Planking: In Praise of Planks

Why this core workout should replace your sit-ups entirely.

How to do a Plank Pose

Photo via Creatas.

If you’re still putting your hands behind your head and pulling on your neck, I have news for you: The 21st century has arrived, and it wants you to stop doing sit-ups.

Sit-ups have problems. They only really work your central abs, and they put too much stress on your neck and lower back. I would know: like almost everyone who’s into physical health, I did full-range sit-ups for years. At least, until I found myself in physical therapy to treat hip pain (and shin pain, and back pain) that wouldn’t go away. Turns out, my doctor told me, all those years of improper situps on top of my running and stretching routines had created a hyper-mobility in my lower spine (L3, L4, and L5 region). Translation for English majors like me: I irritated a nerve and didn’t have the back strength to support my spine properly.

The good news is that you don’t have to share in my suffering, at least not when it comes to core strength. Trade your standard situps for planks, which work more muscles throughout your core while easing stress on the lower back.

  • To start, find your baseline. Pretend you’re about to do a push-up. Your back should be a straight line, all the way from your neck to your hips; your toes should be about hip-width apart; your hands should be shoulder-width apart. You may choose to lower yourself onto your elbows if it feels more comfortable for you. Try to hold this position for 15 seconds. If that goes well, maintain your posture for 30 … still going up to 60 seconds? See how long you can last before you lose that straight line. Popular running wisdom suggests that someone with a solid core should be able to hold this position for two minutes.
  • Don’t test your core strength every day. This would be akin to racing each day of the week. Most (sane) runners would never do this, because the only result is slower times and sore bodies. There are no benefits to be gained from this type of training. Instead, your goal should be to build core strength in a sustainable way. For planks, aim for three sets of equal length. So if you can only hold a plank for 30 seconds at a time, your goal would be to hold it for 15 seconds, rest, and then repeat twice more for 15 seconds each. Eventually, the goal is to increase the length of time you can hold it, but this takes time and consistency.
  • Work your obliques — your love handles. This time, lie down on your side. You should position your feet one in front of the other (this activates more muscles than stacking them on top of each other). Lift your hip off the ground so that it makes a straight line through your shoulder — try not to sag or hyper-extend. You may need a mirror to see where your hips become straight. Again resting on your elbow, try holding this position just as you did with forward planks. You may find these more challenging than forward planks, so give yourself the leeway to reduce whatever time goal you set before. For example, when I could do a front plank for three sets of 60 seconds each, I could only hold the side plank for 40 seconds each.

The benefits of planks are that they are a quick way to activate the entire core. You can complete this entire workout in less than 10 minutes, which comes in handy for runners like me who work full-time and juggle managing a household and family. I have found that they are most effective when I do them 2-3 times per week, so I even get rest days in between.