Effective Planking: Boost Your Core Workout

Effective Planking: Boost Your Core Workout

By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
September 25th, 2019
 
Many of the workouts you’ll find on the internet begin or end with planks, one of the most effective isometric exercises for strengthening your core. Yet when I see people doing planks at the gym, they’re often doing them incorrectly and not reaping the full benefits of the exercise.

When done correctly, planks are one of the best and simplest exercises you can master, and are great for individuals who can’t make it to a gym because they don’t require any special equipment and can be done almost anywhere. Grab a mat or get comfortable on your carpet, and let’s discuss the benefits and step-by-step methods of proper planking techniques.

Benefits of Planking

The beauty of a plank is that it gets a lot of muscles working and contracting all at once (gluteal, quadriceps, abdominal, and arm muscle groups), not just one. That’s why it’s such an effective all-body exercise, although many people just think of planks as a way to get stronger abs.

Benefits of planking include:

  • Reduced injury rate. Strengthening muscles is key to injury prevention. Seven separate studies found a positive correlation between core strength training exercises (including planks and side planks) and reduced injury rate among male soccer players, one of the most injury-prone sports for men.1,2
  • Increased abdominal strength. Not surprisingly, abdominal muscles are one of the key core muscle groups used to perform planks. Core strength is the basis of every daily activity you perform – sitting, walking, running, standing, reaching for your keys, and even lying down all utilize your core muscles.3
  • Reduced lower back pain. A study found that participants who practiced at-home core training exercises such as planks alleviated chronic lower back pain and reduced risk of future injury.4
  • Improved posture and balance. Balance and posture are important for health and safety, especially in elderly adults or athletes. Core strength is essential for preventing falls and improving posture through strengthened abdominal and trunk muscles. In one study, core strengthening exercises were used as a therapeutic method of fall prevention.5

Planks are one of my all-time favorite exercises to recommend because they are so easy to implement in your workout and have such a variety of benefits. Of course, to reap these benefits, you have to be performing a plank correctly.

How To Do a Plank the Right Way

Like any exercise, planks only work when performed correctly, and can lead to injury when not done right. To get the most out of your plank, focus on correct form and remember that quality is better than quantity. In other words, it won’t matter how long you can hold a plank position if your muscles aren’t being worked in the way they should.

To perform a correct plank, place your forearms on the ground, with your shoulders directly above your elbows. Your arms should form a perfect 90° angle. Next, tuck your toes under and lift your knees off the floor, keeping your back flat and your feet together.

Here are six key steps to keep in mind when performing this exercise:

  1. Maintain a level position. When you plank, it’s important you aren’t letting your lower back sag or your upper back arch. If possible, perform planks in front of a mirror so you can keep an eye on your form. Focus on the quality and form of your plank before you worry about how long you can hold it – it’s more important that you perform this exercise correctly to avoid injury than it is to hold a plank for excessive periods of time. Keeping your feet together also increases stability and help maintain a straight back.
  2. Brace your stomach muscles. Tighten your stomach muscles as if you are expecting someone to punch you in the belly and you are bracing for impact. Note that this is not the same thing as sucking in. This step is key to working out all of the abdominal muscles in your stomach, and the main reason planks are such a great core workout compared to exercises like crunches.
  3. Squeeze your glute muscles. Your glutes are the three muscle groups that make up your buttocks. Your glutes provide you with stability and strong glute muscles can help prevent injury, especially in your lower back.6 Tightening these muscles while you plank keeps the pelvis from tilting, and helps to put your lumbar spine (or lower back) in the correct position. Overarching while planking can compress your lower spine and cause pain, so tightening those glutes is a critical step in performing a correct plank.
  4. Straighten and tighten your quads. Lock your legs and focus on bringing your knee caps forward. The goal is to brace and contract these muscles – remember, planks are great because they work so many different muscle groups, not just your core.
  5. Pull your elbows towards your feet. This helps engage the chest and shoulder muscles while maintaining good form in your back. There should be a 90° angle in your elbows between your shoulders and the floor. 
  6. Pay attention to your breath. Turn your head from side to side while planking to keep your neck loose. This ensures your airway is kept open and you aren’t locking your neck muscles. You should be able to breathe comfortably while planking.

