Many of us could use more strength through the muscles of our midsections, commonly referred to as the "core" of our bodies. According to Harvard Medical School, almost every move we make revolves around the core. Thus, a weak core can lead to numerous negative issues, not only in our midsections, but throughout the body in structures such as the neck, shoulders, hips and knees.
What can we do to strengthen this area? Harvard Medical suggests a plank as a great way to activate and strengthen the many muscles that make up this region. Today, let's look at what this exercise is and how it just may be what we've been looking for.
Simple and effective
The plank is the perfect exercise to strengthen the midsection, since it can be practiced every day and is safe for almost everyone with many modifications to make it easier or more difficult. The basic setup to learn the plank is to get on the floor in the quadraped (all fours) position with your arms straight and hands directly beneath your shoulders, and your knees directly beneath your hips. Keep your back flat and neck straight while looking down at the floor. When you can hold this position for 30 seconds -- congratulations! -- you have graduated to the full plank.
A full (straight-arm) plank is essentially a static hold in a push-up position. This takes what we have learned in the basic setup and adds some load because you are now stretched straight from your head to your toes. Keep your eyes facing the ground as you brace your belly and squeeze your glutes firmly together. The key is to maintain this position with your back straight and without letting your hips rise or sag. Start slow by holding this position for around 10 seconds. As you become stronger at the move, progress in small increments up to 30 seconds. If you keep practicing, eventually you could make it all the way to a full two minutes!
According to the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM), if you have difficulty performing the move in this fashion, begin by practicing with straight arms in the push-up position and your knees on the ground. After some time performing the movement in this manner, you may be able to progress to the basic plank positioning balanced on your hands or on your forearms and elbows.
Ready for more?
Of no surprise, over time the basic plank may not sufficiently challenge you as it once did. No need for concern, there are multiple ways to progress this move making it more difficult to perform. For added required effort, chiropractor Eric Goodman suggests slowly walking your hands forward about six inches, drop your hips about two inches without allowing your belly to sag and press your heels back as far as you can. Hold this position for 30 seconds before slowly walking your hands back to your starting position.
Another option given to us by fitness trainer Alwyn Cosgrove is a plank with a reduced base of support. This can be done by raising a foot a few inches off the ground while you are planking, or raising an arm and extending it forward during plank time, or even a combination of the two-- raising and extending opposite arms and legs in alternating fashion. Each of these variations can be done from a straight or bent arm position, and may be done for either time or repetitions.
While some people still think solely of the abdominals when the term core is mentioned, we now know that those are but one group of many that make up this musculature. The plank is a time-tested, no equipment needed and effective move that has the ability to simultaneously activate most of the muscles of the core. If you have never tried the move before, give it a shot.
If you are already doing it, try a progression to make it more challenging. Who knows, the plank may just become your new favorite exercise!
Jeremy Walraven is a fitness consultant at Bradley Wellness Center.