Most people have heard of planks and know they can be a great exercise for your core muscles. In spite of their popularity, a lot of people do not get the most out of their planks – and if you are going to put in the effort, you may as well get the most bang for your buck! Check out these four tips to make sure you are not missing out.
1) Position of your core
This is absolutely the most important, so if you only focus on one thing make sure this is it. When you are strength training or performing most athletic events you want your core to be in a position similar to a cylinder where your rib cage and pelvis are more or less stacked on top of one another – at Industrial Strength we will often use a term like “set your cylinder” or something similar to remind everyone to pay attention to their alignment.
Remember that when you hold a plank gravity is trying to pull you out of this cylinder position, and does so by applying force that left unchecked will result in too much extension in your lower back (this will look like your lower back is sagging down towards the floor). Not only is that position not very strong, most people feel a painful “pinching” sensation in their lower back when this happens. As you train your planks your goal is to be able to hold a proper cylinder position, and to develop enough body awareness to stop your set before you get too tired to maintain the position. It does you absolutely no good to “push through the pain” in these situations because it is just the bones in your lower back jamming together to hold you in position anyway, rather than using muscular strength to do the job like you should be.
2) Position of your hands
Many people do not realize that the position of your hands has a lot to do with how effective your planks will be, as well as how difficult they will be. I recommend trying to keep your forearms parallel to each other during your planks. Most people, especially if they are not paying attention, will use a position where their elbows are wide and their hands are close together, sometimes even interlacing their fingers. While doing this is not the end of the world, it can contribute to tight shoulders and will make it harder to improve your overhead mobility. If you want your core training to have optimal carry-over to your ability to be strong in an overhead position (pull ups, military presses, Turkish get ups, kettlebell snatches, and so on) then pay close attention to where your hands are during planks.
3) Position of your elbows
This one is less about right vs. wrong and more about level of difficulty. Generally, for a plank you would position your elbows directly under your shoulders and this will be about right for most people. However, you can scale the difficulty of your planks by changing your elbow position. If you move your elbows a few inches closer to your hips then you create a slightly shorter lever and it will be a little easier on your core. On the flip side, if you move your elbows a little past your shoulders it will create a longer lever and gets significantly more difficult. Even moving your elbows about two inches in front of your shoulders will feel like a whole new exercise and will be substantially harder to maintain your cylinder as described in #1. Whatever option you choose, choose it purposefully and be consistent with it so that you can accurately track your progress.
In most exercises you want some type of progressive overload, especially if this exercise is one of your “indicator exercises” as mentioned in a previous article. Typically for these you need both a baseline and a goal to work towards. For example, with the plank a good goal would be to hold a strong 60 seconds with all the technical points outlined above. To get started, set a baseline for how long you can hold (without a pinching in your lower back or any other major deviation from form) and record your time. Once you have that number, spend the next couple weeks doing planks once or twice a day and hold each one just a little less than your baseline. For example if your initial baseline was 30 seconds, try holding for 20 seconds each time for your first two weeks. After a couple weeks, re-test your limit again and you will find that you will have gained some time, now probably up to 40-45 seconds. Keep up this protocol until you can do at least 60 seconds at no more than 8/10 effort, and better yet 90 seconds without it feeling like an “all out” effort. Once you can hit that threshold, it is probably time to advance on to new ways to challenge your core, plus you will now be in a position where your core will hold up much better for you during your other strength and endurance training.