Pros and Problems with Performing Planks and Planking Challenges

Dave Reddy demonstrating a pressing strength pattern - the push up plank

Push Up Planks are great for building strength-endurance and serving as a prerequisite for more advanced core training.

For most people, planks are a pretty darned good exercise. Similar to food, there aren’t too many “bad” exercises, only bad habits and behaviors (aka exercise form) surrounding those exercises. Done correctly in moderation, planks can help you in two primary areas:

  1. Develop core muscle-endurance while helping you differentiate between your abdominal wall muscles and your breathing mechanisms. Meaning, you want to brace your core and abdominal muscles without necessarily holding your breath. Thus, make sure you can breathe deeply during a plank.
  2. Secondly, planks help develop total body, mostly upper body tension. Tension is key to strength. A strong tense grip for instance is associated with a strong shoulder girdle. Strength is our number one goal for both metabolic and functional improvements in the training arena. A properly performed plank helps us develop some wicked total body tension that can increase our core and postural strength which in turn helps reduce injury and improve everyday tasks and athletic endeavors.

(If you are a new mom, or will someday become a mom, and have children under the age of 5, check out this article and become familiar with core training systems like MuTu. Here is a in-depth article about planks and women: “If Planks Aren’t the Best Postpartum Exercise, Prove It!

But, because planks are relatively easy to attempt, assuming you have healthy shoulders AND big toes, everyone does them. And we assume that if we can only hold a 10 second plank with our first attempt, then 20 seconds is better, and 40 seconds is better and 4 minutes is like totally the best! Wrong. I have been there … I planked with 45 other people and can proudly say I won the “challenge” with about a 3.5 minute plank. I have never held one over 45 seconds since. I actually lead this particular group challenge and afterwards questioned whether I was doing the best thing for my training/client community. I was not.

Planks should absolutely be developed and practiced, but only up to performing a 45-60 second plank. After you can do a 45 second plank, it is time to make them more dynamic. Here are a few sample videos:

Push Ups & Negative Push Ups

Plank Rows

Walking Planks

BOSU Push Up Plank

Click here to open a PDF describing a few of my favorite core exercises – Weekend Warrior Rx Core Series.

So what is wrong with trying for a two minute plank?

I get that it is fun to occasionally go for a 90 second plank, but beyond a minute or so, we lose the upper body tension we are aiming for, and instead resort to “hanging on our meat” where we lose tension in areas of our body and we simply shift from our shoulder joints to our hip and lower back and begin sagging throughout. Or our hips (rear end) ever so slightly shift up meaning we have all but shut off our core muscles and are now relying on our hip flexors that in turn throws our hips and pelvis out of whack causing all sorts of issues in our knees, back and shoulders. Who wants that?

So if you are challenging yourself or others, do so by trying to hold a wicked strong, tense, strength improving plank position for up to a minute. Here are a few tips.

Tips for your groups Plank Challenge:

  • If your first plank attempt is under 20 seconds, your 3-5 week goal should be do double your time, with your goal being 45-60 seconds. (See the 3rd bullet on form.)
  • If you first attempt is 20-40 seconds, really focus on tensing your entire body throughout and double your plank time within 2-4 weeks. (See next bullet on form.)
  • If you can plank for 40-60 seconds on your first attempt, focus on quality over quantity. The key is tension – Begin on your forearms and toes, forearms parallel, fists tight, shoulders pulled away from your ears, and then this is key: simultaneously contract your quads, glutes and abs and continue checking in with each area to make sure everything is tight and contracted and TONED! You will not “tone” these areas if you cannot hold them tone for 40-60 seconds during a plank. Finally, breathe! Breathe and focus on exhaling a little bit more than you are inhaling. You should feel your abs get a tighter on your exhales.

To sum all of this up: you simply cannot hold a proper, effective and functional plank really well for over a minute unless you are Lance Armstrong and you blood dope. Then, well, maybe.

For a few of my favorite core exercises, check out the linked videos throughout this email and practice the moves on the attached PDF. Maybe I will develop a 6 Core Challenge after moving beyond planks.

Happy Planking People!

One Response to “Pros and Problems with Performing Planks and Planking Challenges”

  1. Week 8 Exercises - Pairing a Hamstring Stretch with a Straight Leg Sit Up Says:

    […] For more on planks and planking challenges, check out my Planking Post from […]

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