By Dr. Mercola
They make look easy, and may even seem easy at first, but when you start working on planks, you'll find some of the greatest benefits come from the process of checking yourself to make sure you're maintaining the correct form. Plus, planks are a welcome alternative to crunches and situps, which can cause back pain when your backbone is pressed against the floor. They not only give your six-pack more definition and "up" your endurance level, planks provide an array of additional benefits for your entire body.
Certainly not least, one of the most inviting aspects of this basic exercise is that it accomplishes several things at the same time, and increasing your regimen can be done at your own pace; the effort is never wasted. According to Healthline, planks not only activate more muscles, they also help:
- Provide balance and stability
- Tone abs and define your "six-pack"
- Build a stronger core
- Alleviate back pain
- Develop better posture
One of the drawbacks of performing repeated sit-ups and crunches is that your backbone makes contact with the floor. Even with a mat under you they can cause pain, not just while you're doing them but even after you're done. Not so with planks; your hands and feet hold you up, so that in the process, your arms, legs and core muscles benefit, too.
One study showed that "exercises that elicit abdominal/lumbar co-contraction coupled with shoulder and hip activation (integration exercise) provoke greater core muscle activation than muscle isolation exercises."1 Researchers gathered 20 male and female volunteers, who completed 16 randomly assigned exercises. They then measured the study subjects' muscle activity with surface electromyography on several muscle groups. The results indicated that:
"The activation of the abdominal and lumbar muscles was the greatest during the exercises that required deltoid and gluteal recruitment … When completing the core strength guidelines, an integrated routine that incorporates the activation of distal trunk musculature would be optimal in terms of maximizing strength, improving endurance, enhancing stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility."2
Why Do Planks? Studies Show Dramatic Scoliosis Improvements
At Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, researchers noted that nonsurgical treatments for realigning spinal problems such as scoliosis, which affects 6 million to 9 million people in the U.S., are used frequently, but evidence of which options work best is lacking.
The disorder "can be painful and can affect gait, posture and other areas of physical functioning, measurably lowering self-esteem," the study notes, with nonsurgical treatments usually involving muscle relaxation or ligament stretching. Specifically, they assessed:
"The possible benefits of asymmetrical strengthening of truncal muscles on the convex side of the scoliotic curve through a single yoga pose, the side plank pose, in idiopathic and degenerative scoliosis."3
The scientists worked with 25 participants with degenerative scoliosis, a term that describes how it came about (namely aging, tipping and slipping of discs, which "cascades" and leads to spinal curvature, or scoliosis). They also tested people with idiopathic scoliosis, for which the cause is unknown. It may begin in childhood and remain through adulthood, or even be noticed for the first time in adulthood, according to Spine Universe.4
In the study, the subjects, whose spinal curvature measured anywhere from 6 degrees to 120 degrees, according to the Cobb angle,5 had spinal radiographs taken before being taught the side plank pose. For one week, they performed the pose for 20 seconds a day, after which they were asked to maintain the posture for as long as they could on the same side.
The participants averaged 1.5 minutes holding the pose every day for at least six days per week for an average of 6.8 months. After another series of spinal radiographs taken three to 22 months later, the pre- and post-measurements were compared, showing a significantly improved Cobb angle among all patients, averaging 32 percent. Among 19 patients, the improvement was an even more significant 40.9 percent.
Maintaining the Proper Form: How to Do Planks
If you've ever seen a fitness expert performing perfect planks, you may have thought the exercise looked easy, but as in other endeavors, it's not as easy as it may first appear. However, as the saying goes, practice does make perfect, and the results are worth it.
Here's another plus: Planks are very straightforward rather than complicated and don't involve some difficult-to-learn program or routine. In fact, the featured video shows the correct form for each variation of plank in the Total Body Workout in just 48 seconds. Once you get that down, you can start perfecting your form, then building up your time for maximized results.
- The Full Plank starts in a pushup position with your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders, arms straight and your toes bent in a "tiptoe" position, which holds you off the floor. Keep your back straight and your core tight, because allowing your back or bottom to sag downward will likely cause lower back pain later. Keep your chin lowered, eyes to the floor.
- The Low Plank position is identical except that rather than holding yourself up by your hands, arms straight, you bend your elbows and rest on your forearms instead. Again, tighten your stomach and glutes (aka butt muscles), and similarly to not sagging downward, keep your heels, bottom, back and shoulders in a straight line without arching upward.
- The Raised Leg Plank simply incorporates lifting each leg straight up behind you so that your heel is your highest point, abs and glutes tightened, and holding each leg behind you for 30 seconds.
- The Side Plank is also recommended for 30 seconds on each side. With your left elbow on the floor, the inside of your forearm and palm facing up, the side of your left foot shares your weight. Place your right hand on your hip so that the same elbow is your highest point. These work on your abdominal muscles and strengthen your spine.
- The Reverse Plank position requires that you sit on the floor, legs out straight and place your hands on the floor behind you so that when you push your body upward, you're looking at the ceiling instead of the floor. Squeeze your glutes.
However, Healthline also emphasizes that holding any of the above plank positions for too long may be counterproductive: "Make two minutes your maximum time limit. If you're looking to increase your athletic performance, research shows that repeated 10-second holds may be the best workout."6
As you're working on maintaining the proper form — body positioned off the floor, back straight, chin down, abs tight — residual benefits are felt throughout your entire body, including your posture. As you strengthen these muscles, as well as those in your neck and chest, you'll find it easier to keep your lower back in a neutral position when you stand or sit, and your shoulders back. Voilà — better posture.
Additionally, planks increase your flexibility, stretch out your lower half and your sides, as well, as you work on the side planks. Just getting into the correct position and holding it lengthens your hamstrings and your arches, further extending the benefits of stretching and strengthening your body. To increase your balance, try raising your free arm in the air and don't forget to switch sides for an even workout.
You can also try shoulder touches, which starts with the classic plank pose and entails lifting your right hand from the floor and lightly touching your left elbow and repeating on the opposite side. Start with 10 taps on each side, then increase the number as your balance improves.
Knee touches also start with the classic plank, but it's a little trickier and may leave you feeling a little sore the next day because both your hamstrings and quads are getting a double workout. Drop your forearms, alternate touching the floor with each knee and tapping it lightly while keeping your back straight.
It must be said: Everybody wants toned abs, and planks help provide them automatically because you're tightening them in order to hold yourself in the classic plank position. However, while many would also love to be able to exhibit the "six-packs" some equate with total fitness, it also means paring down your fat quotient to 6 percent for men and 9 percent for women.
As you work on perfecting your planks, you'll find yourself gaining strength and automatically standing and sitting straighter, along with several (and maybe all) the positive side effects that come from body consciousness and exercise. While you're at it, you'll find your mood improving, as well as your self-esteem, and tension flowing from your body. So planks aren't just a body workout — your brain benefits, too.