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The Power of the Plank for a Stronger Core

Updated on July 25, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

The Plank Defined

A plank is when a person supports the body with only the forearms/elbows on the floor, and the tips of both feet on the floor. Think of this as the top position of a pushup, except that the arms are bent.

The body, between the arms and the feet, is in a straight line (as in the top position of a pushup). To hold this position, the abdominal and lower back muscles (core) must be activated. They are in contraction, isometrically.

An isometric contraction neither lengthens nor shortens a muscle, but the muscle is contracting under tension nevertheless – and getting worked.

Incorrect form. The body should be in a straight line from head to toe, without the butt sticking up.
Incorrect form. The body should be in a straight line from head to toe, without the butt sticking up.

Beware of Ab Myths

One of the myths about abdominal exercise is that in order to work the abs, a person must do repetitions of bending, folding, crunching, twisting, etc. This is absolutely not true. The abs can get a fantastic workout without the trunk moving at all—not moving side to side; not twisting, swiveling or rotating; and not crunching, folding or bending.

Bringing out the Power of the Plank

The vast majority of men and women who do planks go for duration. They will hold the plank position for up to several minutes. This will not strengthen the abs or lower back all that much, any more than jogging for distance will create strong or powerful legs.

All a long-held plank will do is improve the ability to hold a plank for longer periods of time. To build a strong core, the key is short duration yet lots of resistance.

To go for strength or “sprint planks,” a person should focus on increasing the resistance of the plank, not the duration for which the plank is held. The resistance is increased by planking with weights on the middle/upper part of the back. The weights are in the form of plates.

You should master perfect form for 30 seconds before adding weights.
You should master perfect form for 30 seconds before adding weights.

When to Know It’s Time to Add Weights to Your Plank

When a person can sustain a 30 second plank, it’s time to increase the resistance by placing a 10 pound (4.5 kg.) plate on the back. Make sure it’s the middle/upper back, not the low back – because the low back is the weakest point.

The best location is mostly the middle back, with a little upper to it. Never place the plate on ONLY the upper back, as it may slide towards your head when you get into the plank position.

A partner can place the weight on the back, but the caveat is availability; not everyone has a partner. However, gym staff will happily place a plate on, and remove it, if gym staff is available.

Planking with Resistance

The goal is to hold the plank for up to 30 seconds. Thirty seconds can be approximated by counting to 30. If a person feels he or she can’t maintain the plank any longer, and only 15 or 20 seconds (or counts) have passed, then that’s fine; terminate the plank by either getting on the knees and carefully removing the plate, or by signaling to the partner to remove the plate.

Once you can hold the weighted plank for 30 seconds, it’s time to increase the weight by five (2.2 kg.) or 10 pounds. This builds incredible strength in the core, including the abdominal muscles, even though there is no bending, folding or crunching.

It isn’t just the elbows/arms and tips of the feet that are holding the body in a horizontal position. What prevents the body from sagging in the middle or caving downward is that isometric contraction of the abdominal muscles, along with the lower back muscles.

A person can work up to having 50 pounds (22.6 kg.) on the back while planking. For those who already feel that their core is quite strong, it is highly recommended that they do not jump the gun and start off with a lot of weight on their back.

A fit person may be able to start right off the bat with a 25 pound (11.3 kg.) plate for 30 seconds and then walk away from that and feel proud.

However, you may pay a heavy fine the next day in the form of very sore abs!

This soreness can last several days. This is why it’s important to just start out with 10 pounds no matter how strong you think your abs already are from doing heavy cable crunches or deadlifts.

What is the purpose of planking with increasing amounts of added weight?

A very strong core will carry over to other exercises in which a strong core is needed, such as the deadlift, chin-up and squat. The core links the lower body to the upper body.

This link is vital when performing exercises like the deadlift, squat and others, such as some yoga moves, triceps press-downs, lat pull-downs, tire flipping and more.

The core helps transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body. This transfer of energy also occurs in everyday multi-joint movements:

  • Shoveling snow
  • Moving furniture
  • Hoisting heavy luggage overhead
  • Picking up heavy objects and loading them into a vehicle trunk
  • Heavy yard work

Another benefit to applying a progressive weight load to planks is that they not only produce a superior result compared to endurance-based planks, but they save an abundance of time.

Each set is no more than 30 seconds, whereas a set of sit-ups or crunches to fatigue can go on for several minutes. Only two sets of planks per training session are all that is needed—twice or thrice a week.

That’s anywhere from two to three minutes a week of actual work, of a very effective core exercise that puts sit-ups and crunches to shame. For people who are sick of and bored with the same ‘ol core exercises, consider the power of the plank for bringing out the best in your abs.

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