effective
A plank is more than a core exercise—its benefits can be noticed throughout the entire body. The classic plank engages muscles of the neck, legs, arms, and shoulders as well as the core muscles. Regularly doing planks helps to:
- boost metabolism – compared to other core exercises such as sit-ups and crunches, planks burn more calories.
- improve all core muscle definition (did someone say “six-pack”?).
- improve posture – aligns bones, joints, muscles, and connective tissues.
- add whole-body flexibility, activating the neck, shoulders, glutes, hamstrings, toes, and arches of the feet.
- relieve stress – most of us carry our stresses in our heads, neck, shoulders, and back; by exercising these muscles, we release tension and stimulate blood and lymph flow. (In fact, exercise of any kind is a top-notch method for mitigating emotional stress.)
How to Do the Classic Plank
So now that we know why planks are so great for your body, let’s learn how!
Before you begin, a brief warm-up is highly recommended to get blood flowing and prevent stretching cold muscles (which could lead to injury). Five minutes of brisk walking, rebounding, jumping jacks, or any aerobic activity will do.
Concentrate on keeping your abdominal muscles engaged and your back straight from start to finish. Remember to breathe throughout the exercise: slowly and deeply in through the nose and slowly and evenly out of the mouth. Good technique is critical to reap the benefits of the plank and prevent muscle strain.
- Place elbows and knees on the floor, with elbows in line with the shoulders, hands straight from the elbows on the floor, and legs in line with the hips. Your head should be parallel to the floor facing down.
- Raise your knees off the floor and walk your toes back until legs are straight. Your weight should be supported by your forearms and toes/balls of the feet.
- Keep your hips in line with your upper body and your body in a straight line from the back of your head to the heels of your feet and from your ears to your ankles.
- Pull in abdominal muscles toward your spine and hold the position for 10 seconds or as long as is comfortable.
- Release to your knees, rest for 10-20 seconds, and repeat the plank 5-10 times.
- Over time as you get used to the exercise, work up the amount of time you hold the plank to 60 seconds (or more!).
Tips for the Perfect Plank
- Keep your back straight with no arch.
- Don’t allow your hips to sag toward the floor—keep abs and back muscles flexed.
- Maintain the back of your head in line with your back—tilting it up toward the ceiling or down toward the floor can put a strain on your neck.
Don’t be discouraged when first starting your plank routine—it’s simple but not easy. Begin slowly and focus on form. If you stick with it, it won’t be long before you notice changes in your muscle tone and strength.