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The plank is one of the most simultaneously loved and loathed core exercises. While it looks relatively easy—no crunching, pushing, or squatting involved—it's more involved than most other exercises. And oh, can it burn. But how long do you need to hold a plank to see results? Read on to find out what the experts had to say.
Meet the Expert
What Is a Plank?
A plank is an isometric exercise, “meaning we’re using our muscles to statically hold a specific position,” explains Jenni Tarma, Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist and teacher on Yoga Medicine Online. “In the case of a plank, the effort comes from resisting the pull of gravity: you hold yourself steady while gravity tries to pull you to the floor.”
While a plank is typically considered a core exercise—don’t be tricked into believing a plank is all about your abs. While your midsection will definitely burn, Tarma explains that like most core exercises, it actually involves many muscles in the trunk of your body, including the glutes, the spinal erectors, the lats, the pecs, all the muscles of the shoulder, as well as the deeper abdominal muscles and stabilizers of the spine. “Engagements in any or all of these muscles are often cued when teaching plank, so it’s fair to say that planks are generally a pretty comprehensive full-body exercise!” she says.
Are There Variations of the Plank?
While most people tend to think of the plank in terms of a front plank, performed in pushup position, hands down, keeping a straight and rigid torso and neutral spine —like a plank of wood)—Peloton Instructor Selena Samuela points out that there are actually a few variations. These include forearm planks, similar to the original but using the forearms to rest on, a side plank, and reverse planks.
What Are the Most Common Mistakes
While planks are an effective exercise to incorporate in your training routine, there are a few common form mistakes that can decrease their effectiveness and lead to injury.
- Hips are too high or too low: Wells reveals that your hips first thing you want to pay attention to. “A lot of the time, I see people raising their hips too high or dropping them too low,” she explains. “This is a common mistake that can reduce the engagement of your core.” To avoid this, she suggests imagining that you're drawing your belly button in towards your spine to keep your glutes engaged, ensuring your back is flat. “Your body should resemble a straight line from head to toe,” she says
- Your shoulders and wrists aren't stacked: Your shoulders need to be stacked over your elbows, instructs Wells. “If this is too difficult for you, you can modify the movement by moving into a high plank position or dropping to your knees, ensuring that your shoulders are stacked over your wrists,” she says.
- Your spine isn't neutral: It’s important to keep a neutral spine when you perform a plank, and this has a lot to do with your neck, explains Wells. “As soon as you start tilting your neck to look up or forward, you no longer have a neutral spine,” she points out. “Make sure to keep your neck in line with your spine by looking directly down at the floor in between your hands.”
- Your body isn't perfectly aligned: If your body doesn’t resemble a plank of wood, there’s a good chance you aren’t planking correctly, points out Tarma. “Ideally, we’re trying to form a straight line from the heels to the crown of the head, which helps maximize the muscular recruitment around the core. It follows that the more common mistakes center around the loss of this alignment!” she explains.
- Your muscles aren't engaged: Not engaging the glutes, pecs, and lats—muscles most people don't think of as "the core"—are also “missed opportunities to create solid support in your plank position, and subsequently maximize the benefits of the exercise,” says Tarma.
- Your abs are fatigued: If you do find yourself in a position that looks more downward dog than anything else —i.e., booty in the air and sagging hips—your abs might be fatigued, Samuela points out. In that case, “it’s time to end the plank!” she says.
How Long Should You Hold a Plank?
While it might be tempting to join in one of those social media plank challenges, don’t let yourself get held up on the numbers on your stopwatch. Think of it more as a personal challenge, not a competition with others.
“How long you will be able to hold a plank will depend on your strength and fitness level,” Wells points out. In other words, there is no ideal set amount of time to hold a plank. “The aim is to hold a plank for long enough to challenge yourself, ensuring that you don’t compromise on your form.”
However, Tarma points out that if the goal is to strengthen, it requires exposure to increasingly larger loads. “So, with a regular plank, there’s a limit to how much we can accomplish in terms of strength since we’re maxed out with just our body weight,” she explains, “Once you’re holding a well-aligned plank for more than one-to-two minutes, you’re arguably building endurance rather than strength specifically.”
If you are new planking, Samuela suggests beginning with short time intervals and working your way up. “I recommend starting with 10-second holds and then dropping to the floor and repeating a few times, then build up to 20-second holds, 30, 45, 60,” she says, “A one-minute plank is a great goal!
If you are having trouble getting through any amount of time, don’t be afraid to modify, Wells adds. “A great alternative is to perform a plank on your knees instead. Always modify before you quit,” she says. Alternatively, if your plank isn’t challenging enough, try making it harder. “There are so many great plank variations which can help add some variety to your workout and make your planks a little more challenging if you need, such as plank dips or a side plank, to name a few.”
When Will Planks Start to Feel Easier?
Initially, expect some major burn and soreness when you add planks to your routine. “Very deconditioned individuals will experience some soreness when they first start any fitness routine —including doing planks,” Tarma points out. The good news is, most people will experience steady improvement quickly. “The key, as with everything, is to progress at a sensible pace so that you’re a) stressing the tissues in a meaningful way to stimulate adaptation, but b) are doing so in doses you can recover from (recovery is where the strengthening happens!),” she points out.
“The more you plank, the easier it will get!” adds Wells. “Remember that planking should always be relatively challenging.” When they start to get easier, it is time to adapt, either with a more challenging hold or adding time.
Another useful thing to remember is that aside from the muscular gains, learning any new exercise also stimulates neurologic adaptation, “meaning your nervous system gets more competent at coordinating the movement,” explains Tarma, “This is definitely a factor in any exercise starting to feel ‘easier’—the movement becomes more familiar and accessible the more frequently you train it.
When Will You See Results From Planks?
Again, this varies by the person and also several factors, “including previous movement experience, loading history, coordination, and stamina,” Tarma says, “Ironically, people who are highly conditioned tend to deal in smaller improvements because they’re already operating much closer to their maximum capacity, and making even small gains takes a lot more work. Fitness beginners will start to see improvement very quickly, though. Provided you’re planking at least three to four times a week for an amount of time that feels reasonably challenging, movement skill, endurance, and strength will usually improve noticeably within a few weeks.” And remember, frequent exposure is key. “A little bit often is better than one giant plank session once a week,” Tarma says.
Wells also points out that to see results, you need a well-rounded training program. “If your goal is to increase the length of time you can hold a plank, or build core strength, try to incorporate some core variation exercises into your training to hit the muscle in different ways,” she suggests.
Whether you are a yogi or a HIIT fanatic, planks are an effective and efficient exercise to strengthen your core as well as the rest of your body. And try not to get hung up with the numbers on the clock—quality is much more important than quantity, as executing a perfect plank for a short period of time will reap you more rewards than doing one the wrong way for longer.