5 Simple Steps to Your Perfect PlankArticle posted in: Fitness
Want a nice, flat belly, but could do without the crunches? Say hello to the plank.
Hovering above your forearms for a few minutes a few times a week is a great way to engage your abdominal muscles as well as the muscles in your butt, hips and thighs. And, because these muscles all work in tandem, the plank is to thank for a stronger core as a whole, which will save your back when you have to lift something heavy or keep your balance when you trip.
And, when done correctly, the perfect plank can also give your hamstrings a pretty awesome stretch, which can help with tightness associated with too much sitting.
But that’s the key: You’ve got to do the exercise correctly to get all these bonus benefits. Make your next plank count for double by following this simple five-step guide.
Step 1: Position your elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
Before you start, and throughout the exercise, your upper arms should be perpendicular to the floor and directly beneath your shoulders. If your elbows are too close to your waist, you’ll put excess stress on the front of your shoulders while you do the plank. If your elbows are too wide, you’re more likely to arch your back, resulting in more back activation instead of stomach activation. And if your elbows are in front of your shoulders, you’re actually doing a more advanced version of the exercise (which you may be ready for eventually!). But for a basic plank, keep those elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
Step 2: Make and maintain a straight body line from head to heels.
When you set up for the plank and as you hold it, your body should form a rigid line from your head through your spine all the way to your butt. As part of this, hold your shoulders back and down—to do this, imagine tucking your shoulder blades together and then putting them in the back pockets of your jeans.
Holding this rigid body position will keep you from committing three of the most common plank errors:
Common Error 1: Reaching with your neck. This can cause shoulder strain, and is usually a sign that the plank is getting too hard. Once you can’t hold the straight body line, rest on your knees before performing another plank.
Common Error 2: Bumped-up back. This position will mostly look like a correct plank, except that your mid-back will have a small hump, almost like you’re wearing a turtle shell. In this position, your back is doing most of the stabilizing, not your abs. By setting your shoulders before the move, you should shed your shell.
Common Error 3: Bubble butt. When your butt and hips are bumped up in the air, you’re compressing your lower back… which will result in lower back soreness. The plank is supposed to help alleviate lower back pain, not increase it. The best way to defeat bubble-butt syndrome in your plank is to follow step three.
Step 3: Squeeze your butt and the fronts of your thighs.
The plank looks like a passive exercise—and for people who hang out in the position for five minutes or more, it is. But it shouldn’t be: The plank is the act of bridging your entire body, and it is much more effective—and safe—if your body is active.
Once you’ve achieved your straight body line, squeeze your glutes as if you’re trying to hold a golf ball between your butt cheeks. This will cause a slight forward tilt of your hips. This is good: It will put your hips in line with your thighs and your torso, and help keep you from doing the “bubble butt” posture described above. If you’ve ever felt lower back pain or pressure during a plank, squeezing your butt in this way should fix it—you should never feel a plank in your back.
Flex the fronts of your thighs, too. This will straighten your legs, giving a stretch in the hamstring and giving your glutes a boost in getting your hips in the right spot. Continue flexing your butt and thighs throughout the movement.
Step 4: Brace your abs like you’re going to take a punch.
Now that you’ve got a straight body line, your shoulders are back, and your butt and quads are flexed, your abs are in the perfect position to engage. Make this active, too: Imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach, and brace your abs as if you were hoping to reduce the impact. This will seriously reduce how long you can plank, but it’s the right way—bracing like this is how your core will fire when you actually need to bridge in real life.
Step 5: Advance the exercise.
For most exercisers, planking in this way will reduce the amount of time you can hold the position, and that’s OK: Every second of an active plank like this is more effective than the time spent doing the exercise with poor body position. Start with active holds of just five to 10 seconds, resting on your knees between repetitions.
Eventually, even this active version will become easier. Instead of hanging out and hovering for minute after minute, make the exercise more challenging. Try these three progressions for tougher planks, but remember, even these harder versions should be active planks!
Progression 1: Feet stacked: Instead of having both feet behind you, place your left foot behind you in the center of your body, and your right toe on top of your left heel. This will create a “tripod” plank—in this position, maintain a straight body line and flex everything as described above. Switch feet on every repetition.
Progression 2: Feet on step: Perform the plank with your toes on the bottom step of a staircase. In this position, remember to keep a straight body line from head to heels.
Progression 3: Arm reaches: In the traditional forearm plank position on the floor, lift your right arm off the floor and straighten your elbow so your arm is up next to your ear. Hold for a beat, then return to the start position and repeat with the left arm. Here’s the challenge: As you raise your arm, your torso and hip position should not change—your hips should remain parallel, and your shoulders should remain square, with the fronts of both shoulders facing the floor. If you can’t do the forearm lift without changing your torso or hip alignment, keep practicing the traditional plank.
Worked up an appetite? Follow this one up with a cool and refreshing Cappuccino Ice Crush!