Quick Guide To Planking
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. Pn1
The plank is the most common exercises performed in the gym to build strength in the core.
As a coach, I have a love/hate relationship with the plank. (As an athlete, just hate)
My thoughts can be summarized by the following:
Planking the Fad - I’d like to see more of that.
Planking the Exercise -
If you’re not planking, It’s time to start.
If you are planking, It’s time to correct your form.
If you’re planking well, It’s time to stop and move on.
In this article, I want to go over how and why you should use the plank, how to correct common mistakes so you can get the most benefit, how long, and how many planks you should do, and when it’s time to move on.
How and Why To Plank
With our students, we use the plank first as a teaching tool to work on skills such as bracing the core and maintaining a neutral spine. Both of which are critical for performing more advanced exercises such as squats push-ups or deadlifts safely later on.
We use the plank second as a strength exercise to build a basic level of core stability. The plank is an exercise that works the muscles of the midsection which we commonly refer to as the core. These muscles act like a corset,they suck everything in and provide support for the spine. Great for keeping your waist tight and your back pain-free.
However, to realize these benefits it’s crucial you do them right.
The plank is a simple exercise, and like most simple exercises it is easy to overlook the importance of form. To get the benefit of the exercise, you must do it correctly, otherwise, you will just be wasting your time
Starting Position - Lie on your belly. From this position prop yourself up on your elbows and forearms. The elbows should be under your shoulders.
Performance - From here lift your body and hold it in a straight line.
Feedback is always necessary for learning.
The first form of feedback you have available is to use a mirror check. Perform your planks next to a mirror so you can take a glance over and see how it looks.
The second form of feedback you have is feeling. Understand both how a plank should and shouldn’t feel. This feeling will let you know if you’re doing it right or if you need to check the mirror or make a change.
Last, is tactile feedback or the sense of touch. For this, you can use our stick drill.
For this you will place a stick along your back,- you can have a friend do this or maneuver it yourself. On a good plank your head, upper back, and tailbone should maintain contact with the stick. If any part of your body loses contact with the stick, then it's a sign you’ve lost position.
Fixing Common Errors
When performing this exercise you should feel it in the muscles around your abdominals (belly region). If you don’t feel those muscles working or if you feel a sensation in your lower back, then it means you're not in the right position.
Error 1 - Being Too High Or Too Low
Lifting the hips too high is a common compensation as your body tries to make the exercise easier. If your hips are high, then your muscles won't have to work as hard.
Likewise, if the hips are too low, your muscles won't work as hard as they need to. Instead, they’ll be relying on the ligaments to hold the body up.
To correct height I suggest you do our Goldilocks drill. Next time you do your plank, purposely bring your hips too high, and then too low. Get a feel for how each position feels. Now try to find that middle where you feel your core engage and you actually have to work to hold the position. This is what right feels like.
Error 2 - Excessive lumbar curve / Pelvic Tilt
If when you do a plank you feel a sensation in your lower back then this is likely your issue.
Your spine comes with natural curves which help to distribute forces. However, it’s the core that holds your pelvis level and allows your spine to maintain its natural curve.
When those muscles aren't working, the pelvis will tilt forward, and the lower back with have an excessive curvature. When this happens in the planks you are hanging off the tissues of the spine to hold the position which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.
Correcting a pelvic tilt first requires an awareness of what positions are right. To get this awareness I want you to first try our pelvic tilt drill.
Pelvic Tilt Drill
The pelvis is the foundation for the spine and when it is out of position so is the back.
Start by placing your hands on the top of your hip bones so you can feel the pelvis move.
The first position I want you to try is an anterior pelvic tilt. To do so, imagine your pelvis is a bowl of soup. Tilt your pelvis forward and pour the soup out in front of you. The abs should be disengaged and the lower back extended.
The next position I want you to try is posterior pelvic tilt. This is where the pelvis tilts backward and the soup will pour out behind you. Start by squeezing your butt and engaging your abs. To engage the abs, imagine you are pulling your belt buckle up towards your chin. In this position, the natural arch of the lower back may reverse and be slightly flexed.
Alternate between these two positions. Once comfortable look to find the middle position where the pelvis will be level. The pelvis is level when your imaginary belt buckle would face straight in front of you and there would be no soup falling out of your bowl.
This is your ideal pelvic position.
Back to the plank. If you feel a sensation in your back during your plank, stop and try this drill.
Feel how the core and glutes need to engage to hold the pelvis level.
Now go back to your plank and think about squeezing your glutes and bringing your belt buckle level.
For a full progression on how to maintain a straight back read A Straight Back is a Safe Back - a Guide to Maintaining a Neutral Spine
Programming The Plank
The plank is a great exercise for beginners. I use it with many of my students to teach them how to position their bodies, create tension, and build a basic level of core strength so they can perform the other exercises that will get them to their goals.
However, the plank quickly becomes a waste of your time. It fails to challenge you in a way to see results nor does it work your core in a way that will transfer over to performance.
How long should you hold a plank for?
The standard I set for my clients is to hold a plank for 3 sets of 60 seconds with perfect technique. This has proven to be a good point for advancing to more challenging variations.
To reach this standard I have my clients perform 2-3 sets for as long as they can with good form. It may be 12 seconds, it may be 40. The focus always on technique. If the form breaks then the set is terminated.
Make your goal to go longer each workout - with good form, I can’t emphasize this part enough. It is better to do several sets of 10 seconds with perfect form than any sets with poor form.
Once you can comfortably hold the 60-second plank you should avoid the mistake of mindlessly adding more seconds. Instead, as others have mentioned seek more advanced variations and enjoy the results that follow.
How many planks should I do?
As a beginner, the improvements are mostly from better motor control so the more you practice on your own the quicker you will reach my 60-second standard. The plank is a simple exercise that doesn't put wear and tear on the body so you need not worry about over-training.
The one thing you shouldn’t do is do too many planks in one session. When the muscles fatigue and you’re not getting quality reps in any longer, then it’s time to move on.
If your reps are over 30 seconds, then 2-4 should be enough practice for one session.
If your plank reps are under 30 seconds then try 3-6 shorter sets.
Take as much rest as you need to perform a quality rep. At a minimum, take as much rest as the length of your last set. If you plank for 30 seconds, take 30 seconds of rest.
In the words of back expert Stu McGill - Holding a plank for a long time is a waste of time.
Once you can hold a plank for a minute, it’s time to move on.
Here are a few progressions you can go through
Push-Up Position Plank
Hard Style Plank
Plank Pull Through - pull object slower to increase the difficulty
Various Gymnastics Movements
If you want more exercises that will help shape that waste line you can find them in our article How To Train The Core For A Smaller Waist
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