How To Perfect Your Plank
The plank is a fantastic exercise with many benefits - one of my favourites - when done well and with good form. In Pilates we aim to do all exercises with good form and technique but with the plank, it is even more important. When a plank's done badly, it's most likely because you are not sufficiently engaging your abs which could potentially lead to low back ache and possibly injury.
I recently completed the McMillian Cancer Research Plank Challenge. the aim of which was to plank everyday for a month and try to get up to 3 mins. As part of this challenge I joined a Facebook group with the other participants of the challenge. A couple of weeks into the challenge there were quite a few members who had been really pushing themselves to increase their time had to drop out because they were experiencing lower back pain, Whilst their times seemed really impressive initially, there is no point holding a plank for any amount of time if you are not doing it correctly. You are literally just hanging on in there with your back extensors and they are not going to like it!
A general rule to remember when doing a plank:
Whilst the plank is a great exercise for the whole body that involves core contraction, upper body strength and lumbo-pelvic stability, the focus should be your anterior muscles (the ones at the front of the body) working to hold you up in position (eg abdominals, quads, pecs), rather than posterior muscles (eg back extensors, glutes) pulling you up .
Plank watch points:
Keep a neutral, flat back - don't allow the hips to drop
Have a conscious connection with your abs - think about drawing the lower abs up and in slightly to gently pull your pubic bone through but not so much that you come into a pelvic tilt and start to flex the spine. Be aware of this connection as you hold you plank. If you lose it, come down.
Stabilise your shoulder blades - don't allow the shoulders to come up by the ears. Push the hands into the mat a little bit and allow the shoulder blades to melt down away from the ears and scoop around the ribcage.
Watch your head position - keep the neck in neutral. Don't allow the head to drop and look at the floor but equally you don't want to be looking up and shortening through the back of the neck. Imagine you have a tennis ball under your chin that you are trying to keep in place.
With your toes tucked under, sit back into your heels a little and feel the quads (the muscles in the front of the thigh) engage to support you.
Spread you fingers to distribute the load throughout the hands.
Keep a steady breath - breathing wide and deep into your ribcage.
Know when you're losing your form - don't hold for too long. Focus on the technique not the time held.
How long should I plank?
Aim for anywhere between 10 seconds and 2 minutes. Research suggests that after 2 minutes you have reached the maximum benefits a plank can offer and anything beyond that is counter-productive.
If you are not yet up to a full plank, start small with a bear lift in 4-point kneel:
Come into 4pk with the knees under the hips and hands under the shoulders
Move the hands slightly further ahead of the shoulders
Press into the hands a little and melt the shoulders away from the ears
Ensure the head is lifted and not dropping, keeping the neck in neutral
Take a couple of pelvic tilts to bring awareness of your pelvis and and spine is in a neutral position.
Engage the abdominals by drawing them up and in so that you can feel them engaging but not so much that you start to flex the back
Tuck the toes under and image you have a helium balloon attached to your tailbone (the end of you spine).
Allow the balloon to float your knees off the floor 1" keeping your neutral spine
Keep a steady breath as you hold the position
Mix it up to target different muscle groups:
Come down to forearms
Target the obliques with some side planks
Rock forwards and backwards on to the balls of the feet
Step in and out with each leg
Add some glute work with individual leg lifts working from the gluteal line making sure that the pelvis stays level
Add a prop - pop a small Pilates ball in between the ankles or thighs to increase adductor (inner thighs) and pelvic floor connection
Click on the image below to access a 10-minute Advanced Ab workout that includes front and side plank variations: