Arrrrr, mateys! No. We’re not talking Pirates of the Caribbean. We’re talking up toning just about everything you can think of with planking – simple exercises that require no equipment and can be done each and every day. Not a lot of movement involved here, but LOTS of concentration and commitment to making over your own body!
When you see others planking at the gym, you think – “ahh – piece of cake” – but planking is no child’s play. This incredibly popular exercise has the potential to seriously boost your fitness levels and can be done virtually anywhere – your home office, a hotel room (well, place a towel on the floor so you don’t breath in the less-than-clean carpet), the beach, or in your family room while you’re letting the dog lick your face. It engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously and benefits the whole body in a WHOLE bunch of ways.
First, your core strength will improve – fast. All those muscles, bones, and joints that connect the upper and lower body (the ones we use everyday to lift, turn, reach and bend) become engaged. That makes this the most important area of the body to work on not only now, but as we reach middle and older age, when even a slight movement your brain isn’t ready for can wreak havoc with your neck or back.
By successfully holding the plank position, you naturally have to squeeze and engage all the main core muscle groups: (1) the transverse abdominus (2) the rectus abdominus (3) the external oblique muscle, and (4) the glutes. It’s amazing to me how, when core strength improves, everyday tasks become easier. My clients report feeling stronger and their athletic ability improves.
Want flatter abs? Forget counting crunches. In fact, they aren’t all that efficient when it comes to getting toned. Even the military has determined that sit-ups are an outdated exercise capable of causing lower back injuries. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that planking offer 100% activation of your six-pack muscles, while crunches only engage 64%. Planks give you more bang for your buck than almost any other exercise!
How about that back? Planks will literally back you up for life! While some core-focused exercises can actually weaken and potentially injure the back (such as sit-ups or crunches), planking will actually help to strengthen it. That’s because the plank is carried out using a neutral spine (minimal movement) eliminating the constant strain caused by flexing and extending of the spinal column. And because you contract all layers of the abdominal fascia, it’s as great way to strengthen the core. That, my friends, helps to reduce low-back pain.
But wait! There’s more! Even though planking doesn’t burn as much fat as cardiovascular exercises, it’s a more efficient way of burning fat. Why? Because planking is actually a form of strength training, which translates into your metabolic rate increasing even after you’ve stopped exercising. That doesn’t happen with cardiovascular exercise. And remember -- physical activity doesn’t just keep your heart healthy and your muscles toned. You need it for strong bones so that when your doc orders up those bone density tests when you reach middle age, you'll pass with flying colors and won’t require sometimes scary-side-effect medications to stave off osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises are a HUGE key to bone health because they place stress on the bones attached to your muscles, stimulating them to rebuild themselves. Planking means you support your own body weight – a fantastic weight-bearing exercise that’s hard to overdo no matter what your age. I can go on and on here. Balance and posture improve. Daily tasks get easier. Fat loss take place. You gain mobility. Your energy levels increase. Do you work at a desk? Planking improves mood and aids in relaxing those muscles in the neck, shoulders and back that often become stiff and tense from prolonged sitting.
There are variations on planking, and you’ll want to mix them up to get the most out of this amazing exercise. The illustration below shows you the classic plank (elbows on mat), but you can plank on your palms, with straight arms as well, or take it a step further and alternate between the two. Another variation has you diagonally raising one arm and one leg at a time. And a third can find you doing side mountain climbers with your legs. There are also side planks, holding your arm up in the air as you balance on one elbow. I am happy to demonstrate the proper way to plank (back is ALWAYS flat, no rounding at ALL).
So next time someone tells you to walk the plank, DO it! You will find that even if you have a limited amount of time for exercise, planking is a fast and extremely efficient way to improve your fitness levels!