Planks: Benefits, techniques, variations, mistakes, nutrition

Planks are a powerhouse exercise that many fitness enthusiasts swear by. They offer a full-body workout, focusing primarily on the core, but their benefits extend far beyond just muscle toning. 

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or just starting your fitness journey, planks can make a big difference.

This guide will cover the multiple advantages of planking, the right techniques to get the most out of the exercise, common mistakes to avoid, and even the role of nutrition in enhancing your planking performance. Ready to strengthen your core and more? Let’s get right to it!

What are planks?

Planks are a static bodyweight exercise that requires individuals to hold a position similar to a push-up but with the weight held on the forearms rather than the hands.

The goal is to form a straight line from head to heels, engaging the core muscles throughout. 

Unlike many exercises that involve repetitive motion, planks focus on endurance, challenging individuals to maintain proper form for extended periods [1]. 

The exercise primarily targets the core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, and the transverse abdominis. 

However, it also engages secondary muscles in the shoulders, chest, back, and legs. Planks are hailed for their simplicity and effectiveness. 

They require no equipment and can be performed virtually anywhere, making them a staple in many fitness routines. 

Benefits of planks

1. Strengthens and stabilizes the core

The core isn’t just about the abs; it encompasses a group of muscles that includes the obliques, lower back, and the transverse abdominis. 

Regularly performing planks activates and strengthens this group, which is pivotal for almost every movement our body makes. 

A strong core helps lift heavier weights, provides stability in dynamic movements, and protects the spine against injury.

Improves posture

2. Improves posture

Many of us spend hours hunched over computers, leading to poor posture. Planks promote a neutral spine alignment, helping in counteracting the reclined position [2]. 

A consistent planking routine can lead to a more upright posture, alleviating the stress on the back and shoulders. This can make daily activities more comfortable and reduce the risk of spinal complications later in life.

3. Enhances flexibility

While planks are primarily seen as a strength exercise, they also aid in improving flexibility. They stretch the muscles around the shoulder blades, collarbone, feet, and hamstrings. 

As a result, you’ll find an improved range of motion in various joints, making daily tasks and other exercises more fluid.

4. Boosts metabolism

Strength training exercises, like planks, increase muscle mass. The more muscle we have, the higher our resting metabolic rate becomes. This means your body will burn more calories even when you’re not exercising. 

Incorporating planks into your daily routine can support weight loss and maintenance goals by giving your metabolism a slight boost.

5. Reduces back pain

Back pain, especially in the lower region, is a common complaint among adults. Strengthening exercises, such as planks, fortify the muscles that support the back, leading to decreased pain. 

Moreover, by promoting proper posture, planks also ensure that unnecessary strain is not placed on the back, mitigating potential sources of discomfort.

6. Mental benefits

Planks are as much about mental endurance as physical strength. Holding a plank position requires focus and determination. 

Over time, as you challenge yourself to hold planks for longer durations, you’ll also notice improved mental grit and resilience [3]. 

This mental grit can prove advantageous in various spheres of life, teaching persistence and patience.

7. Whole-body workout

While the core is the primary focus, planks are a compound exercise, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. When you plank, you also work the muscles in your shoulders, chest, legs, and back. 

This makes it an efficient workout for those with limited time, as it simultaneously targets various body parts.

What muscles do planks work?

While planks are often associated with core strength, they genuinely offer a full-body workout. They provide holistic benefits, ensuring numerous muscle groups are activated and strengthened simultaneously.

1. Core muscles

a. Transverse Abdominis

Often referred to as the deep core muscle, the transverse abdominis lies beneath the obliques. Its primary job is to stabilize the spine and pelvis. This muscle contracts to provide stability and protect the lumbar spine when you hold a plank position.

b. Obliques

These are situated on either side of the abdomen, stretching from the lower half of the ribcage down to the hip and pubis.

They play a key role in side bending and waist twisting. Planks, especially side planks, engage and strengthen the obliques, promoting a toned waistline [4] and improved posture.

c. Rectus abdominis

This muscle extends along the front of the abdomen. It’s the muscle most people recognize as the “six-pack.”

While its aesthetic appeal is popular, its functional role is crucial: it supports movements of the lower back and aids in keeping internal organs intact. Planks target the rectus abdominis, enhancing its strength and definition.

