If there’s an exercise people love to hate, it’s the plank. Some people will do endless crunches and flutter kicks, but when asked to flip it over and hold a plank, they conveniently find a reason not to do it. In fact, planks rank up there with burpees and push-ups as the exercise fitness enthusiasts try to avoid.
Why are planks so despised? Maybe because they’re such a radical departure from other ways of working the abs. So many people have been indoctrinated into the crunch school of abdominal sculpting that they can’t see the value of working their abs on their elbows and balls of their feet. Maybe it’s the boredom of holding an isometric position for so long. Nevertheless, planks offer additional benefits that you won’t get from abdominal exercises. Here are some reasons to fall in love with planks – or at least tolerate them.
Benefits of Planks: Planks Are an Integrated Exercise
Research using EMG to measure muscle activations shows integrated core exercises, ones that activate multiple core muscles, also target ab muscles more effectively. Crunches are strictly an isolation exercise, while planks and plank variations call the deltoids, triceps, pectoral muscles, abs and back into play. Who doesn’t love exercise that targets a number of muscle groups in one move?
In addition, planks activate deeper muscles called stabilizers. Strong stabilizers support your body and hold everything in place when you move or lift. As a result, they protect against injury. Without a strong set of stabilizers, you wouldn’t be able to do most of the exercises in your fitness routine and you would have problems maintaining proper posture. Planks, by strengthening core and stabilizer muscles, make other exercises easier, safer and more effective.
Safer for Your Back
If you have back issues, planks are one of the safest exercises you can do. Crunches are one way to build abdominal strength, but each time you crunch, you place pressure on your lower back, including vertebral discs that absorb shock, especially if you use sloppy form. Planks are a way to work all the muscles in your abs, including the hard-to-target transverse abdominis, without placing stress on your lower back. At the same time, you’re strengthening all of your core muscles, thereby lowering your risk for future back pain. To target your transverse abdominis even more, pull in your belly button as you hold a plank.
If you have a history of back problems, you can get a good core workout without placing stress on your lower back using planks and plank variations. In fact, several studies show core stabilization exercises like planks improve functionality and reduce pain in people with lower back problems.
In fact, physical therapists who work with people with chronic back pain recommend planks, but you won’t hear them pushing back pain clients to do crunches or sit-ups. Don’t wait until you have lower back pain to start doing planks, do them now to reduce your risk for future back injury.
Improve Your Overall Athletic and Functional Performance
When your core is strong, thanks to planks, you’ll perform better when you lift and squat. Remember, power is generated from the center of your body, your core. With a strong, tight core, you’re able to safely work against greater resistance. Plus, a solid core improves your performance in sports AND make it easier to do the functional movements you do in everyday life, like bending over to pick up something, moving furniture or moving the trash can out.
How Strong is Your Core?
Your core is your powerhouse, the group of muscles that help you generate force and power and keeps your body stable and resistant to injury. Planks strengthen these muscles. How long can you hold a plank? Your time is a good indicator of your core strength and core endurance, so put yourself to the test.
On a mat, get into plank position with elbows on the floor and your weight supported between your elbows and balls of your feet. Hold this position without dropping to your knees or letting your hips sag and record your time. If you’re average, you can hold this position for at least a minute. Sixty to 90 seconds is good and more than 90 seconds is fantastic!
More than One Way to Do a Plank
Don’t forget that there are tons of plank variations to challenge your core muscles in different ways. Once you’ve mastered the basic plank, do planks with alternating leg lifts or arm lifts. Then give yourself a balance challenge by doing planks or plank leg lifts with your hands on a medicine ball. Variations are more challenging – but with challenge comes change.
Don’t forget about side planks. This targets the oblique muscles that give your spine stability. Side planks also add a balance challenge. You can make side planks more dynamic by doing hip dips or oblique twists while in a side plank position. Master the basic plank and side plank and build up some core strength and endurance before trying plank variations. Otherwise, your form will be sloppy and you won’t get the most out of the exercise.
The Bottom Line
Don’t give up crunches. They work your abs through their full range of motion, whereas planks are an isometric exercise that only works your abs from a single position. The best abdominal workouts incorporate a variety of ab moves, including standing and lying ab exercises as well as planks and plank variations. Don’t forget that even the most intense ab-strengthening routine won’t give you a six-pack if your abs are covered in a thick layer of body fat. Fat-burning exercise and good nutrition are part of the equation too.
Sometimes knowing an exercise has so many benefits makes it a little easier to do. Now you know why you can’t afford not to do planks and why this simple exercise and its many variations is superior to the old standby, crunches, for building ab and core strength and endurance. Don’t shy away from them and miss out on all of the benefits this basic exercise offers.
ACE Fitness. “Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?”
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2cc7.
Stack.com. “How Strong is Your Core?”
Spine. 2003; 28: 2594-2601.
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