A plank challenge is something I’ve been keen for ever since I interviewed 82-year-old fitness influencer Erika Rischko, who told me she could hold a plank for 8 minutes and 40 seconds. I know. If Rischko does them so often and for so long at 82, there’s got to be something in their benefits, right? Plus, at Women's Health, we’ve already taken on a squat challenge, a push-up challenge and I’ve given burpees and bicycle crunches a go, so a plank challenge is one of the few we’ve yet to master.
It's also one of the bodyweight exercises I reckon I’m actually quite good at. As a qualified yoga teacher, I’m well-versed in the significance of a sturdy core and I’ve always found ab workouts quite easy. What I will say, is that my shoulders are weaker, so I knew a full-blown plank challenge wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
I also figure doing a plank challenge would give you the answers to a few questions we all have: how long is best? How can we make them easier? Is forearm or high plank better? So, I decided to attempt a 2-minute plank every day for two weeks. Luke Worthington, a sports scientist, PT, nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist who works with the likes of Dakota Johnson, Rooney Mara and Winnie Harlow, acted as my guide throughout.
What is the plank?
The plank is a bodyweight exercise that can be done on the forearms, or with extended arms into a high plank, designed to target your core, but that also activates your glutes, back, quads, shoulders, biceps and triceps.
How to do a (forearm) plank
a) Start on the floor on your hands and knees. Get onto your elbows and stack them directly under your shoulders. Step your feet back, one at a time. For more stability, bring your feet wider than hip-distance apart, and bring them closer for more of a challenge.
b) Maintain a straight line from heels through the top of your head, looking down at the floor, with gaze slightly in front of your face. Now, tighten your abs, quads, glutes, and hold.
What are the benefits of a plank?
It uses multiple muscle groups
They can be a static or dynamic move (think plank jacks, plank commandos and plank to pop squats)
They don’t require any equipment
They don’t require much space
They can be made harder or easier
It’s easy to track progress with duration
They put less pressure on your neck than sit-ups or crunches
They can improve posture
4 things I learned from my plank challenge
1. My shoulders are weaker than I ever realised
I knew my shoulders were weak, but I really felt it in this plank challenge. Forearm plank was considerably harder, which Worthington tells me is because this plank variation puts more of the weight onto your shoulders, rather than splitting the ‘force of gravity’ with the rest of your body, like is the case with high plank.
"A forearm plank means your body is at a flatter angle," he says. "So, the force of gravity is as close to perpendicular to your body as you can achieve without equipment. This is what we call 'shear force' applying to the spine, as the line of force is 'shearing' across the line of the spine.
"On the other hand, when you have the arms straight, the body is at more of an incline, so the amount of shear force is reduced and the amount of tension needed by the core (or the shoulders) to resist the shear force is reduced."
What’s more, I found that my shoulders ached more than my core, which certainly isn’t what I expected from a move known to target your abdominals. "This is likely to be a technique issue," Worthington advises. "The shoulders should be stacked – in line with – the bones below, so above the wrists in high plank or elbows in forearm plank. If your alignment is slightly off, you’ll have to work harder through your muscle tissue to hold the position."
2. Dynamic movement is a great distraction
Static moves don't work for me. But as soon as I started to incorporate a few slight plank rocks forwards and backwards, or hip dips to either side, I realised that time started to go so much quicker. It didn’t exactly fly by, but it certainly sped up, and I thought I was winning. In reality, I was actually giving myself a break.
"A plank is an isometric hold," Worthington says. "The purpose is to resist the shear force and to create stability through the mid-section. By dipping the hips, you’re switching off that isometric hold and allowing the lumbar spine to extend. Essentially, this was giving you lots of mini breaks in your plank challenge, which is why it felt easier." Warning: Worthington says this can cause injury if you do it ‘without control’. Slow and steady, always.
3. Form is so important for injury prevention
After the first week, I noticed that my lower back was feeling a bit off. Nothing too sinister, but I felt I needed to stretch it out at several points during each day. Turns out, this is my own fault. "Either you were fatiguing and falling into extension, or the positioning of the hips, spine and ribcage was incorrect in the set-up," Worthington adds.
Had I properly engaged my core, made sure my hips weren’t sagging, and tucked my tailbone so that there wasn’t so much of a curve in my lower back every time I did a plank, I would’ve been fine. I implemented this as soon as I got the orders from Worthington, and it worked wonders.
4. Doing daily planks gave me more muscle definition, but they’re definitely not sustainable
By day 14, I thought I could see some more abdominal muscle definition, but Worthington quickly sets me straight. "Definition is only achieved by developing lean muscle tissue and reducing body fat between that muscle and the skin so that it becomes more visible. Building lean tissue requires a calorie surplus, and losing body fat requires a calorie deficit, so we can’t achieve both of these objectives at the same time, so it’s highly unlikely that definition has culminated from this plank challenge alone."
Instead, Worthington wagers that I actually experienced a ‘pump’, something bodybuilders, fitness models and some screen actors use to temporarily ‘change the appearance of a body part for a competition or a photoshoot (one reason why we shouldn’t judge ourselves against these people)'. How does this happen? "It’ll be down to localised oedema (swelling) of the abdominal muscles as they’ve been working a lot harder than usual, and it typically only lasts for around 24 hours," Worthington explains.
I can’t be sure if I’d built up any strength, either, because by day 14 I was so knackered that I could hardly tell. The moral of the story? Doing daily planks for as short a timeframe as this probably won’t get you anywhere. Always give your muscles a chance to repair so that they can work at full capacity when needed.
Is it worth doing a plank every day?
The golden question. It’s certainly not for me, and Worthington agrees that it works on a case-by-case basis. "You can train your core every day, but whether you can tolerate a plank every day is an individual thing.
"A plank is quite an advanced exercise, if we fail or hit fatigue in a plank then the body will drop towards the floor and force the lumbar spine (the lower back) into extension, which can be very painful and potentially dangerous. All prone (face down) core exercises come with this risk, as they require core strength and a high level of proprioceptive awareness (the ability to sense your position in space).
"I much prefer supine (face up) core exercises for two reasons:
The support of the floor means that if or when we fall or fatigue, we’re still in a safe position with no risk of injury.
The supine position (being on your back) means that we can feel the position of our body, so the exercise is harder to get wrong."
His idea of a solid core routine? "It should build stability in all three planes of motion: sagittal (forwards and backwards), frontal (left and right) and the transverse (rotation)," he says. "I like core training plans to progress from ground-based (supine) through all fours, kneeling, and finally standing positions, as strength and stability improves."
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