2. Shoulders and upper back

a. Deltoids

Your shoulder muscles, known as deltoids, play a significant role in maintaining a plank position. They stabilize your arms and ensure your upper body remains lifted and in place.

b. Trapezius

Located in the upper back and extending to the neck, the trapezius helps stabilize the upper body during a plank. It works with the deltoids to support the upper body’s weight and prevent sagging.

3. Lower back

a. Erector spinae

This muscle group runs along the spine and plays an essential role in keeping our back straight during planks and everyday activities. Engaging the erector spinae in planks can lead to a more muscular back and a reduced risk of back pain.

4. Legs and glutes

a. Quadriceps

Found on the front part of the thigh, the quadriceps are activated during planks to keep the legs straight. Engaging the quads gives them a good workout but also aids in maintaining the integrity of the plank position.

b. Hamstrings

Located at the back of the thighs, hamstrings help stabilize the body during a plank, preventing the hips from sagging or lifting too high.

c. Gluteus maximus

The primary muscle of the buttocks, the gluteus maximus, also plays a role in the plank. It assists in maintaining a straight line from the head to the heels and contributes to hip stability.

How to do planks with proper form and technique

A plank’s effectiveness isn’t necessarily about the length of time you can hold it, but the quality of your form. The perfect technique yields the best results. Here are some tips: 

1. Maintain proper body alignment

The essence of a good plank lies in maintaining a straight line from the crown of your head to your heels. Your eyes should be gazing down at the floor, neck and spine neutral. 

Ensure your shoulders are directly over your wrists (in a high plank) or elbows (in a forearm plank).

Hips should neither sag towards the ground nor pike upwards. Think of creating a long, straight board with your body.

2. Engage the core

A plank’s primary focus is the core, so it’s vital to activate these muscles. Tighten your abdominals as if you’re bracing for a punch. 

This engagement maximizes the exercise’s benefits and provides essential support to the lower back. 

To check if you’re doing it right, your belly shouldn’t drop towards the floor. Instead, it should feel like a taut drum.

3. Control your breath

Breathing can sometimes be overlooked during a plank, but it plays a crucial role. Avoid holding your breath; it can increase blood pressure and prevent muscles from working optimally. 

Take steady and deep breaths. Inhale through the nose, expanding your diaphragm, and exhale through the mouth. Consistent breathing will also help you hold the position for extended periods.

4. Position your arms

In a high plank, spread your fingers wide, pushing through the palms to elevate your upper body. For forearm planks, ensure your elbows are beneath the shoulders, and your arms are parallel.

5. Proper leg and foot placement

Keep your feet hip-width apart. This provides stability and balance. Press through the balls of your feet, engaging the quadriceps, which helps lift the knees off the ground and activate the core even more.

6. Duration

For beginners, aim to hold the plank for short intervals, perhaps 15-20 seconds, gradually increasing the time as your strength improves.

Listen to your body; it’s better to maintain a shorter plank with excellent form than a longer one with poor technique.

How to do planks for beginners

Starting with planks can be a tad daunting, especially when you see seasoned fitness enthusiasts holding the position for hours. 

However, planks are an inclusive exercise suitable for all fitness levels, and beginners can benefit tremendously from them. Here’s a guide tailored for those new to the world of planking.

1. Start slow

Rushing into advanced plank variations or trying to hold for too long can result in strain or injury. For beginners, it’s crucial to take it slow. 

Start with shorter intervals, focusing on getting the form right, and gradually increase your duration as your strength and endurance improve.

Try modified plank variations

2. Try modified plank variations

To make planks more accessible, beginners can opt for modified versions that reduce the intensity while still providing excellent core engagement.

a. Knee planks

Assume the regular plank position, but rest on your knees instead of holding yourself on your toes. Ensure your hips are aligned with your body and not sticking up or sagging down.

b. Incline planks

Performing a plank on an elevated surface, like a bench or a sturdy table, can reduce the challenge. Place your hands or forearms on the elevated surface and extend your legs behind you. This reduces the amount of body weight you need to support.

3. Duration and frequency recommendations

Initially, aim for 10-30 seconds intervals [5]. Add 5 seconds to your plank every few days as you grow more comfortable. It’s also beneficial to incorporate short breaks between these intervals. For frequency, try to incorporate planking 3-4 times a week into your routine.

