The plank is one of the most utilized exercises around but more often than not it isn’t getting used to its full advantage. The plank is a full body static hold so we are working from head to toe and the benefits are phenomenal.
Benefits of plank pose
Planks are probably known most for the development of core strength but they really are a full body exercise once you find all of the engagement points. It should involve your legs, core, and entire shoulder girdle. There are countless variations of plank pose so the benefits go on and on but in this blog I am going to talk about a few benefits that come from a forearm plank and a straight arm plank. Both of these variations have challenges for different reasons and that’s why it’s important to mix them up throughout your training. Regardless of which plank variation you are doing I think it’s a good thing to know what exactly you are targeting or able to target.
A forearm plank is not only going to test your core strength but your shoulder flexibility as well. When I teach forearm plank I have my students keep their hands flat and the elbows directly behind the hands. Here is where the shoulder flexibility comes in to play. If you have tight shoulders you may notice that your elbows tend to flare out but you want to do your best to squeeze them in to keep them behind the hands and under the shoulders. Next on my checklist of muscle engagement in forearm plank is going to be the shoulder girdle. When we protract our shoulder blades we recruit more muscles that will aid in stability for our body. I often use the cue “press your upper back to the ceiling” to help students get the feel for protracting their shoulder blades and encourage this to be done while on the knees before even stepping the feet back in to the plank position. Once you have your base set up, meaning your elbows directly behind your flat hands and your shoulder blades protracted, we can introduce the core strengthening part of the exercise. When you step your feet back you want to maintain the action of pressing your upper back to the sky without letting your lower back arch. When the low back is arched the core is disengaged. To help engage the core you want to squeeze the glutes, abs, and quads while your hips remain in line with your shoulders. I always say that it doesn’t matter how long you hold a plank for, what matters is how good your form is and if you are getting the most out of the exercise by using all of the available muscles. If you set out to do a 60 second plank but feel your low back arching 20 seconds through you should lower your knees down to the floor and continue the engagement to the ground with your upper body. Over time you will develop the strength and support to gradually make it to your 60 second mark. Below are a couple of pictures to compare the difference between the body when it is engaging all of the muscles that I just listed and when it is not. In my opinion the bottom picture shows the more beneficial forearm plank of the two.
Straight arm plank
The straight arm plank may be one of the best ways to build isometric straight arm strength. You can hit everything from the forearms to the biceps, triceps, and shoulders. If you are someone looking to develop or improve your handstand game, this plank is for you. When we plant our hands directly under the shoulders we want to make sure we externally rotate our arms, I like to point my index finger forward as this will help with keeping the arms straight. Once the arms are straight it’s time to engage the shoulder girdle, just like our forearm plank we are going to press the center of the back to the sky to protract your shoulder blades. This should also be done on your knees before even introducing the core part of the exercise. Keep in mind that the foundation is the strongest part of any structure, so we want to make sure our connection with the ground is super stable before adding any leverage to our core. If your arms are externally rotated and shoulder blades are protracted then it’s time to step back one foot at a time, keep pushing the ground away as you engage your quads and glutes while keeping your hips in line with your shoulders. Just like any other exercise, form is most important. If you feel your back starting to arch, shoulder blades start to retract, or arms start to bend, you should go to your knees and continue strengthening the upper body connection to the ground as you gradually build up your full plank hold time. Below are a couple of pictures for comparison, the bottom picture is where you will see full body engagement and in my opinion the more beneficial plank of the two.
If it sounds like there is a lot going on in a plank it’s because there is, it’s much more than just holding yourself up for as long as you can. You can recruit a whole bunch of muscles and reap serious benefits. Take your time building up your plank pose, it may be difficult at first but the more you do it the easier it will get. Start with the goal of 30 seconds with complete engagement. If you get through the full 30 seconds great, if not just be patient and try to hold it for one or two seconds longer each time. If you are using the muscles properly the progress will come. If you are worried about planks becoming too easy for you, have no fear. There are always ways to make them more difficult and I’m not talking about putting weights on your back. Notice how a small adjustment like lifting a leg or tucking a knee can make a big difference. Try leaning forward in a straight arm plank, elevating your legs, or increasing the time. Planks are great for a warm up and just as good during a workout but don’t sell yourself short by not using all the perfectly good muscles we have in our body. You don’t need to be an athlete to benefit from an exercise. A strong core goes a long way in everyday life so I hope you find these tips useful. Happy plankin’!