There are many mysteries that go unsolved in life, but in 2021, we finally have a definitive answer to the question "which abs finisher is the most effective?". Forget about crunching your way to a stronger core – because your abdominal muscles work far harder during a plank, research by Pennsylvania State University has proven.
Scientists attached electrodes to 20 participants and had them tackle 16 different core exercises. The electrodes measured how intensely each exercise activated their muscles. The more a muscle is activated, the harder it's working, 'thereby maximising functional gains and peak performance', the researchers wrote in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Bizarrely, the exercises that target your core muscles in isolation – such as traditional crunches, oblique crunches, and the superman hold – aren't the most effective at activating your abs. So-called 'integration' exercises, which also recruit your back, shoulder and glute muscles – so, traditional planks, side planks, and mountain climbers – are miles more taxing for your core.
It makes total sense if you think about it. When you assume the (plank) position, it forces the muscles in your mid-section to work extra-hard in order to keep your spine stable and ensure your vertebrae don't move. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, says James Eagle, PT at Third Space, "which has a brilliant carry over to such exercises like the squat or deadlift, where a significant focus is on maintaining a braced core." (continued below)
Another benefit of the plank? Since you're going nowhere fast, you can focus on nailing your form, explains MH fitness editor Andrew Tracey. "While it's easy to get lost in the motion of performing endless passive reps of sit-ups, the stillness of the plank affords you the opportunity to actively think about achieving tension throughout your entire core," he says. "Improving this ability has huge carryover to every other lift you perform in the gym, helping you to build rock hard stability through your trunk. This helps you to transfer power more efficiently, perform more reps and avoid injury."
To get the most out of the move, Tracey says, "focus on switching on every single muscle in your body, from your abs, to your glutes, to your quads, creating as much tension as possible and actively thinking about trying to 'compress' your body towards a centre point." You needn't hold this pose for days on end, either. "Forget five-minute plank challenges or max time," he adds. "If done properly and for maximum tension, you shouldn't be able to hold this 'hardstyle plank' for longer than 20 seconds."
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