The plank, considered the “nemesis” to many wanting to master core strength and stability, is an isometric core strength exercise involving all of the body’s major muscle groups. Although many consider this exercise when focusing on the abdominals, back and shoulders the entire body can benefit if it is done properly and with the right intention.
To be honest, anyone can “look” like they are doing a plank properly. Very few actually get the most out of the plank exercise. The ideal situation for any exercise is to complete one single exercise to exhaustion and muscular fatigue.
In order to achieve this task there are several aspects of the exercise that require attention. The six (6) areas of focus to get the most out of your plank include:
- Arm position
- Shoulder position
- Foot position
- Hip position
- Head position
Why is the Plank So Difficult?
We spend the majority of our waking hours in an upright position. This position is the most efficient position for us to be in because it requires minimal muscular effort to maintain. When the body is upright, in a neutral posture, the bones create shelves that stack one on top of another:
- Feet – the body’s base of support and foundation (bottom shelf)
- Hips/Pelvis – primary shelf for all of the abdominal organs, sexual organs and spine (second shelf)
- Shoulders – primary shelf for the neck and head (top shelf)
When the shelves are aligned properly, gravity does all of the work to keep our bodies stable and secure. When the body is not aligned properly, the body must rely on muscles to keep the body and its organs protected.
Our body is made up of vital organs, bones (approximately 206), muscles (approximately 640) and joints. Our bones protect the majority of our organs (i.e. ribs protect the heart and lungs, the skull protects the eyes and brain, the vertebrae protect the spinal column). The abdominal organs (i.e. stomach, liver, kidneys, spleen, small intestine and large intestine) are protected by the muscles of the abdominal wall (i.e. transversus abdominis, internal obliques, rectus abdominis and external obliques). These muscles contract to create a protective “wall” in case of impact or potential injury and harm to the organs.
When the body is put into a supine (face down) horizontal position there is no shelf for the abdominal organs to sit properly inside the abdominal cavity. This forces the abdominal wall to contract to hold the vital organs inside in place. If they did not contract, the organs would be pulled down toward the ground and stretch to an uncomfortable position or potentially become damaged (i.e. a severed liver or spleen from an impact to the abdomen). A plank can be more difficult for some people due to the following:
- Lack of strength and endurance of the abdominal muscles
- Lack of strength and endurance of the muscles that support the spine (erector spinae muscles)
- Increased volume in the abdominal cavity (i.e. increased organ size, increased contents in the stomach and intestines, additional internal or subcutaneous fat)
Proper Position and Set Up for the Plank
With any exercise, there are two essential components to getting the most out the movement:
- Proper position of the body
- Activation and intensity of the muscles
Below is a description of each component of the plank exercise and how to get the most out the exercise.
Plank – Arm Position
The root of your plank position begins with your arms, primarily because the majority of your weight is carried here. Proper arm position is essential to ensure comfortable shoulders, neck and head. A traditional plank involves forearms on the ground. In a modified plank the arms can be fully extended with hands on the ground.
- With your arms bent at 90 degrees (palms facing down), place your elbows on the ground directly below your shoulders.
- Press your palms, forearms and elbows into the ground (feeling weight pressing into the ground).
Plank – Shoulder/Scapular Position
The shoulders are one of two areas where you either “make or break” this exercise (the other one being the hips/pelvis). For most people who are unfamiliar with the exercise, the tendency is for the shoulder capsules to collapse, the spine to hollow out and the shoulder blades to move closer together. The shoulders and upper torso essentially surrender to the effects of gravity.
- Widen the shoulder blades by pressing the elbows into the ground and “opening up” the armpits.
- The shoulder blades should not protrude upward and the thoracic spine should remain neutral (the space in between the shoulder blades should be flat or slightly curved under).
Plank – Foot Position
In a traditional plank the feet are the second anchor point of the exercise. In a modified plank the knees can be lowered to the floor to make the exercise less difficult.
- Position your feet at a distance where the hands and shoulders are properly stacked and the body (from head to heel) is in a straight line. The back should not be arching and the hips should not be bent.
- Ankles should be flexed and heels should be pressing away from the head.
- Toes and heels should be touching as the toes press straight down into the floor.
Plank – Hip/Pelvic Position
The hips must walk a “fine line” when positioning for an effective plank. If the hips go too low, the abdominal wall and erector spinae muscles are overworked. If the hips go too high, these same muscles work very little and the shoulders take on all the work.
- Squeeze the glutes to open up the hips and fully challenge the abdominal wall and the muscles of the erector spinae.
- Internally rotate the knees in and squeeze the knees and heels together to engage the transversus abdominis.
Plank – Head Position
Neutral posture (from head to heels) is important to avoid discomfort and to ensure proper form throughout the exercise.
- Lengthen the neck and push the shoulders away from the ears.
- Eyes should look forward (visualize an imaginary line drawn from the middle finger of one hand to the other; focus straight ahead at the height of that line).
- Lengthen the chin at a comfortable distance away from the chest.
Plank – Breathing
Breathing is what gives us rhythm and focus during the exercise. The key to an effective plank is to find a balance between “effort” and “ease”. You must effectively contract all major muscle groups of the body while maintaining minimal stress and strain on joints and supporting muscles (i.e. tightening of the neck and shoulders, clenching of the teeth or holding your breath).
The inhale breath is used to lengthen the body, find neutral posture and secure proper alignment. The exhale is used to activate the muscles involved in the exercise and to receive maximal results from total body contraction. During the exhale focus on the following simultaneous actions:
- Press the elbows and forearms into the ground and widening the space between the shoulder blades (flattening the space in between the shoulder blades).
- Press the heels away from the head as you press the toes straight down into the ground (feels like you are hooking the toes towards your nose).
- Squeeze the glutes and rotate the knees inwards to open up the pelvis, creating a straight line from the heels to the top of the head.
- Pull the belly button up towards the back of the spine as you tuck your tailbone slightly under (downwards toward the ground).
- Lengthen your head away from your ears as your maintain an eyeline straight forward and in between the top line of your fingers.
Sets and Repetitions for the Plank
Regardless of the number of sets and repetitions you include in your program, maintaining proper form to muscular fatigue. Below is a suggested progression for the plank exercise.
- Level 1 – 6 x 10 seconds (2 sets)
- Level 2 – 3 x 20 seconds (2 sets)
- Level 2 – 3 x 30 seconds (2 sets)
- Level 3 – 4 x 45 seconds (1 set)
- Level 4 – 3 x 60 seconds (1 set)
Include a rest interval in between each repetition (consider a 1:1 or 1:2 work-to-rest ration).
Additional Words of Wisdom for the Plank
The plank is a very complex exercise that can be improved by simple movements and attention to detail. Below are additional tips to make your plank exercise a valuable addition to your workout program.
- Place the timer or watch directly in your line of vision (to maintain good form and posture).
- Choose a location close to a mirror (to check alignment and form during the exercise).
- Don’t forget to BREATHE!
- If you lose form before the time is complete, don’t finish the exercise. Rest and move onto your next repetition. It isn’t worth sacrificing form and safety for a few seconds.
- Choose to modify the exercise to ensure neutral posture and alignment for full body engagement (i.e. arms fully extended or with knees and shoelaces on the ground).