The plank is a great exercise for the core. It is a battle of you against gravity – and since this is a daily engagement, then it is worth adding this exercise to your weekly workout.
The plank is an easily accessible exercise for most of the population. Modifications can be made to position, time and movement to allow anyone to achieve a positive result. There is some concern about downward pressure onto the pelvic floor, but by changing body position and being careful about hold time, and using Hypopressive breathing, then these challenges can be overcome – and possibly improve pelvic floor strength as well.
The plank is a time-based exercise which, with good technique, can allow the spine to be in neutral position and help to strengthen overall postural endurance.
This exercise will engage the main core muscles which are the deep transverse Abdominis, internal obliques, the diaphragm and pelvic floor as well as the stabilising effect of Multifidus against the spine. The plank position will also have good toning effect on the shoulders and triceps. Here is how to perform this exercise.
Lie on the floor face down and slide your elbows close to your chest with both of your hands placed under your chin. Lift your head and sternum (bone at front of chest) until you start to feel your stomach muscles lift away from the floor. Keep your knees slightly wider than your hips and tuck your toes underneath.
Press downwards through the elbows and lift up onto knees – even if you can do a full plank, it is worthwhile going through to this stage first as it will help engage the deep abdominals and decrease the initial hard engagement of the legs.
Pull your abs away from your t-shirt, tuck your tailbone in and lift the pubic bone towards the ribs. Flatten the ribs and tighten through the shoulder blades, bringing them closer together.
Lengthen the neck and pull your chin in – keep looking down but you can sort of “peep” forwards as if you are looking over the top of your sunglasses – it helps to keep the upper back engaged.
Actively brace or hold the abdominals in and breathe slowly through your mouth.
When straightening the legs, lift the knees off the floor gently and keep pressing the heels away from you. Stay on the balls of your feet. The thighs will be engaged but not the glutes.
6 seconds will sometimes be enough (!) you will feel the abs engaging – they may even tremble, but it is important that you grit your teeth a little and not give in on the first bit of perceived hard work. A standard time to hold the plank is an awesome 3minutes 40 seconds...but it will take some time to build up to this.
Remember that the plank works the deep abdominals, so you need to mentally focus on drawing or flattening the belly button towards the spine and brining the ribs closer together – this will encourage the muscle to lift up against gravity, thus, increasing its tensile strength – however, be aware, the “flab” is not a muscle and will gently hang towards the floor...don’t worry about it, there are other ways to deal with that issue and the plank will result in improved posture which can translate to a vision of weight loss (if that is your goal). If you do not have the flab, then you will still notice some gapping between the contracted muscle and the skin. This is all normal and won’t be noticeable when you are standing.
Aim to do repeated cycles of 3 or 5 sets. Aim to have time as the main driver – start with 30 seconds (so adapt position to kneeling rather than aiming for straight leg plank and then giving in after 10 seconds) and work up to 2-5minutes. Time, time, time always. Ideally, make the changes recommended below for maximum benefit, so 1 minute in one position and one minute in another.
Once you can master a still plank for 1 minute, it is super important to make changes to improve core strength by adding movement to the static hold – we are humans that move, and we want to train our core to be strong in a variety of positions.
The best way to start to do this is to move the knees. In a kneeling position, gently lift one knee at a time, keeping the back and pelvic girdle still as possible. Aim to lift and lower knees in a pace that is suited to your walking, running or biking pace. If you are on straight legs, then you drop one knee to the floor – but still aiming to keep pelvis still.
Once this is achievable, then look to lift one then the other foot off the floor in a kind of marching or stepping pace – keeping the foot in a flexed (so it mimics a standing position on the floor). The foot can lift high enough to feel the glutes engage, but if you feel a burning sensation in the holding thigh (the one on the floor) or across the top of the hip – then go back a level as you are probably trying to stabilise by using your hip flexor and not your abs. This is not a good way to train as you need the muscle to fire in the correct pattern to facilitate good core strength.
Moving on, you can then add a turn to the leg whilst it is lifted – thus making a great open chain exercise on the Piriformis (great for runners). Simply lift the leg and turn outwards, making sure the knee and foot turn. The holding leg will often get a good closed chain exercise for the Piriformis so not too many of these as they will lead to fatigue and poor technique.
You can then add a running action by bringing the knee to the side of the chest - super hard mountain climber!
There are other great core exercises out there, but this is a gold standard option that you need to consider for your fitness programme.
You can do the plank every day, and even more than once a day. It does feel hard, but it will get easier
If you have any concerns about the downward pressure onto the pelvic floor, then stay in the knee position and pike or lift the hips a little (not too high) just enough to be able to “cup” the abdominal contents into the pelvic bone girdle. If you do have a prolapse then chose other options to work the core x