Whether you can do it for three seconds or three minutes, planking is one of the most common exercises completed on the gym floor.
But despite its popularity, a lot of us are probably planking incorrectly, according to two fitness experts.
If you think building up to try and hold the core exercise for longer than two minutes is worth it, we’re here to tell you it’s not (phew!).
Personal trainer Alan Levi said the plank is one of the most “bastardised” (his words, not ours) exercises he sees on the gym floor.
The plank basically involves resting in a push-up style position on your forearms, with the legs extended behind you in a straight line. The reason it’s so good is because it’s a hold that strengthens our abdominal muscles, glutes, hamstrings and shoulders all at the same time.
“Planks are a safer abdominal exercise than crunches for people with back issues, and can also reduce back pain and improve posture by strengthening abdominal muscles,” said Jim Crossley, co-founder of F45 Kingston.
Let’s start with the basics.
Why is planking so good for us?
The plank is “isometric”, which basically means it’s an exercise where tension is created without the contraction of the muscle. This also means the scope for injury is reduced.
Many people assume (including us) that the longer we plank the better, but we’re wrong. Levi said muscle growth comes from tension, and maintaining that kind of tension in a position that challenges posture like the plank is (and should be) a limited prospect.
“Holding it for too long probably means you posture has gone to pot - either your shoulders have collapsed towards the floor, or your upper back is rounded, or your lower back has caved in,” he said.
“The truth is that not only is the obsession with holding the plank for time a product of overblown machismo, but also poor understanding of biomechanics and physiology.
“We don’t do one prolonged bicep curl over a rickety three minutes. We lift it and then lower it under control. This creates tension, the tension and overload creates a force in the muscle, and the resultant damage to the muscle tissue creates growth.”
So how long should we plank for?
Hypertrophy (muscle growth) occurs in a very specific time window, and that is 40-70 seconds, Levi explained.
“Less than this and you tend to train the nervous system (great for producing explosive power and force but not so good for a chiseled six pack), more and you develop muscular endurance but not muscles for show,” said Levi.
Crossley agreed, adding: “For most people, holding a plank for a long time doesn’t provide many benefits, so it is more effective to do multiple plank sets at shorter times (e.g. five x 30 second planks).
“Once you can plank for 30 seconds easily, then you can increase the effort of your plank workouts by doing different variations to change the load on your abdominal muscles rather than just adding more time to the basic plank.”
How can we make sure we’re doing it properly?
“The plank is not a passive exercise,” Crossley told us. “You should be actively engaging your abdominals, glutes and hamstrings to maintain correct form.”
Levi suggested that in order to make sure you are in optimal alignment, you could to start by imagining a broomstick along the length of your spine.
“The back of your head, shoulder blades, and tailbone should all be making contact with it,” he said. “Now maintain that position. When you hold the plank, don’t hold it passively.
“Tense your bottom like you are clenching a 10p coin between your butt cheeks, and tense your stomach muscles as if some errant passerby was going to randomly kick you in the stomach.
“As you hold the plank, imagine you are pulling your elbows towards your lower body, and you are pulling your knees up to your upper body. Nothing actually moves, but it is the intention that counts.
“You are creating two points of contrasting tension and your plank hold is now ten seconds of agony.”
What variations can I do?
Once you’ve nailed the plank, it’s not the most interesting exercise to repeat on the gym floor. Crossley suggested a few variations to shake things up a bit:
1. Side plank: Lie on your side, raise yourself up on your forearm so that your body is in a diagonal line from head to toe. Brace your abs. Hold.
2. High plank: Same as a basic plank, but rest on your hands rather than your forearms. Hold.
3. Moving plank: From a basic plank, move into a high plank one arm at a time, then back into a basic plank again. Keep your core as still as possible during the transition and try not to rotate your body.