4. Tips for progression

Once you feel confident in your form and can hold a modified plank for 60 seconds or more, consider progressing to the standard plank position. Remember to maintain proper technique and focus on quality over quantity.

5. Focus on breathing

One common oversight beginners make is forgetting to breathe. Proper breathing helps maintain a rhythm and also makes holding the plank feel more manageable. Deep, consistent breaths are the way to go.

6. Engage your entire body

While the core is the primary focus, planks are a full-body exercise. Ensure you’re engaging your legs, glutes, and shoulders too. 

This maximizes benefits and distributes the work across multiple muscle groups, making it easier to maintain the position.

7. Consistency is key

Like any exercise, the benefits of planking become most evident with consistent practice. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t hold for very long initially. With time and persistence, you’ll see improvement.

Common planking variations 

Beyond the standard plank, there’s a range of variations catering to different skill levels and targeting varied muscle groups. Here’s a breakdown of some popular plank variations:

1. Standard plank

The classic. Position yourself in a push-up stance but with your weight on your forearms instead of your hands. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels.

2. Forearm plank

Similar to the standard plank it places more emphasis on the core. Begin by lying face down, then lift yourself onto your forearms and toes, keeping your body straight and core tight.

3. Side plank

Lay on one side, propping your body up on one forearm with the elbow directly below the shoulder. The feet can either be stacked or one in front of the other. This variation particularly targets the obliques.

4. Reverse plank

Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Place your palms on the floor behind you, fingers pointing towards your feet. Lift your body off the ground, forming a straight line from your chest to your feet.

5. Walking plank

Start in the standard plank position. Transition to a push-up position by placing one hand on the ground followed by the other, then returning to the forearm position. This engages both the upper body and the core.

6. Plank with leg raise

From a standard or forearm plank position, lift one leg off the ground, keeping it straight. Alternate between legs. This intensifies the workout for the glutes and lower back.

7. Plank with arm raise

In the plank position, extend one arm straight out in front of you while maintaining balance and form. Alternate between arms. This variation challenges stability and works the shoulders more.

7 Mistakes to avoid when doing planks

While planks look straightforward, they require careful attention to form. Even slight misalignments can reduce their effectiveness or increase injury risk. Here are some common mistakes people often make when planking:

1. Arching or drooping the lower back

Perhaps the most common error, a sagging back not only reduces the exercise’s effectiveness but also places undue strain on the lumbar spine. The reverse – an arched back with hips raised too high – shifts focus away from the core muscles.

2. Overlooking the neck and head position

Looking up or tucking the chin can strain the neck. The ideal position is neutral, with the gaze directed towards the floor [6] and the head aligned with the spine.

3. Flaring the elbows

In a forearm plank, your elbows should be directly below your shoulders. Flaring them out to the sides can strain the shoulder joints.

4. Holding breath

Breathing helps engage the core and provides muscles with much-needed oxygen. Holding your breath or breathing too shallowly can make the plank more challenging and less effective.

5. Not engaging the core

Some just hold the position without actively engaging their core muscles. Actively tightening the abs, almost as if preparing to be punched in the stomach, can make a significant difference.

6. Forgetting the legs

Though primarily a core exercise, planks should engage the entire body. Neglecting to activate the leg muscles can compromise form and diminish the plank’s full-body benefits.

7. Overdoing duration

Aiming for marathon-length planks isn’t always best. Holding a plank with proper form for a shorter duration is far more beneficial than a longer one with poor technique.

Plank progressions to challenge yourself

Planks, like all exercises, can be adjusted in difficulty as your strength and endurance grow. Incorporating progressions is essential for continual improvement and to keep your workouts invigorating. Here are some progressions and tweaks to up the plank game:

1. Extended plank

Increase the distance between your feet and hands. Extending your arms forward and holding the plank position will place more load on your core, demanding greater stability and strength.

2. Plank to push-up

Start in a forearm plank position. Push up onto one hand and then the other until you’re in a push-up stance. Return to the forearm position one arm at a time. This dynamic movement recruits more of the upper body and challenges coordination.

3. Rocking plank

From the forearm plank position, rock your body forward and backward by moving on your toes. This subtle movement increases the demand on your core and shoulders.

4. Plank with alternating touches

From the high plank position, lift one hand off the floor to touch the opposite shoulder, and then switch. The key is to keep your body as still as possible, resisting the urge to sway from side to side.

