Top 5 Benefits of Planks (Definitive Guide)
What are the benefits of performing planks?
Planks are one of the most effective exercises for targeting your abdominal and oblique muscles. Performing planks will strengthen all the muscles in your core, by training them under isometric tension for greater stability strength, improved posture, reduced back pain and improve muscular definition of the waist.
Planks are better then sit ups for your back as they strengthening the supporting core muscles without any compression of the spine or discs.
Multiple muscle groups (glutes, arms, shoulders, hamstrings and thighs) also contribute in terms of maintaining the hold and providing stability.
Performing planks will contribute to developing six pack abs.
Side planks target the obliques which adds definition and helps support the back when in rotation.
Very easy to scale the exercise with a swiss ball to increase stability strength.
Planks are the most effective, accessible and safest exercises you can do for your core. Lets take a deeper look at these benefits and see how they apply to you:
Planks are Better Then Sit ups (Here’s why)
The US army are phasing out sit ups and crunches from their training regimes and fitness tests in favour of exercises such as the plank.
This shift is reflected in the fitness industry due to sit ups and crunches potentially causing back injuries as the repeated flexion of the mid section works against the natural curvature of the spine.
Sit ups and crunches also incorporate the hip flexors heavily into the exercises. The repeated motion of sit ups can lead to a tightening of the hip flexors which will subsequently pull on your lower back and cause back pain.
This is made worse if you do not specifically spend time stretching after a sit up and crunch workout to address the resulting muscular tightness.
The flexion of the spine required for sit ups can put excessive compression forces on your discs and vertebrae which can exacerbate painful herniated discs.
Core exercises should guard against back and support the spine rather then putting your back in an unfavourable position.
The plank is a far superior exercise then the sit up as it places your abdominals and obliques under isometric tension without any movement of the spine so there is no real risk of back injury. This promotes good posture and strengthens the muscles that support the spine rather then working against it.
According to Harvard medical school research, the plank addresses all the muscles of the core, to strengthen them proportionately to one another and in a way that mimics how the core muscles would be engaged for real life movement.
Whereas sit ups over emphasises the certain muscles in the core but do not target other specific core muscles with the same intensity, which can lead to muscle or strength imbalance and a tightening of particular muscles which will limit their range of motion and again cause back pain.
The plank is also a great way to develop stability strength in the core which helps you maintain balance in your everyday life and there is no unnecessary repeated compression of the spine.
Pro tip: Listen to music, a podcast or watch a YouTube video on your phone whilst performing planks, otherwise the 60 second plank you are aiming for will feel like an eternity! If you are distracted, you will not be thinking about the muscle fatigue as much and you will be able to hold for much longer. This is a very simple but, I promise, very effective strategy for holding a longer plank.
Six Pack Abs: Toned Waist
If your goal is a summer six pack or just more definition then planks should be a significant feature in your workout.
As mentioned not only do they train your abs without risking back injury but planks specifically target your abdominals and obliques with high levels of tension.
Your body’s adaptive response to this tension is to strengthen and tone the musculature of your waist and abs, giving shape to you waist and obliques.
This will give your core a more sculpted and defined look. The key to constantly improving the definition of your core muscles is to constantly increase the intensity of the exercise when you become comfortable with the current levels of tension.
So when you can consistently hold a plank for a minute with ease, the exercise is no longer challenging enough to keep progressing in terms of musculature definition (although you will be developing endurance strength, when holding planks for over a minute, which is a useful athletic attribute).
To keep progressing you need to challenge yourself with more difficult plank variations such as the side plank and a plank using a swiss ball. (Read the section on scaling the plank to learn more about why this is effective).
This will increase the demand on the target core muscles and ensure you are challenging yourself sufficiently to keep toning your abdominal muscles, for a toned waist.
Keep this in mind: To achieve six pack abs or just a toned waist you need to combine strength training with cardio vascular training and the appropriate diet to burn body fat other wise your hard earned six pack won’t be visible. Planking will tone the muscle but you could have a layer of fat that covers your abs if you diet isn’t appropriate for you.
The best way to burn fat efficiently is with high intensity interval training (HIIT). Spin classes, circuit training and hill sprints are all good options or you can go for an equipment free home workout with Joe Wicks for workout inspiration on how to burn through fat.
Easy to Scale the Intensity: Swiss ball Plank
Planks getting too easy?
If you can plank for over a minute without breaking a sweat it or feeling fatigue in your core and arms then it is time to increase the stimulus to keep the core muscles challenged so you can progress with both strength and muscle tone. (independent article)
My favourite way to scale a plank is to introduce some instability training into the mix with either a bosu ball or a regular swiss ball. Both are good options, however if you are training at home the swiss ball is more challenging and can be used for a more diverse range of exercises then the bosu ball, so the swiss ball is the better option.
With a plank from a swiss ball there is a higher, yet tolerable demand on the stabiliser muscles of the core and shoulders (rotator cuff) to keep you balanced, stable and in the correct posture.
This will bring the length of time you can hold a plank for, down significantly as each muscle group not only has to maintain the position under isometric tension but also accommodate for the increase in instability.
The body will adapt to the increase in the instability stimulus by increasing the strength of your stabiliser muscles and thereby increase your body’s capacity for stability,
Every time you squat, deadlift or perform any compound exercise you will recruit the core muscles to stabilise the body throughout the movement.
So by increasing the core and shoulders capacity for stability by performing planks on a swiss ball, the strength that you gain will be transferable to other exercises and dynamic movements.
