Quick Fitness Test – Plank
TL;DR: You should be able to hold a spine neutral plank position for 2 minutes. Train by a combination of short intervals and longer holds.
We are going to spend a few blogs going over some basic fitness tests to see where you fall on the spectrum and help identify how you can improve. Today’s blog will discuss plank.
There is a lot of debate and discussion regarding the risks and benefits of plank. In order to dive into the topic we first have to have a baseline understanding of what the plank exercise actually is. The basic plank is when your toes and forearms are on the floor and you are supporting your body and head in a neutral spine (straight line) looking down at the floor.
What’s not to like?
I’ve read articles that discuss the pressure put on the lumbar spine (low back) and the risk of costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs). In one article, Dr. Michael Durtnall, a chiropractor in London, was even quoted saying, “Planks are for the super-fit and athletes, not for soft, desk types to go bananas with once a week.” (1) I don’t agree. While I would agree with the sentiment that it is not a good approach to go wild with plank once a week; I would say the same is true for almost any exercise, especially when first starting. The statement implies though that working at a desk is mutually exclusive of being fit or an athlete. I know a lot of people who are active athletes in a variety of sports that work desk jobs. I myself play pickup basketball when I can. I have participated in flag football leagues, kickball leagues, and play tennis regularly when the weather permits. The goal with any exercise is to work up gradually. The risk of injury with plank is substantially lower than with many exercises since there is no motion and there are no additional weights being used. I do agree with the sentiment out there that just trying to exercise to overcome low back pain is not a good approach. Having said that, not doing an exercise because of a current injury doesn’t make the exercise inherently bad. If I had a broken leg I wouldn’t be doing squats, but that doesn’t mean squats are bad (in fact I Love Squats)
What’s the good news then?
The good news is that there is good evidence that planks are pretty beneficial. You see it isn’t actual strength that seems to be important with your core, but rather your core endurance. In the research article, “Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention” by Bliven et al. (2) Planks can help train core endurance which may help reduce certain injury risk. Stuart McGill published in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research “…an isometric training approach was superior in terms of enhancing core stiffness. This is important since increased core stiffness enhances load bearing ability, arrests painful vertebral micromovements, and enhances ballistic distal limb movement.” (3) Think of it like this – if you compared it to holding a weight at arm’s length in front of you, it isn’t about how heavy the weight is, but how long you can hold it. Also, one of my favorite things about plank is it is NOT a massive time consuming exercise. This means it is easy to incorporate on a daily basis. Now there is a bit of debate regarding how much is enough/too much. Top End Sports lays out a guide in which they state that excellent core strength is the ability to hold the plank position for over 6 minutes! (4) If you’ve ever tried plank you know that is a LONG time, and fortunately, most exercise experts would disagree. An article published in Women’s Health reads, “Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab and advisor to Promix Nutrition, says you can plank daily, but the length you should hold a plank can vary from 10 seconds to one minute.” (5) Men’s Health contributor and strength coach Dan Johns feels strongly that anything over two minutes is a waste of time, but not being able to hold a plank for two minutes is a problem.
I agree with Johns, the benchmark is two minutes. To perform the test get into the plank position with a time directly in front of your face, or with a partner timing you. If you have appropriate core endurance then you should be able to hold a perfect form plank for 2 minutes. This doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. You might shake, you might hate every second, but if you can hold a neutral spine while in the plank position for 2 minutes then your core endurance should be adequate. If you can’t then you need to get better. Going over 2 minutes doesn’t really indicate anything better in terms of injury prevention or overall fitness.
How to Train
McGill recommends training in repetitions of 10 seconds (6), while Matheny recommends simply holding the position until your form breaks down. I recommend both. To give an analogy to running, if you’re training for a marathon, don’t only run sprints. If you’re trying to make your body as fit as possible, don’t only run long distances. All of the exercises we discuss are designed to promote healthy and normal function. Our goal isn’t just to be able to hold a plank for two minutes but to actually improve the function of our core so that we reduce injury risk and promote wellness. If you alternate days between training intervals and longer holds, or want to mix both together on the same day, you will make positive steps with either approach. If you really want to maximize your training though try using plank variations like side bridge or one foot planks. Your body is dynamic and your training should reflect that by challenging your body in a controlled manner to improve overall fitness.