Winter is over, the temperatures are rising, summer is going to be here soon. That means 2 things: shedding layers of winter clothes and becoming much more active. Did your Netflix addiction get the better of you for the last 4-6 months? It’s okay, you’ve still got time to get your body ready.
Since we’re all short on time these days you’re going to want to focus on the best bang for your buck exercises, exercises that focus on using a multiple muscle groups and can help you reach both aesthetic and performance goals which is why planks are a great choice.
Planks are a great total body exercise that is efficient, effective, can be done anywhere, and progressed or regressed to fit any fitness level. Whether you’re looking to tighten up the midsection and stand a bit straighter to look great at the beach or improve your athleticism for summer sports, planks are a perfect exercise.
Planks are More Than an “Ab” Exercise:
Most people think of planks as an ab exercise, and while it’s true they are a great exercise for the abs, it’s selling them short.
Most trainers and physical therapists consider the “core” to be the area from your shoulders to your hips and every muscle in between. Doing planks works just about all of these muscles simultaneously. Muscles like the “6 pack abs” (rectus abdominus) deeper abs (transverse abdominus), obliques, spinal errectors, lats, rhomboids, traps, and glutes. Simply rising into a pushup plank will also incorporate the chest and triceps. Planks, when performed correctly, are all about creating tension through the whole body, activating all of the muscles of the “core”.
Compare that to a crunch or situp, where the abs and hip flexors are the only muscles really exerting and it’s easy to see how planks are so much more than just an “ab” exercise.
Planks Work Your “Core” the Right Way:
Research from Dr. Stuart McGills’ lab has shown that the core is constructed to create a corset around the lumbar spine. This corset is built to keep the spine rigid during rotational and compressive forces. For most people, the best core training is that which limits or resists motion of the lower back (lumbar spine).
Planks do just this. More traditional ab exercises like situps and crunches flex the spine, and while that may be good for building a 6 pack, it’s probably not the best choice for your lumbar vertebrae and continued back health.
Planks Help Correct Your Crappy Posture:
Many people have what is referred to as desk jockey posture from sitting all day in front of a steering wheel, computer or TV. This posture leads to a rounded upper back, forward shoulders and posterior pelvic tilt. Basically, the length-tension relationships of the muscles have changed from being hunched over all day. Some muscles become overstretched, some shorten, others become overactive and others under-active. This tends to lead to what’s called “hanging off of the hard structures”. Instead of using the muscles to provide stability for a neutral spine, we slide into positions that allow us to use the bones for stability.
Planks are (usually) all about creating a neutral position. It stands to reason, that the muscles which are worked in a plank are also the ones that have an effect on your neutral posture. Muscles like the glutes, spinal errectors (low back), obliques and scapular stabilizers (upper / mid back muscles) help to pull you back into a more neutral position. While simply doing a few planks once or twice a week probably wont fix your posture completely, they’ll help activate and build endurance in the weak, under-active muscles. This will help improve your posture much more than traditional flexion-based “core” exercises like crunches.
You Might Look a Bit Thinner – or Correcting Posture Part 2:
Many women (and some guys) have too much of an arch in the lower back and as a result use the vertebrae of the lower back to create stability. In other words they “hang off the lower back”. Doing this can lead to an excessive lumbar mobility and anterior pelvic tilt. This can give the lower stomach the appearance of being pushed out, or the dreaded lower belly “pooch”.
Planks can help to correct this posture also. Specifically by strengthening the glutes, rectus abdominus and obliques.Remember, planks are a movement that reinforces a neutral hip and spine position, so almost any deviation from a neutral posture can be helped with planks.
Baby Got Back:
We’re in the golden age of glutes. Let’s face it, butts are everywhere. While a nice core never goes out of style, glutes are the “it” muscle right now, in a big way… and for good reason. Not only does a nice set of glutes look great in a bikini or swim shorts, they are arguably the most important muscles in the body from a movement and performance perspective.
While planks are not thought of as a glute exercise, a good plank isn’t about time, it’s about tension. To stay in the correct technique you must squeeze your glutes and keep them contracted hard the whole time. For some of the more challenging plank variations, you’re not only using the glutes to stabilize the hips, they’re also creating motion which will increase the challenge overall.
Planks are Great for Treating and Preventing Low Back Pain:
Nobody wants to get up and head out to catch some waves at 6am on a Saturday and paddle back in after one ride, or be in the clubhouse after 9 holes, all because their lower back is killing them. Back pain affects 31 million Americans at any given time according to the American Chiropractic Association. Don’t be a statistic. Low back pain sufferers have some common traits including tightness in the thoracic spine and hips, weak glutes and the tendency to use the low back to create movement.
Remember, planks are about tightness, creating a stable corset around the spine. Training this corset by planking not only helps to strengthen the muscles but also teaches your body what it feels like to be in a tight, braced, position.
How to Plank, It’s Not What You Think and How Not Waste Your Time:
Too often planks are done for ridiculously long timed holds and with a big arch in the lower back. This needs to be fixed. The purpose of the plank is to create tension through the body and resist movement. Your plank should reflect this, so flatten out that back and get as tight as possible.
Front Plank Checklist:
- Abs turned on and braced.
- Hip in neutral or very slightly rotated forward (belt buckle to chin) to help the abs fire.
- Glutes squeezed hard.
- Shoulders in the joint, scapula (shoulder blades) down the ribcage.
- Upper and lower back flat.
Side Plank Checklist:
- Elbow directly under the shoulder.
- Top leg towards the front of the body.
- Ribcage in neutral, usually this means pulled down slightly and rotated up slightly.
- Hips in neutral, glutes squeezed hard.
Moving Planks, the Planks You Never Thought of:
Too often planks are thought of as a stationary exercise, but that’s not always true.
- Ab wheel rollouts
- Bird Dog
- Stir the pot
- Suspension rows
- Farmers walks
- Suitcase carries
Are nothing more than moving planks.
Think about it. To do these exercises correctly you must begin in and maintain a stable, core braced, plank position. The core is resisting the hoop, shear and extension forces that are being placed on the spine, no different than any other plank. The key here however is that the exercises must be performed correctly. The core cannot buckle it must stay braced, with no movement whatsoever through the spine.
The 10 Second Plank From Hell: The RKC Plank
This is the plank that separates the men from the boys, the RKC plank. This plank isn’t just about maintaining tension, it’s about creating tension, literally, trying to crush yourself.
- Hips posteriorly upper back slightly rounded to create a psuedo crunch effect.
- Squeeze the glutes as hard as possible.
- Drive the elbows back under you.
- Drive the toes towards the elbows.
- Squeeze everything in between as hard as possible and try to crush yourself in the process.
There’s Really no Excuse Not to Be Ready When Summer Gets Here:
Planks cost nothing, you need no special equipment and they can be done anywhere. They’re super easy to incorporate into a workout or even your daily routine. You don’t even need to program them into a special place in your routine often. If you’re lifting weights, interval training or even running laps, you can add planks to your workouts by simply using them as active rest in between sets, intervals or laps.
They’re so simple you can do planks on your living room floor during commercials or work breaks. Just remember build slowly and don’t focus as much on the length of time you can hold a plank as much as how much muscular tension you can create while in the plank position.
Don’t wait, the count down is on, start now and you’ll be surprised at the effect planks can have on your physique, posture and athleticism by the time summer rolls around.