The plank is one of the simplest exercises you can do to build abdominal strength.
It also targets other muscle groups such as the back, gluteals (buttocks), thighs, shoulders and arms, so a lot of work is being done, even though the exercise may seem easy.
But it’s also an exercise that is often not performed correctly or held for too long.
The inventor called it a plank because if performed correctly, the entire body is kept rigid and forms a straight line from head to heel, just like a wooden plank.
As an isometric exercise, the key to seeing results is to create tension in the body, i.e. you’re working so hard at contracting the abdominal muscles that your body starts to tremble.
The quivering is a result of muscle fatigue and is nothing abnormal – the body is screaming to stop and the mind is trying to resist.
Muscles have to generate a lot of force to hold the body in one position, and when they tire, they start to tremble before giving way.
Imagine doing a crunch or bicep curl and stopping at the midway point.
You’ll have to fight gravity, in addition to maintaining the position in proper alignment, so your muscles will start to shake as they fight to keep up.
When you’re working under so much tension, it’s impossible to hold the position for more than 30 seconds.
Something has to give; either you start releasing the tension or the alignment suffers.
As you become fitter and stronger, and your body adapts to the new challenges, the muscles will shake less.
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Dehydration is another factor that can contribute to shaking as the water content of muscle proteins affect their ability to contract.
This means that if a person is dehydrated, it can disrupt the signals for muscle contraction.
To stay adequately hydrated, sip mouthfuls of water during exercise, instead of gulping down half or the entire bottle at a go.
Drinking too much water will also get in the way when you work out.
Remember to breathe, as a lot of times, we are so focused on creating the tension that we hold our breath.
I’ve heard many people complain of having a headache or feeling dizzy after doing the plank because they’re not breathing!
A few years back, an interviewee told me she was so constipated that while in the toilet, she held her breath, sucked in her belly and strained hard to pass motion.
Minutes later, she passed out.
You certainly don’t want this to happen while doing the plank.
So never hold your breath while exercising or tensing your muscles.
If you’re not able to hold the plank for at least 10 seconds, chances are you might have a back issue or a very weak core.
A strong core supports a strong back and vice versa, so it’s important to work on both areas.
And no, it is highly unlikely that standard planks alone will give you a six-pack, or even a significant amount of muscle hypertrophy.
To see definition, you’ll have to shed the layer of fat that is covering the muscles by combining cardiorespiratory workouts and strength-training other body parts – no muscle works in isolation, so an all-rounded workout is essential.
You’ll also have to watch what food you put into your mouth.
The plank challenges that were popular a few years ago just focused on holding the position for the longest time, not building the muscle.
Earlier this year (2020), George Hood, a 62-year-old former US Marine broke the world planking record with a time of eight hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds.
He told BBC that he started planking in 2011 and trained for seven hours a day for about 18 months to build stamina, along with physical and mental strength, leading up to the event.
Once Hood beat the previous record held by China’s Mao Weidong (Hood lost to him in 2016), he announced his retirement from planking and later admitted to being in “excruciating pain” for years, but kept going in order to stamp his mark.
“When it gets tough, you know what I do?
“I turn that music up so loud, you’d think you’re at a rock concert.
“I always had a fantasy of being a rock star back in the ’80s.
“And at least for those eight hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds, I was a rock star, ” he was quoted as saying.
Next, Hood says he plans to break the Guinness World Record for the most push-ups in one hour.
Hopefully, if you have similar rock star aspirations, they don’t last more than two minutes.
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Here are some pointers to consider when doing the plank:
- Place your elbows directly under your shoulders (for the forearm plank). Your palms can be flat on the floor or fisted (as if banging on a table), or the fingers can be clasped. For planks with palms on the floor (the push-up position), spread your fingers out and ensure that your index finger is pointing north. Rotate your shoulder blades so that your elbow faces back (not outwards or to the side).
- Keep your gaze between your palms or slightly in front of you to maintain a neutral neck and avoid neck strain. When the going gets tough, people tend to let their necks droop and look at their feet.
- Retract your shoulder blades to avoid bunching your upper back.
- Pull your belly button in (abdominal bracing) and contract the stomach muscles as if someone is about to punch you in that area. The belly button is connected to your transverse abdominis muscle, which is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles and the hardest to target. Pulling your belly button in helps to flex this muscle and makes the workout harder. Once the belly starts to sag, the back loses stability, and you might experience lower back strain and pain.
- Tighten your gluteal (buttock) muscles as if you’re squeezing the juice out of a watermelon. When you squeeze your glutes, you’re able to brace your core more and keep your lower back lifted and protected – something many fitness newbies tend to overlook.
- Place your heels right above your toes. To start off, place your legs shoulder-width apart for added stability. As you progress, you can move your feet closer together.
- Ensure that your body is in a straight line. If your back starts to hurt, lift your hips slightly higher.
Aim to hold your plank for 10 seconds and do three sets. Give it your best tension and build your way up. And give yourself a day of rest in between.
You’ll only reap the benefits of a plank if your form is good. And if you can hold the position effortlessly for more than two minutes, it’s time to amp up with some plank variations, e.g. single arm or leg lift-off or by adding resistance.
Studies have shown that results are maximised when these plank variations are performed in short bouts of 10 to 20 seconds each time.
More is not necessarily better – in fact, it is counter-productive.
Take note that if you have pre-existing shoulder problems, such as rotator cuff injuries or tendinitis of the elbow, then planks are not for you as they put a lot of strain on these joints.
Either modify the plank position so that your knees are on the floor or stick to traditional crunches.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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