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Why plank exercises are important for optimal fitness

If you want a strong, stable core and freedom from pain, you need to master planks

Planks are essential for a stronger core. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Planks are essential for a stronger core. (Photo: Istockphoto)

It is usually the final exercise one performs before cooling down and stretching and it shall also be the final exercise in our series that we ran throughout January to familiarise you with the most basic movements that make up the foundation of fitness. With all the dynamic movements — push-ups, pull-ups, squats and sit-ups — already tackled, we turn our attention to the most important stability-enhancing move: planks.

The core is composed to many more muscles than just the abdominals. There are more than 29 pairs of muscles(abdomen, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, spine and lower back) in lumbopelvic (hip-spine) complex working to stabilize the spine, pelvis and hips during functional movements, found a 2008 study by University of Colorado’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

The central powering unit

In his paper The Role of Core Stability in Athletic Function, W. Ben Kibler of the US-based Lexington Clinic Sports Medicine Centre, outlines the importance of core stability in movement and athletic activities. He writes that core stability is important to “control the movement of the trunk over the torso in attempt to transfer energy for integrated athletic activities.” Simply put, stability training is the first step towards building a strong base for fitness and planks help achieve that by strengthening the core.

Also read: The importance of sit-ups

“People who start lifting weights or pick up any repetitive sport like running or cycling should be done only after adequate mobility and stability training for 8-12 weeks if not more,” says Gagan Arora, a Delhi-based coach and the founder of Kosmic Fitness. Those who dive straight into workouts or endurance sports without any stability and mobility work are more susceptible to injury, he adds.

Planks come with a bundle of benefits to build and check your core strength from time to time. In fact, Arora performs elbow and side planks as standard assessment protocol for many of his clients. “One should learn to activate right muscles before clocking more time in planks. From beginners to elites, few plank variations are always good to incorporate in exercise regimen to build and maintain strong core muscles,” he says.

Also Read: Why squats are important

I had been lazy about core stabilisation workouts before I ran my first half marathon in 2009. That lack of training showed when I stopped, stretched out a cramp and limped the last 7km to the finish line. Determined to reduce my suffering, I worked on planks and other core exercises to supplement my running and weight training over the next year. It helped not only in shedding 20 minutes from my previous half marathon timing but I was also in a lot less pain as I had paid heed to engaging my core more while out on the course.

There are several variations of the plank such as the side plank, weighted planks, hollow hold (inverse plank), superman hold, bird-dog, boat hold, glute-bridge and star planks. Then there are dynamic planks such as the plank walk, plank rows, the wall walk and hollow rocks to name just a few. Advanced planks such as L-sit, flag holds, front and reverse levers and the planche hold are the basis of sports such as gymnastics and pole dancing.

Will planks give you six-pack abs?

Most of our efforts to focus on the core are driven by achieving a firmer and slimmer tummy, and a six-pack if possible. However, planks, just like sit-ups, are not going to carve any abs on to your body. There is a lot more happening under those cosmetic six-pack abs that is vital for optimal human locomotion and performance, explains Arora. “Rectus abdominals, referred to as six-pack, is one component of core muscles and is definitely trained while holding the plank. But (to see abs come to life), you need to watch your diet, follow a comprehensive workout regimen and reduce the body fat percentage… that’s what would make those abs visible,” he says.

Also Read: The science of the pull-up

Planks are an easy-to-perform exercise and require no equipment at all. They are so versatile, that once you master them, you can do them as part of your warm-ups, main workout or, even as a cool down move. They are also great as a standalone exercise when mixed up with some other bodyweight exercises like squats, pushups, jumping jacks and mountain climbers in the HIIT format.

How to perform basic planks

-Lie flat on your stomach and raise yourself to balance on toes and elbows. The toes could be together or hip-width apart and elbows under your shoulders, shoulder width apart.

-Make sure to squeeze your stomach and buttocks while keeping your head, body and legs engaged in a straight line.

-Take care not to raise or drop your hips else the core won’t be engaged.

-Hold this position for a predetermined period of time. 30 seconds is a good starting point.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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