5. Side plank with leg lift

While in the side plank position, lift the top leg straight up. This variation enhances oblique engagement and challenges your balance.

Side plank with leg lift

6. One-arm plank

This is exactly as it sounds – a plank held with one arm. By removing a point of support, your body needs to work harder to stabilize, demanding more from the core and the supporting shoulder.

7. Plank with feet on an unstable surface

Placing your feet on a BOSU ball, a stability ball, or even a cushioned surface makes it harder to stabilize, intensifying the engagement of core stabilizers.

8. Plank jacks

Starting in a high plank, jump your feet out to the side as if you’re doing a horizontal jumping jack. This dynamic move increases the heart rate and challenges core stability with the added movement.

9. Weighted plank

For an advanced challenge, wear a weighted vest or place a weight plate on your back while planking. Ensure the weight is centered and stable, and always prioritize form over adding extra weight.

10. Decline plank

Place your feet on an elevated surface like a bench or step. This shifts your body weight forward, increasing the load on the upper body and core.

Nutrition and planks

When discussing planks, a core-intensive exercise, certain dietary considerations can help enhance performance and recovery.

1. Protein

Engaging in any form of strength training, including planks, can cause micro-tears in muscle fibers. 

Protein plays a pivotal role in repairing and rebuilding these fibers, leading to muscle growth and strength gains

Incorporating lean proteins like chicken, turkey, tofu, beans, and lentils post-workout can aid recovery.

2. Healthy fats

Sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil provide sustained energy, which can be beneficial if you integrate planks into a more extended workout session. 

These fats also support joint health, which is crucial given the weight-bearing nature of planks.

3. Hydration

Planks, though static, can be a sweaty business. Staying hydrated ensures muscle function, flexibility, and stamina remain optimal. 

Drink water throughout your workout and consider electrolyte solutions if you’re engaging in longer or more intense sessions.

4. Carbohydrates

Carbs are the primary energy source for our muscles. While planks aren’t as taxing as aerobic activities, having a balanced carb intake ensures you have the stamina to maintain proper form and duration. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are excellent sources.

5. Micronutrients

Calcium and vitamin D play a role in bone health, significant considering the weight-bearing nature of planks. Ensure you’re consuming foods rich in these nutrients or consider supplementation if your diet lacks them.

6. Pre-workout snacks

If you’re doing planks as part of a broader workout, consider a small snack an hour before exercising. Something like a banana or a handful of almonds can provide the quick energy needed to push through.

7. Timing

Avoid large meals right before a plank session. A full stomach can make the exercise uncomfortable and might even reduce your ability to engage your core fully.

Closing thoughts

Planks are recognized for their unmatched ability to strengthen and stabilize the core. From understanding the muscles they engage to mastering the perfect technique, every detail enhances their effectiveness. 

Equally important is recognizing common pitfalls and continually challenging oneself through varied progressions. Nutrition, too, plays its part, ensuring our bodies are well-equipped for both performance and recovery. 

As with all fitness endeavors, consistency paired with knowledge yields the most fruitful results. So, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced fitness enthusiast, integrating planks into your routine promises a stronger, more resilient core.

FAQs

What are planks good for?

Planks are primarily beneficial for strengthening and stabilizing the core muscles, encompassing the abdomen, back, and hips. Additionally, they enhance posture, support spinal health, and boost overall functional fitness.

How long should a beginner plank for?

A beginner should aim to hold a plank for 20 to 30 seconds initially. As strength and endurance improve, they can gradually increase the duration over time.

How can I improve my planks?

To improve your planks, focus on maintaining proper form, including a straight body line and engaged core, and gradually increase the duration as your strength builds. Introducing varied plank exercises and ensuring consistent practice will also enhance strength and technique.

Are planks good for everyone?

While planks are a versatile exercise that can benefit many, they might not be suitable for individuals with certain injuries or health conditions. It’s always recommended to consult with a healthcare or fitness professional before incorporating new exercises into a routine.

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/isometric-exercises 
[2] https://www.physio-pedia.com/Plank_exercise 
[3] https://powerliftingtechnique.com/proper-plank-form/ 
[4] https://www.today.com/health/how-do-side-plank-target-your-obliques-tone-your-core-t218374 
[5] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/straight-talk-on-planking-2019111318304 
[6] https://www.spineckpt.com/5-Mistakes-to-Avoid-while-doing-Planks.html

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