Building blocks for a stronger core
Michael Foston, ASc, BCRPA PT
Learn how to perform planks properly, safely, and effectively for a stronger, leaner core.
We all want a strong core that enhances performance and prevents injury. One of the simplest and most effective exercises to achieve this is the plank. Today’s plank is less scary then the ones pirates walked. But it needs to be performed correctly to avoid injury and provide maximum benefit.
The plank is a simple abdominal exercise designed to improve core strength and balance. You can do it anywhere, and it requires no equipment and very little skill to perform. With summer fast approaching, this is the perfect exercise to add to your outdoor training routine. Not only does this exercise build a stronger core, but it also improves strength in other areas of your body. The plank is a popular aspect of isometric training. Isometric training keeps muscle length and joint angle the same for the duration of a given exercise. Isometric exercises
The plank improves strength in your quads, glutes, back, shoulders, and chest. It aids reconditioning after an injury. But most of all, it targets the three major abdominal muscles: rectus abdominis, obliques, and transversus abdominis. These muscles play a key role in protecting your spine during activity.
When performed correctly, the plank can improve postural deficiencies, making you look and feel better. Weak core muscles can contribute to poor posture, leading to unhealthy movement paths during activity. This is a major problem because many of us spend too much time sitting each day. Strengthening core muscles can resolve many of the issues associated with long periods in a chair.
The plank is a great way to warm up muscles before sport or activity. It helps activate the nervous system, as well as many major muscle groups throughout the body. At the same time, it won’t overload the muscles and cause unnecessary fatigue. Whether you are preparing for a run on your favourite trail or to surf a rugged stretch of coast, incorporate a few sets of planks beforehand to help wake up dormant muscles. With all those benefits, you may want to go plank-wild, but remember: rest and recovery are extremely important for injury prevention and improved strength. Core muscles should not be trained every day, so be sure to schedule rest days.
A 2011 study found that planks keep core muscles more than two times as active “compared to a traditional trunk flexion and extension exercise.” Even though planks and crunches both work core muscles, the plank activates more muscles throughout your body and helps to create more effective stabilization through your spine and hips. Strong stabilizers around your core are vital to your overall health and performance in almost every activity. Runners, cyclists, swimmers, and summertime sports enthusiasts can all benefit from this exercise. Lastly, planks are generally safer than crunches and sit-ups and can actually help prevent lower back pain. Traditional sit-ups put a lot of stress on your lower back and neck and can increase your risk for back injury. Planks, however, may raise blood pressure, so speak with your health care practitioner before incorporating planks into your workouts.
When performing a plank, correct form is essential in order to protect your joints and target the right muscle groups. Here are a few tips to perform an effective front plank.
Your level of experience and core strength will determine how long you can hold the plank position. If you are a beginner, start with two sets, holding each one for 20 to 30 seconds. As your strength improves, increase the amount of time each set is held for. Once a 30-second hold becomes easy, you can also add variations, such as lifting one foot or arm off the floor. Progress slowly and don’t increase the duration of each set too quickly. Listen to your body, and remember that quality over quantity is the key to success. If you begin to break form but persist, the plank can do more harm than good.
When you feel ready, try different forms of the exercise. Incorporating tools such as an exercise ball or half-ball is a great way to challenge your physical strength and mental focus. Here are a few intermediate and advanced variations to try.
This variation targets the oblique muscles, which are important core stabilizers. Lie on your left side with your knees straight, glutes engaged, and back straight. Prop yourself up on your left elbow and forearm, ensuring your elbow is under your shoulder.
This variation of the side plank will further target your glute muscles.
This variation requires additional core strength to counteract the movement of the exercise ball and is a great intermediate exercise.
This dynamic variation will build strength in your arms, shoulders, and chest. Get into a push-up position with your hands positioned under your shoulders, arms fully extended.