This will not only benefit you athletically but also improve the efficiency of your movement patterns in everyday life and proactively prevent injury.
You are building a more solid foundation from which to generate force and also avoid injury.
Swiss ball instability training increase the demand on your core muscles and therefore increase the potential for developing muscle definition for you abs and waist.
The great thing about scaling the exercise with a swiss ball is that we are increasing the intensity with stability training rather then with added resistance (wearing a weight vest for example).
I have seen some trainers implementing weighted planks in their clients routines but I would advise anyone against adding weight to planks with a weight vest or weight plates on your back, as this is likely to compromise your form which could lead to injury and it taxes your arms and shoulders more then the target core muscles.
Side Planks Benefits: Target the Obliques
Side planks are the best bodyweight exercise to target your obliques for complete core strength and definition.
Your (external) obliques are the muscles that run from your hips to your rip cage and they are responsible for the movement and rotation of the trunk as well as supporting the rotation of the spine.
The conventional plank does of course recruit you obliques with a high amount of tension to stabilise the trunk and to maintain the correct posture and position for the hold.
However the side plank really emphasises specifically the obliques far more then the conventional plank.
The side of your body that is positioned closest to the ground will be under the most tension. So you need to alternate between the both sides and use a stop watch to time yourself to work each side of your body evenly to address any muscle or strength imbalances between either side.
The side plank (as with the regular plank) is a compound movement so the same muscle groups are recruited but crucially under very different levels of tension. The obliques are a smaller muscle group then the abdominals which makes the exercise much more difficult.
So you will probably only be able to hold a side plank for around half the time of a full plank. This is the case for everyone so don’t be demoralised! This just presents a great opportunity to train your obliques for a stronger core and to effectively support your back whilst in rotation.
The results are well worth it too aesthetically. Stronger, toned obliques contribute to a V-shaped physique with a slim, toned waist, which is a great bonus to all the other benefits.
Pro tip: If you are training by yourself, I recommend occasionally propping up your phone and using it to record your side plank as it is very easy to sacrifice form by lowering you hips to make the exercise easier without realising it.
The camera can objectively hold you accountable to see how well you can hold the position, as it is often hard to assess yourself without a spotter.
With planks, good form should always be prioritised over how long you can maintain the hold so if you feel yourself beginning to loose position then relax and start again after 2 minutes rest or if you are too fatigued then allow yourself the appropriate recover time (about one week if you have delayed onset muscle soreness) and try again next time you do a core workout.
Compound Exercise, also Targets the Forearms and Triceps
The plank is a compound exercise that emphasises abdominal and oblique strength.
What this means is that all the major muscle groups in the body are required to contribute to the movement but the majority of the tension is on the core muscles.
So not only are your core muscles recruited but you feel your forearms, shoulders, glutes and triceps and legs are responsible for maintaining the posture and contribute to balance for the duration of the exercise.
The isometric tension from the plank will help tone and shape these muscle groups as well as teaching the different muscle groups to work together cohesively in one full body hold, which improves posture and increases stability strength.
Compound exercises like planks are the most effective exercises for toning muscle and gaining full body strength.
The great thing about the plank is that it’s an objective measure of strength to weight ratio, as the difficulty of the exercise increases proportional to your bodyweight. So no matter what size you are the same target of holding a plank comfortably for one minute can be applied.
The goal to shoot for when holding a plank is to maintain the hold it for 60 seconds with good form.
This is a great indicator of core control and stability strength. You will also build up endurance strength in the core which is important as all full body movements require your core to be engaged for usually a significant period of time whether its exercises such as squats, cycling, swimming or movements such as gardening.
The ability to maintain tension in these muscle groups for a long time will not only help you move better but its also a good measure of fitness.
Aim for holding a plank comfortably for 45- 60 seconds without losing form before attempting to scale the exercise in difficulty with either a swiss ball or bosu ball and the side plank variation.
Additional questions: How long should I hold a plank for?
You should be aiming to hold a plank for 45-60 seconds. Holding a plank for this length of time is a good indicator of strength to weight ratio. This will ensure you reap the benefits of improved posture, stability strength and core definition strengthening the supporting muscles of your back.
If holding plank longer then 60 seconds becomes comfortable then the to keep progressing in terms of stability strength and core definition you should introduce some instability training by performing a plank on a swiss ball. This will increase the tension on all the contributing muscle groups and the resulting adaptive response will be to gain strength and muscle tone.
Swiss ball planks also increase body awareness, stability and balance which will improve your sports performance and benefit your everyday movement.
What if I can’t hold a plank for very long?
If you are a beginner then holding a plank for 45 seconds will be too difficult, but have no fear. The best way to build up the strength to perform a plank is to simply perform the exercise with your knees on the ground.
This does make the exercise significantly easier, so you will be able to develop the stability and become accustomed to the positioning required to maintain a plank without struggling to hold the full plank.
After you have developed confidence in this position then just set a goal of holding a plank for 10 seconds. Keep extending the goal by 5 more seconds each workout and keep a note of your personal record. This will help you see how far you have come and serve as motivation.
Take a 2 minute break between sets so that you are fully recovered before you attempt another plank in the same workout and if you can feel muscular soreness then only train the plank once a week to ensure your muscles are fully recovered for the next workout.
If you have any questions, comments or personal experience of how performing planks have benefited you, then please leave a comment below as I’d love to here from you! ↓ ↓ ↓