If planks aren’t part of your abdominal workout, they should be. What’s a plank anyway? It’s an integrated exercise that recruits multiple muscles in your abdomen and core. This exercise also recruits critical muscles in your back region as well as those in your chest and arms. Just as importantly, planks activate stabilizing muscles that support your body and help you maintain better posture.
Planks are an isometric exercise, meaning the joint angle or length of the muscles you’re working doesn’t change throughout the exercise. The benefits come from holding the muscles in your abs and core in a contracted state for a protracted period of time as you support your own body weight. Because you’re using your own body weight, you can do planks without any equipment at all.
When you first started doing planks, it may have been challenging to hold a plank for more than 30 seconds. In the beginning, you may not even have the strength to hold a plank. Instead, you may have started on your knees. Yet, as you built up strength and endurance, you gradually were able to hold the plank position longer. Nice work! Still, there comes a point where you’re easily able to hold a plank for a minute or two or even more. You’ve reached a “plank plateau.”
Just as you need to keep challenging your body when you lift weights – by applying progressive overload – you reach a point where your body adapts to the classic plank. According to the principle of progressive overload, to keep gaining core strength and muscle endurance, you have to apply more stress and make planks harder. Let’s look at some ways to do that.
Hold a Classic Plank Longer
Holding a plank for a longer period of time is the classic way people make planks more challenging. Once you can hold the position for 30 seconds, you increase it to 45 seconds and then a minute. Some people reach the point where they can hold a plank for several minutes. In fact, a former Marine broke the Guinness World Record by holding a plank for 5 hours, 15 minutes, and 15 seconds. That’s a LONG time to look facedown at a mat!
According to the principles of progressive overload, holding a plank longer works. The problem is maintaining a plank position, with your face pointing towards the exercise mat, is a little boring. Fortunately, increasing the time you stay in the plank position isn’t the only way to add progressive overload.
Add More Resistance
What do you do when you lift weights to keep your muscles continuously challenged? You add more resistance, of course. This also applies to planks. The easiest way to do this is to place a weight plate on your back. If you don’t have a partner to position the plate on your back, get on all fours and place the plate before rising into the plank position. The best area to apply the plate is to your mid to lower back, no higher. The further up your back you place the plate, the less challenging the exercise will be.
Start with a 10-pound plate and gradually increase the weight of the plate. It becomes considerably more challenging to place the plate on your back as you increase the weight, so you may need a partner once the weight gets heavy. Keep your hips lower than your shoulders to keep the plate from sliding toward your head.
Do Plank Variations
You can also do variations of the classic plank to work your abs and core in a new way. This, too, can help you break out of a plank plateau. One way to do that, and to burn more calories at the same time, is to turn planks into a compound movement, like planks rows. You’re still holding the plank position but adding more upper body challenge to the movement. You can also do a walking plank by moving your arms and legs laterally as you hold the plank position or an extended plank by reaching your arms out in front of your body as much as you can while holding the plank position.
Another way to make planks more challenging is to add a balance component. Side planks are the obvious way to do this but you can also do planks on an unstable surface. Try placing your feet on a stability ball while holding a plank. Once you’ve mastered this, do a plank rollout. With your arms on the stability ball, push your arms forward so that the ball moves forward a few inches and then bring your arms back. You can also turn a BOSU ball upside down so that the flat side is facing up. Place your hands on the edges of the flat side of the ball and hold the plank position. These variations add an element of progressive overload because you’re working your muscles in a different way.
Use Better Form
Most people don’t get the full benefits of planks because they use sub-optimal form. A plank is called a plank because when you do it correctly, you hold your body in a straight line without letting your hips sag or your back arch. Another mistake is to let your neck and head drop. If someone were to place a pole along your back, when you’re in a plank position, it should touch the back of your head, the middle of your back, and your buttocks. When you use impeccable form, planks are more challenging but also more effective.
Make Planks Double as Cardio
Get more benefits out of planks and make them more challenging by adding a cardio component to the exercise. How about a set of plank jacks? You’ll burn more calories and increase the intensity of your plank workouts by adding a dynamic element to the exercise. Another way to get your heart rate up with planks is to do mountain climbers. You can intersperse these two exercises between other plank and ab exercises to keep your heart rate up.
The Bottom Line
This is by no means an exhaustive look at the different ways you can do a plank. There are at least 40 ways to modify a plank to make it tougher and more effective. Once you’ve mastered the classic plank – don’t get too comfortable. Keep your body changing by using these five techniques to make planks harder.
ACE Fitness. “Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?”
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