Boring old crunches are easily the most common of the exercises if you want to get phenomenal abdominals – but are they the most effective or fun way to strengthen your core? Probably not. So let’s look at planking instead and make sure you aren’t making some pretty common and easy-to-correct mistakes.
Core training is about much more than trying to get enviable abs. Working your core effectively can improve stability, maintain mobility, and reduce injuries of all kinds. If you are the lone soul in the corner of the gym doing hundreds of crunches and situps in hopes of achieving a six-pack, you may be crunching in vain.
First step: Abs vs. Core
Unlike many dogmatic coaches out there, I don’t have a problem with sit-ups, crunches, or most of their derivatives. I just don’t like it when they’re called “core workouts.” Doing a ton of crunches can be an effective way to train some very specific abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis and to a lesser extent the external or internal oblique muscles) but what is often forgotten (or skipped) are all the other muscles that make up the core. Simply focusing on your abs alone is an improper way to use your torso and can lead to some imbalances and pain.
We need a strong core to maintain a stable torso while we move through this world, whether we are lifting heavy items, carrying heavy loads, or transferring power from our hips while throwing a ball or using a broom. A stable and strong core with the capacity to resist the push and pull of outside forces is infinitely more useful and more important than being able to do hanging ab crunches from the loft in a barn (Rocky style).
Sure, if you want those popping six-pack abs, crunches are a must, but keep in mind that in order to really get six-pack abs, you mostly have to shed fat. Men, you will need to get your body fat to about six percent, and women to around nine percent, and if you read my Scientific American article Body Fat: How to Use It and Lose It, you’ll know that neither of those percentages is particularly healthy.
Instead of doing crunches, the exercise known as the plank is a far more useful core exercise. Just as the name implies, when doing a plank you are forming a strong, stable platform with your body, from your toes to your head.
Planks are a great alternative to all that crunching because as you will soon find out, they can help improve your entire core strength and stability which among other things can protect against injury. In fact, in a study about plank and side plank on injury rates in soccer players, the researchers found that “… prevention programs including strengthening exercises for core muscles tend to positively affect the injury rate.”
Planks also activate the muscles in your abdomen to support your posture and share the workload with your back muscles to keep you upright.
Plus, if you get into all the variations, planks don’t just work your core—they can work much of your body. Plank variations require your arms, your legs, and all of your abs, and a study published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine found that doing side planks could actually help reduce spinal curvature in scoliosis patients. That means planking can even help reduce your chances of developing spinal problems as you age.
Benefits of Planking
Planks are great for creating a functionally proficient midsection due to the fact that they work your entire trunk from your pelvic girdle to your shoulder girdle (or as us coaches like to say: your knees to your nipples). Here are some of the benefits you can get by adding planks to your exercise routine.
1. More Stomach Tone
Planking trains the inner core muscles, including the transversus abdominis, which are the foundation muscles that create a stronger rectus abdominis, which is the front sheath of your abs that you see in the mirror (and most often on Instagram).
2. Less Back Pain
Planks help reduce back pain because they strengthen your back muscles, especially those in your upper back, according to the American Council on Exercise. Because the basic plank requires minimal movement while they contract all the layers of the abdominal fascia, they are an excellent way to strengthen the core without undue pressure, which, in turn, helps reduce low-back pain.
3. Improved Posture
Planks help create strong erector spinae, rhomboids, and trapezius, which help you naturally stand up straighter. Practically speaking, good posture helps to keep the vertebrae and ligaments of the spine healthy and aligned. Keeping your bones in proper alignment helps your breathing and nervous system function properly. It also promotes proper positioning and operation of your internal organs.
Planks also activate the muscles in your abdomen to support your posture and share the workload with your back muscles to keep you upright. This has also been shown to slow the development of degenerative osteoarthritis and some immobility that occurs with age.
Also when your core is stronger, you naturally sit tall with your vertebrae properly stacked, which means that you are also less likely to slouch and get that late afternoon pain in your neck and shoulders.
4. More Flexibility
When you do planks regularly, the muscles around your shoulders, shoulder blades, and collarbone will expand and stretch along with your hamstrings and even the arches of your feet and your toes.
When you do a side plank, you also stretch out your obliques (sides of your core) and if you really want to increase the stretch, you can do a rocking plank by swaying your body back and forth and moving your toes a few inches either way.
5. Better Coordination
When you play sports, run, cycle or swim, the strong core that you develop from practicing planks makes you more efficient overall. Your arms and legs get assistance from your stable midsection so they don’t have to do all the work. This means that you can last longer and be more resistant to injury.
Again, because planking strengthens your core, not just your abdominals, it allows your body to perform as a unit, instead of a floppy meat-sack of individual parts. Doing plank variations, like one-armed or one-legged planks, can increase both your balance and coordination.
Because planking strengthens your core, not just your abdominals, it allows your body to perform as a unit, instead of a floppy meat-sack of individual parts.
6. Better Mood
As we learned in my interview with Dr. Heisz of the NeuroFit Lab, any and every exercise can boost your mood and planks are no different. But I find any exercise that changes your entire perspective and view of the world has an even more profound mood boost. Try crawling around on the floor without cracking a smile, I dare you.
