Planking –– A good few hours and too many G&Ts after watching the World Cup Final in 2018, I found myself nose down in a forearm plank, on the floor of a friend’s sitting room. Next to me was a similarly braced male acquaintance, whose challenge I had accepted.
Minutes passed before we both started to show signs of strain. Five minutes in, my core was still intact, but my knuckles were whitening. As we passed the 10-minute mark, everyone else, luckily, had grown bored of our bravado and we were able to settle on an amicable draw; egos intact.
The plank, an isometric core-strength exercise that involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up for the maximum possible time, is both feared and prized in fitness circles.
Its inventor is often cited as Joseph Pilates, who developed the exercise in the early 1900s. Now, a new study has found that the plank and other isometric exercises such as wall sits and leg extensions are better at preventing high blood pressure than going for a run, walk or a bike ride. Scientists at Canterbury Christ Church University, in Kent, reviewed more than 200 trials which looked at a range of exercises and how they impacted blood pressure.
Aerobic exercise was found to be less effective than isometric exercises, such as the plank, which involve holding the body in a position with no muscle or joint movement. “The benefits of resistance training go much further – strengthening muscles and bones, reducing resting heart rate, contributing to a healthy body weight,” says Livvy Probert, co-founder of corporate wellness service HAWQ, who has an MSc in sport and health sciences from the University of Exeter.
The real beauty of isometric exercises is their accessibility: they require no equipment, allowing them to be done almost anywhere, and at any time. For busy office workers struggling to squeeze in their visit to the gym, isometric exercises are low impact and low requirement that can easily be fitted in at home or work (depending on your colleagues).
However, there are some caveats that mean it’s not one plank fits all, according to Probert. While she is pleased conversation is moving more towards the importance of resistance training, as well as the variations within this type of training, the plank isn’t the easiest pose to master.
“It always gets mixed reviews – from dodgy technique limiting the effectiveness, to some claiming that it’s the holy grail of getting a six-pack,” says Probert. “When done correctly, it can be a useful exercise to help strengthen our core muscles. It’s also touted as one of the most commonly done wrong exercises.”
Monique Eastwood, the trainer responsible for the toned muscles of Stanley Tucci, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt, loves planks. She has developed the Eastwood Movement Method from her experience of dance, Pilates and exercise, and the plank is a staple position. But it’s one that is unique to each individual, she points out. “It presents a different challenge depending on your body type,” says Eastwood.
First off, the less you weigh, the easier it will be. “I happen to be quite compact and balanced, so my plank is going to be a lighter and easier effort for me,” she explains. “If you are someone who is a little bit more loaded on the top or bottom half, your isometric plank is going to be a bigger effort.”
Extra weight isn’t the only challenge, though. The basic shape to aim for is a neutral spine that avoids tucking or arching the pubic bone. If you are hypermobile (very flexible joints), it will be harder to keep your spine neutral.
“Your abdominals have to work even harder to pull back and stabilise your spine,” says Eastwood. “If you have a rigid spine, more solid, without those hypermobile areas, it’s going to be easier for you to be in that place, than someone fighting that gravitational pull all the time.”
Many men have more upper body strength, which means they are less likely to strain their wrists and shoulders. Using your forearms, instead of straight arms, will “stop you overloading your wrists and stooping into your chest muscles more than you should be,” says Eastwood.
“I’d bring you up to straight arms on your wrists when I felt your back could take the strain off the wrist and elbows and hold you in that position,” she adds.
If your deep core strength needs building up, you can also drop onto your knees. Then, to build strength, Eastwood recommends lifting and lowering your knees, remembering to engage your core, glutes and legs.
“Or hold a box position, with the knees in line with the hips, on all fours,” she advises. “Shift into your legs – most people want to shift on to their arms. You really want to get the weights towards the lower half of the body where there is more bigger muscle groups like the glutes and quads.”
Then you can play around with holding it a bit longer. “As soon as you feel the body is shifting forward and dumping on the wrists, and the shoulders have lost their stability, drop the knees down,” says Eastwood. Other things to be aware of include not cricking the neck backwards, or dropping the head too low.
Once you’ve built up the strength in the transverse abdominis (a deep abdominal muscle), and obliques, you can start to do more funky planks.
Eastwood loves knee to shoulder moves, walking one leg out a bit to challenge the core, or raising an arm up, and then raising the opposite leg. “So you’re really challenging yourself on the unilateral muscles,” she says. “That’s quite challenging.”
Not one that I’ll be placing a bet on myself to hold for three-minutes any time soon.
Alternative planks to try
Plank with opposite arm and leg lift