If strengthening your core is of any importance to you, there’s no doubt you’ve attempted a plank once or twice. I try to incorporate some form of a plank at least once per week – it has become a staple in my exercise toolbox. The beauty of the plank is that it works multiple abdominal muscles while putting very little stress on the lumbar spine. It’s also easy to do – you don’t need any equipment and it gives you that burn in your abs that hurts so good. It’s simple and effective.
There’s more to the plank, though, than meets the eye. It’s more than just holding a straight position for as long as you can.
Although you’re likely already reaping the benefits from your efforts, there are a few tweaks you can make to maximize your benefits.
Here’s some suggestions to make sure – from head to toe – you’re getting the most out of your planks.
Where Should Your Head Be During a Plank?
Too many times I see people holding a plank while looking straight ahead in the mirror – head up and neck strained. This puts way too much unnecessary strain on the neck.
Instead, look straight down at the floor. Your neck should be neutral – in line with the natural curvature of your spine.
Another tip would be to slightly tuck the chin toward the ceiling. This will activate your deep neck flexor muscles, which tend to be weak in most people. Under-use of these muscles can lead to over-use of the cervical extensors and lead to poor movement coordination. Oftentimes in physical therapy, I’ll give this prone chin tuck to patients as an exercise by itself. Therefore, why not make the most of your plank and incorporate this simple addition?
Where Should Your Arms Be During a Plank?
I often see people with their arms either too far forward or too far back while planking.
Arms too far forward activates the Lats which connect to the muscles of the lower back and can pull you into extension, which isn’t good.
Arms too far back and you’re putting a great deal of strain on your shoulders.
Ideally, your elbows should be directly underneath your shoulders. I prefer to have my forearms neutral with my hands in a fist, thumb-side up. However, I don’t see a problem with having your palms facing down on the floor. Whatever hand position is comfortable for you won’t bear much consequence in my opinion.
What Should Your Shoulders Be Doing During a Plank?
Perhaps the most common flaw I see with planks happens at the Scapula (shoulder blade).
Most people relax this area, causing the shoulder blades to retract toward the ceiling. To an observer, this looks like the blades are sticking up like wings.
By protracting your shoulder blades – out and toward the floor – you engage your Serratus Anterior Muscles, which are important in shoulder function. They assist in rotating the shoulder upward and are another commonly weak muscle that frequently gets under-utilized.
Again, a great opportunity to strengthen a weak area.
To get this right, imagine you’re pushing your forearms into the ground, lifting your upper back toward the ceiling. To an observer, the shoulder blades should now be flush with the rest of the upper back.
Where Should Your Lower Back Be During a Plank?
This is Planking 101. If you’ve ever received any instructions on how to plank, you’ve been told to not let your lower back dip down toward the ground.
Well, I’m going to tell you again: don’t let your lower back dip down toward the ground!
Even though everybody knows it, I still see it happening all the time.
If you let your lower back arch down, you essentially shut off your abdominals and rely on your legs and shoulders to do more of the work.
The whole point of the plank is to keep your body – and your spine – in a neutral position. This is where we can optimally brace our core for greater stabilization.
Since you already know it, do it right!
What Should Your Pelvis Be Doing During a Plank?
The pelvis should be in a neutral position if your lower back is in a neutral position. That being said, I’ve found it useful to focus more on my pelvic position during a plank to keep me neutral.
If you try to rotate your pelvis posteriorly (tuck the butt), your abdominals engage much more and your lower back remains neutral.
Give it a try and feel the difference.
How Long Should You Hold a Plank?
A study performed recently1 provided normative data for plank hold times.
- For males the 50th percentile was 110 seconds
- For females the 50th percentile was 72 seconds
My suggestion would be to work on your form first, then worry about time.
The plank is one of the easiest exercises to allow yourself to cheat in order to squeeze out a longer hold time.
If you want to cheat, go right ahead. If you’re doing a plank to win money from a competition or bet, or if you’re trying to impress a potential mate, do what you have to do – no rules apply.
But if you want to get the most out of each and every exercise you do – if you don’t want to waste any time or effort – follow these guidelines to perfect your plank.
Question: What other exercises do you need tips on? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
- Strand SL, et al. Norms for an Isometric Muscle Endurance Test. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2014; 40:93-102. ↩︎