7. Better Balance
Doing side planks or any plank variation with extensions of your limbs, or planks performed on a stability ball, are extremely effective for building balance. As I mentioned before, planks also work the muscles that you need to maintain proper posture (back, chest, shoulders, abs, and neck) and if you do them regularly, you will be able to balance like a champ.
How to Plank
I highly recommend that you watch a how-to video and look at some pictures (in this case from my buddy Abi Carver of Yoga15) on how to plank if you have never done one before. But for those of you who prefer learning from a description, here you go:
- Lay face down on the floor (a soft mat can make this more comfortable).
- Place your elbows directly under your shoulders and align your wrists with your elbows.
- Push your body up so you create a straight and flat line from your toes to your head.
- Keep your chin in close to your neck (think of holding a tennis ball under your chin).
- Engage your abs, like you are about to be punched in the stomach, and squeeze your gluteal (tailbone) and thigh muscles simultaneously.
- Breathe normally.
- Hold this plank position for a few seconds at first and increase the duration over time.
- Rest and repeat.
Pro Tip 1: Your belly button is attached to your transverse abdominis, which holds your gut inside you and gives your spine and vertebrae their support. If you pull your belly button in, you can contract the inner transverse abdominis muscle. If you want a six-pack rectus abdominis, this is a good way to start.
Pro Tip 2: Perform what is often known as a kegel squeeze by drawing your lower pelvic muscles up and holding them tight. The kegel movement is similar to trying to stop urinating in the middle of going to the bathroom. Doing this while planking can really help you focus on the abdominals and get the most out of the plank.
Common Plank Mistakes
Proper form is important no matter what exercise you are doing and when performing planks it’s no different. Sure, it’s not like doing a heavy deadlift where a single wrong move can send you directly to the chiropractor, but it is still important to keep an eye on your form.
Neck or low back pain while planking can be an indication of weakness in the upper or lower parts of the spine. If the core is too weak, the spine will droop and that can cause the vertebrae to compress. If this happens, try holding the plank position for a few seconds only, and slowly build your way up.
Sagging, drooping, or getting out of alignment is something you want to make sure you don’t do. You can get a friend to watch you or even place a broomstick, yardstick or hockey stick on your back. If you are in alignment, the top of the stick should touch the head, the middle should rest between the shoulder blades, and the bottom of the stick should rest between your cheeks (no, your other cheeks).
Keep your back flat (and your bum tucked in) to really get the core working the way it should. You want to feel your abs engage from top to bottom in the plank position.
Keep your neck in a neutral position. It is also important to think of your head and neck as simply an extension of your back. Keep your eyes on the floor (not on your reflection in the mirror or on your yoga neighbour).
Keep your breathing, deep and slow. Denying yourself oxygen can make you dizzy and eventually nauseated. In through the nose and out through the mouth.
If your form starts to fall apart, it is time to quit or at least take a rest. When it comes to exercise, quality always trumps quantity in my book.
Elbows or Hands?
If you really want to target your abs, then the elbow plank is a good option. That variation focuses more on your core muscles to do the work.
Planking with your arms straight and palms on the ground involves (not surprisingly) a bunch of arm muscles along with the core. If you’re looking for a full-body exercise and you want to strengthen your upper body as well, this is a great option.
Getting up on your arms is likely to take some of your focus away from the transverse abdominis and if your main goal is to strengthen that transverse abdominis muscle (flatten those abs), a forearm plank is the way to go.
If you really want to go for the burn then I suggest that you combine the elbow plank and the full plank together (back and forth) by doing the up-down plank.
That being said, it is often easier for beginners to keep their shoulder blades down and back and to maintain proper form when they are on their elbows. It also has the added advantage of taking pressure off the wrists which is something that can help people who don’t quite have the upper body strength to pull it off. It’s also helpful for people who have tendonitis or inflammation in the wrists and forearms.
A forearm plank will help you target those abs more effectively, but a standard straight-arm plank is better for total-body conditioning.
In a nutshell: a forearm plank will help you target those abs more effectively, but a standard straight-arm plank is better for total-body conditioning. For best overall results, switch it up frequently and add in some dynamic plank movements, as well. I will give you my favourite plank workout at the end.
Should You Plank?
You really can’t go wrong with doing planks two or three times a week (as long as you have good form). Hold the plank position for as long as you can maintain a straight line between your shoulders and ankles, keep your butt in line with your shoulders and hips, and make sure you aren’t collapsing your lower back. As soon as that starts to happen, take a break and come back to it later.
You can eventually add side planks, lateral movements, twists, or put your hands or feet on an unstable surface. There are too many variations for me to list here but a simple google search will reveal a veritable woodshed full of planks.
To finish off, here is my favourite plank series to keep me and the athletes that I coach strong, stable, flexible, balanced, and injury-free.
Brock’s Favourite Plank Routine
Hold the following plank poses for a few seconds each on your elbows and then repeat the entire series again up on your hands:
- Regular Plank
- Plank with raised right arm
- Plank with raised left arm
- Plank with raised right leg
- Plank with raised left leg
- Plank with raised right arm and left leg
- Plank with raised left arm and right leg
- Side plank on the right
- Side plank on the left
- Side plank on the right with raised top arm and leg
- Side plank on the left with raised top arm and leg