We have received all kinds of questions from the plankers in Plank Nation, so we decided to consult with an expert to get all your questions answered. Julie Mulcahy has been a practicing physical therapist for 18 years and a two time marathon runner. Below she answers some common questions about planking and gives great advice on how to maximize the impact of the plank while minimizing injury and pain.
In the old days, I used to do sit ups and crunches, which I really hated. I like planking much better, but is it better for me than crunches? Tell us, what are the pros and cons of planks versus crunches?
The benefit of planking vs crunches is that there is less strain to the lower back region. Your back should be in a neutral spine position during planking. A neutral spine position puts less stress on the ligaments and other structures in the lumbar (low back) spine. A neutral position is when your spine is level. A crunch puts the lumbar spine in a flexed posture. Most people who sit at a desk for work spend far too much time in flexed positions. If your buttocks are high in the air or if your tummy is sagging towards the ground, you are not in neutral position.
In general, what are the benefits of planking?
Planking is an excellent core exercise that uses a variety muscles in the abdominal region. The abdominal muscles are arranged in a basket weave fashion and doing planks makes all of these muscles work together. A strong core is necessary for optimal posture and especially necessary for power and stability in almost all sports. A strong core will also minimize episodes of lower back pain.
I keep hearing about the importance of form. What is good plank “form”? Why is form so important?
Form is critical in performing planks. Good form means your spine is level for the duration of the plank. Performing planks in a poor position (e.g., buttocks up or tummy sagging) will strain the lower back muscles and ligaments and will probably lead to back pain.
Sometimes when I plank, I do feel lower back pain. What should I do?
Experiencing pain during planks is not a normal situation and form is probably incorrect or you are attempting to hold it too long and muscles are fatiguing and pressure is going to your spine. Have somebody watch you to make sure your form is good throughout your plank. Also, try shorter duration planks. If you continue to experience pain during planks you should consult a licensed Physical Therapist for assistance. If you have other medical conditions or persistent back pain, consult your physician and/or licensed physical therapist for an individual evaluation before starting these exercises.
How long should I hold a plank? And should I try to increase my time, and if so, how much? How frequently should I plank?
The length of time a plank is held is entirely individual and depends on form. Quality is far better than quantity. Poor quality can lead to lower back pain so stop if you feel fatigue or if your belly begins to sag. One minute is usually long enough for most people to maintain proper position. Many people may start with 10 seconds and build up from there. For frequency, doing a few sets every other day is sufficient for strength building. It is also necessary to breathe during your plank. Breath holding is unsafe during exercise and can lead to spikes in blood pressure.
What is the difference between the forearm plank and the pushup plank? Which is better for my abs?
A plank in a push up position, meaning arms extended, is perfectly acceptable. It can be used to add dynamic movements to planks. Examples of dynamic planks include mountain climbers (See this link for a demo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHjdc2QVRUQ ), spiderman planks (See this link for a demo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnnLJWn84Iw ), and plank jacks (see this link for a demo http://vlog.kiana.com/wordpress/?p=2790 ). However, planking with elbows bent recruits more of the abdominal muscles because your torso is more perpendicular to the floor making it slightly more difficult. Side planks are another variation and help focus toning on the abdominals that run along the side.
I highly recommend Jillian Michael’s 6 Week Six Pack video, it includes a nice variety of plank variations. Have other plank questions? Submit your questions in the comment section!
Many “planks” to Julie for your hard CORE advice answering our questions! You can find Julie on Twitter at @PTrunningmomof4Share on Facebook