    Want a demonstration? Check out this video Brenda and I made to explain the importance of good plank form.

    Incorrect planking techniques to watch out for:

    • You’re arching or sagging your back: Make sure to keep your back flat to avoid injury. If possible, perform planks in front of a mirror so you can learn the correct form.
    • You’re having difficulty breathing. If you’re finding it difficult to breathe while planking, you might be holding too much tension in your neck.
    • Your muscles aren’t shaking. Planking should not be easy. When done correctly, planks should be an intense, multiple muscle group exercise. This is what makes planks such an effective exercise – when done right, you’ll get more out of 30 seconds of planking than an entire set of crunches and bicep curls.
    • Your feet are too far apart. One common mistake is to keep your feet a hip’s width apart. Instead, keep your feet together for a more intense exercise that forces you to use your abdominal and back muscles.

    Planking FAQ’s

    Will planks help flatten my stomach?

    Over time, planks can help tone and flatten the stomach. Planks are a great tummy-flattening exercise because they work all of the muscles in your core (including the hips, back, and oblique muscles), not just the surface abdominal muscles (the muscles that form ‘six-packs’). 

    Who can do planks?

    Planks are a great exercise for both young and old, athletic and non-athletic individuals. Don’t do planks if you find it’s painful to get on the floor, but in general, this exercise is great for anyone.

    How long should I hold a plank?

    Aim for 30-60 seconds when holding a plank. You might not be able to do this right away, so try working up to those amounts. Remember, a properly-performed plank should not be easy to hold for long periods of time. It’s okay to start slowly: try holding a plank for 10 seconds, resting for 10 seconds, then holding for another 10 seconds as you build up to longer intervals. Aim to plank for three minutes, even if you need to take breaks along the way.

    What are side planks and other plank variations?

    There are many variations of planks, including side planks, reverse planks, plank crunches, and more. Forearm planks (the kind we talk about in this article) are the basis for all of these exercises. Make sure you’re able to perform a proper forearm plank before trying variations, but all planking exercises are great for increasing core strength and stability.

    Should I use instability devices when planking?

    For now, we recommend starting with and mastering the basic forearm plank. As you saw in our video, planks are difficult and effective exercises at any fitness level. Instability devices like medicine balls can be a great way to increase resistance, but we recommend these devices only after you’ve mastered the original forearm plank.

    Can I plank if I’m pregnant?

    Planks are one of the best exercises for expecting mothers, because they strengthen both the core and back muscles without putting too much pressure on the spine (like a sit-up would). If you have any concerns about exercising while pregnant, speak to your primary practitioner about what core exercises are safe. 

    What is a plank challenge?

    Plank challenges are usually a combination of different plank variations performed in a short time period (a few minutes or less), often without a break. Plank challenges can be a great way to break up the monotony of holding a static position, but they aren’t the only way to incorporate planks into your routine. If you’re new to exercising or working out your core, keep it simple for now: just try adding a few planks to the beginning or end of each workout. You’ll love the stability you build over time!

    Core Power and the NativeBody Reset

    Planks are a great exercise that incorporate so many muscle groups, making it one of the most effective exercises I teach. Focusing on exercises like this lead to less pain, increased stability, better movement, and overall health, letting your body function the way nature intended.

    At NativePath, we believe that the whole body is integrated, and we teach exercises (like planks) and nutritional techniques that reflect this. If you’re ready to incorporate this kind of holistic well-being into your everyday life, I recommend trying our NativeBody Reset Program, a 30-day, whole-body exercise and nutrition program I designed to help you discover your best and healthiest self. We focus on teaching at-home movements that reduce joint pain and increase muscle tone so you can look and feel your best, whatever you’re doing.

    Ready to reclaim your vitality? Join us today in the path to whole-body wellness!


    References:

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29558776
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3806175/
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6110226/
    4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4395677/
    5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26644666/
    6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4713798/
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