Straight talk on planking

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

The best exercise I do only takes a minute.

Granted, it is often the longest and most grueling 60 seconds of my life. I sweat, I shake, and I often collapse in relief when it’s over. But spending quality time in a plank pose always pays off.

The plank pose is where you hold a push-up position while resting on your forearms. This simple move is the ideal exercise for strengthening crucial core muscles. As you go about your day, almost every move you make revolves around your core — from picking up items on the floor to twisting to see if the coast is clear when driving.

Why is it important to have a strong core?

Your core is made up of several muscle groups and covers your abdominals, back, hips, pelvis, and buttocks. A weak core can cause all kinds of problems. It can lead to poor posture, and inevitably to neck and shoulder pain. Sore knees and hips often can be traced to a weak core.

But the biggest issue with core weakness is low back pain. Back muscles and your core help to stabilize your body before any movement. If your core is weak, the other surrounding muscles have to compensate. Over time, these muscles can suffer strain, which leads to lingering pain.

Strike a pose instead of a sit-up

The standard sit-up is often the go-to core strengthener, but it has limits. “It only targets a portion of the core musculature, and the bending-forward motion can strain the neck and lower back,” says Eric L’Italien, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Center.

By comparison, the plank pose activates all the core muscles at once, and doesn’t require extra movements that can cause stress or injury. “And because it has many modifications, it can be done by almost anyone, regardless of current fitness level,” says L’Italien.

How long should you hold a plank?

The world record for holding a plank is more than four hours, but thankfully, you don’t need to devote that much time. Most experts suggest anywhere from 10 up to 30 seconds is plenty. “Focus on doing multiple sets of smaller amounts of time,” says L’Italien.

As you progress, you can extend your plank for up to one or even two minutes, but don’t go beyond that. “Two minutes is often considered the maximum, and you don’t get much more benefit after that,” says L’Italien.

How often should you do planks?

You can perform a plank every day, on alternate days, or simply as part of your regular workouts. (I sometimes like to do mine during workday breaks.)

How to do a plank correctly

Here’s how to do a plank correctly:

  • Lie facedown with your forearms on the floor, with your legs extended and your feet together. You can use a mat or towel to make this more comfortable.
  • Push into your forearms as you raise your body so it forms a straight line from your head and neck to your feet. (Do not let your hips rise or sag.)
  • Keep your gaze down and hold this position as you engage your abdominal muscles. Take steady, even breaths.
  • Try to maintain the position for up to 30 seconds and then lower your body and rest. This completes one set. Work toward completing two to three sets.

When you first start to do planks, you may not be able to hold the correct position for very long. Keep practicing and you’ll find it becomes easier to do.

If resting on your forearms is uncomfortable, do the plank from a push-up position, with your arms fully extended. If you have back pain or other back issues, either do the plank on your knees or stand straight and lean against a counter so your body is at a 45° angle.

If you need more of a challenge, try alternating leg lifts during the pose: raise one leg for a second or two, and then repeat with the other leg.

Comments:

  1. Kay

    Is there anyone who should not plank? Any certain spine conditions? Thanks

  2. MikeR

    Mixing a set of normal planks with side planks adds an extra dimension to the workout. This has been good for my lower back issues. M

  3. Kathy Schroth

    I got costochondritis (inflammation of rib cartilage that can mimic a heart attack) from too much planking-especially side plank versions, so don’t push too hard if you are carrying any extra weight. Women are especially prone to this condition, and cartilage can’t be strengthened.

  4. Neil Wolkodoff, PhD

    While I feel the plank is a beneficial exercise, there is more to core health than this one exercise.

    Successful core training should involve static movements (like the plank), basic exercises like an oblique crunch on a fitball and functional movements like medicine ball tosses. Those reflect the demands on our core in a much more balanced way. If you rotate through these types of exercises for the core, your program will yield amazing results

  5. Brock Murdoch

    I do planks for about a minute and a half. Also, a terrific stomach exercise is to lie on your back. lift your legs about six inches off the floor, and hold your legs up for a minute or a little longer.

  6. H.J. Hannah

    For many years, the plank has been my go to exercise. I am a caregiver and time is limited. I can sneak in a plank without changing into workout clothes. I am a Health and Wellness Professional and staying active is vital to our health.
    Sometimes, if I am heating water for tea, the microwave becomes my timer.
    I love the feeling when I am finished. I feel stronger.
    Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Dipak

    I started planking and find it effective.
    However, now I can easily plank for more than two minutes and I am not feeling any effectiveness.
    What is the total time one should plank everyday.

    • Poul Winther

      There is no correct time. The problem is the misconception that planking is an excercise in the first place. It is not, it’s static and I strongly recommend doing some real exercise instead. Even if you only do a variety of push-up hand positions you are still planking at tge same time, but at least you are elevating your pulse rate too instead of just wasting your time.

      • Lillie Chance

        Try plank rows, or extend one arm to the front (can alternate quickly, so just a second each time). You’ll feel it! A plank row is a plank with dumbells (5-8 lbs is plenty) in your hands. Bring them up to your chest level (one at a time obviously).

      • Shirley Henderson Colee

        I like the Five Rites – a sequence of yoga positions that is very renowned and popular. There are books on it and YouTube tutorials. You can do a few sets or as many as 20 or so. It’s quick, fun and hits a lot of bases.

    • Sholto

      A trainer reminded me that you must really engage your core and one way to do that is to draw your feet and elbows towards each other. Don’t move them, but apply pressure and you will find that this creates more engagement in the plank.

  8. Koolshark2

    If forearm planks with leg lifts In proper form become too easy, how do you increase the challenge further, other than extending the hold time, which you indicated should be up to only 2 minutes.

    • supersquint

      Elevate your feet (using a bench or chair). Can also rock back and forth using your toes as a pivot point and this seems to engage the core muscles more effectively

  9. Terry

    Very informative. Didn’t know about not going beyond 2 min. Do you recommend one 2 min set which I do now or several shorter duration sets back to back?

  10. George d. Kurie

    Which is better: forearm plank or push up position? I always thought the push up position was ‘harder’, but you seem to imply the opposite.

  11. Jose Luksamana Jr

    I like this core exercises to prevent my back pain from coming back. When doing my yoga practice, I do boat pose, straight arm plank, side planks and back plank, 15 breaths each.

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