The plank is probably the most deceptive of all floor exercises. It looks so easy to prop yourself up on your hands or forearms and toes. In reality, it’s anything but easy. Most people fail at mastering the form, others struggle to extend their plank hold times. It makes you sweat, makes you shake, and makes you realise how long a minute actually can be. But do planks, especially in their conventional hold positions, really work? Fitness is a science that evolves, and conventional wisdom about exercises are always challenged. Just like how the traditional sit-up is now being discouraged due to the limited number of muscles it works, while adding strain on the neck and lower back.
In fact, the hole that the sit-up left in our core crazy workouts was quickly filled up by planks. So popular has the plank become that the International Association of Fire Fighters replaced its sit-up test with a plank test for new entrants in 2009. The man behind this quickly spreading plank fad was Stuart McGill, a researcher who has been studying and teaching spine mechanics for over three decades. McGill has, over the years, suggested changes to the plank routine, probably sparked by observing people do plank-hold challenges to absolutely no effect.
His opinion will be a welcome relief for those who are struggling with the exercise. "There's no utility to this kind of activity other than claiming a record. Basically holding repeated holds of 10 seconds is best for the average person," McGill told the UK’s The Telegraph in 2018.
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The first thing we must understand about conventional planks is that they won’t sculpt your abs (unless you add variations that further engage your core). What a plank hold will do is make your core strong. A plank will not add bulk or aesthetics as much as hanging leg raise or a reverse crunch. “Planks will make the core strong, which in turn will make your lifts strong, which in turn will help you build muscle faster. That is the never ending cycle of why one should do planks,” says Dr Pratik Patel, an orthopaedic surgeon who is studying spine specialisation at the Hinduja hospital in Mumbai.
While Patel is more forgiving of longer plank holds than McGill is, he says it is imperative to perform them with the right form. “A lot of times, people hold their breath, let their lower back fall, and that can cause all kinds of architectural problems in the abdomen and spine.” There are ways to check if you’re doing planks the right way: a burn in the arms or in your lower back means that your form is failing. But if your glutes, abs, and quads are quaking, you’re doing the plank right.
It’s also important to remember that planks alone will not strengthen your core. As McGill suggests on the basis of his extensive research on planks, one must focus on the core from all directions, for which he suggests “the big three” exercises: the curl-up, the bird-dog, and the side plank, all of which are in the YouTube video below.
“The conventional plank hold can be an excellent exercise for beginners but it is the variations that maximise its effect. One of my favourites is the weighted plank with plates on your back where the time under tension is not as important as the fact that you can lift the weight in that pose,” says Sagar Patil, a Delhi-based fitness trainer. Patil says that just like in any exercise, progression is important to get the most out of planks. Some of these include plank get-ups (where you keep switching from your palms to your forearms in plank position), plank kettle-bell drags, marching planks, side planks leg raises and side plank hip drops. These will add the desired rotations and work all your different abdominal muscles for a strong (and in time, sculpted) core.
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The health coach certification website ACE quotes Dr Wayne Wescott, an exercise science instructor, on the efficacy of long-duration planks, in an article called Reality Check: Are Planks Really The Best Core Exercise? “I’m not against planks, but I feel that they don’t work the abs in the most advantageous way and have multiple drawbacks. To build muscle strength you need to activate the muscle to near fatigue which typically takes 60-90 seconds. Any exercise that takes longer (including planks held beyond that range) doesn’t address muscle strength or size,” he says.
Patel gives an excellent weight-lifting analogy on what planks can achieve in a tangible sense. “A heavy lift in the gym may require you to wear a belt across your waist before you perform it. This belt, unlike what most people think, is not to support your lower back. It is to add support to your core. When you have a strong core, you will realise that over a period of time, you may not need to wear a belt for certain lifts.”
So the next time you’re planking it out, remember to keep an eye on the timer, since you may not need to end up sprawled on the mat after doing it, huffing in agony. Instead, try out more sets of less duration, and add a few variations to make a boring but terrifying pose turn into a challenging and effective one.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.