The plank. We have felled trees to make them, built fences and houses out of them, grilled salmon on them, and some unlucky men have even had to walk them. But now, in the name of fitness and core strength, we are trying to emulate them. What is it that makes this seemingly simple exercise so difficult and so compelling? And why does it seem like everyone from elite athletes to desk jockeys wants to do it?
To answer this, you need a little history lesson. Back in the late 90’s Dr. Stuart McGill, a researcher from the University of Waterloo, published some of his findings on chronic low back pain. Among the predictors he found was, you guessed it: lack of “core strength.” One of Dr. McGill’s consistent findings was that the inability to brace or “stiffen” the spine when under load was a good predictor of low back pain. Dr. McGill advocated using plank-like exercises to teach full core engagement and spinal bracing in lieu of traditional sit-ups and crunches that his research had found were harmful to spine health. Overnight, the Fitness world responded by teaching everyone how to “plank.”
Of course, the plank was around in disciplines such as yoga and Pilates long before Dr. McGill’s research, but it was always a transition move—not a position to be held for 2-5 minutes, as it usually is taught today. To boot, the plank is, in essence, the starting position for a push-up. Unfortunately, the push-up creates an equal amount of trouble when it comes to proper execution and technique. So let’s take a look at the 5 pitfalls of the plank and explore a strategy to give you all the benefit without the strain.
Problem #1: The core isn’t strong enough. Let’s face it: the plank is a tough exercise. You’re holding your body weight between your hands (or elbows) and your toes. The entire length of your body is suspended between these two points and the whole body needs to be working. If your deep core is not strong due to injury or inactivity, you will hurt your back in this exercise. How do you know your core isn’t ready? Either your back will sag, or you will pike your hips up and break your nice straight line. In essence, your board will be “warped.” Before you plank, it pays to be sure your deep core is working and ready for the challenge.
Problem #2: The shoulders aren’t strong enough. The plank is not just a core exercise; it’s a whole-body exercise. The core essentially connects the upper body to the lower body. In part, this is what makes the plank such a great exercise, but it also makes it a tough one. Strength in the shoulders comes from the shoulder blade area—not just from the upper arms. The muscles around the shoulder blades must work together to stabilize the shoulder blades on the rear ribs. That stability is what allows the arms to be in the right position to hold you up. Lack of shoulder blade area stability allows the shoulder blades to collapse toward each other, making your chest sink and your head/ neck sag downward.
Problem #3: You’re straining through your neck. Knowing where to put that heavy head can be a challenge in any exercise, but none more so than in a plank. I find that folks either want to keep their eyes on the horizon (neck extended, head up,) or attempt to take away neck strain by letting the head dangle downward. The head is literally the “knob” at the end of the spine, so it needs to be aligned with the rest of the spine. Proper head and neck position includes the chin being slid back over the collarbones (easiest to find when upright,) and the eyes focused slightly forward of your hands. Ultimately, if you have neck strain in the plank, either your shoulder girdle needs more strengthening with the head and neck in proper position (see Problem #2,) or your head is simply not in the right place, and needs to be re-positioned.
Problem 4: The hips and legs are not doing their part. Remember when I mentioned the plank was a whole-body exercise? The hips and legs must be an active part of it, or you’re missing 1/3 of the strength needed to hold the position. You will need to squeeze the thighs to keep the knees straight, and use the glutes to keep the hips straight. (This means the abs must work even harder to keep the board from “warping.”) Press firmly into the toes to complete the picture. Again, the core connects the upper body to the lower body. Your weight must be distributed along your body to do this exercise correctly.
Problem #5: You’re holding it too long. When Dr. McGill first suggested the plank was a good way to challenge core strength and prevent low back pain, he probably never envisioned a world where offices would hold Facebook contests against other offices to see who could hold a plank the longest: 3 minutes? 5 minutes? Other than for shear competition, there’s no reason I can think of that you would need to hold a plank longer than about 10 seconds at a time. You could do reps of 10 seconds each, and definitely challenge stability and strength, but even if your core is working properly and you have strength in all the right places, you will start to fail at some point, and when you do, you will compensate. As you compensate, all your hard work starts to slip away, as the body tries to hold the position with whatever muscles it can find. Compensation will eventually lead to injury—it’s only a matter of time. So maybe it’s better to find another way to compete with your co-workers or your fellow gym members.
If you have determined that the plank is not the best exercise for you, but you would like to work on improving core strength and spinal bracing, try the following exercise:
- Start in all 4’s with good head, neck and shoulder position. Hands should be under shoulders, knees under hips.
- Be sure the spine is in neutral position, and the shoulder blades are sitting neutral: back, down and apart on your back.
- Reach 1 foot back, without leaning forward or sideways. Can you lift the leg without moving the spine?
- If accomplished that, can you reach the opposite arm forward, again without moving the spine?
- If you did, congratulations! You just did a Bird Dog!
The Bird Dog is another exercise endorsed by Dr. McGill to improve core strength through spinal bracing. This is a first great step toward more challenging core exercises like the plank. We want to show classmates, colleagues and sometimes ourselves that we’re up to the challenge. But it pays to get the basics first. Get the proper posture and position before you add the load. Take the time to be sure the core, shoulders, hips and legs are ready for the plank. Know when the plank is not good for you: if you’ve had shoulder injuries, spine injuries, suffer from arthritis, recently had a baby, or the position just hurts, we can find another exercise for you. The lesson of the plank is this: we need core strength–from the inside out—to maintain spine health in exercise, sport, and daily life. The ability to brace the abdominals—all of the abdominals—to stabilize the spine is important, but only with proper alignment and technique.
Need some help determining what level is best for you? Give us a call; we’re happy to help!