Down With The Fitness: The Plank

July 24, 2017

Welcome back to Down with the Fitness!

How is your habit of doing 10 squats and drinking a glass of water every morning when you wake up going??

I’ve gotten a lot of awesome feedback on last week's breakdown/simplification of the squat. It’s incredible the amount of Rockaholics who want to take control of their fitness and reap the benefits, but are understandably intimidated by the gym atmosphere. Props to you all! I hope this blog continues to be a helpful resource!

If you're just getting started, this page will get you caught up to speed.

Quickly, I want to once again drive home the importance of consistency and patience in this journey. It cannot be overstated. People don’t get fat overnight, and they don’t get fit overnight either. Both take time. The best recipe is simply trending in the right direction every day/week, and enjoying the process. Celebrate your wins big time; learn and move on from your setbacks.

All that is to say, don’t stress! Be patient. Move every day. Experiment with new exercises and healthier nutrition options to find ones you like. Literally whatever you do, will be better than doing nothing.

There’s no cut-and-dry, right-or-wrong approach, there’s just what’s gonna work for you… THAT’S what I want you to find! Take ownership, be curious, and have fun with the process!

Today we’re going to focus on the plank.

Much like the squat, the plank is one of the most well-known, effective bodyweight exercises. (It’s also one of the most frequently butchered!) It specifically targets your core, but uses a lot of muscles in your upper and lower body as well when done properly!

Now, the term “core” gets thrown around a lot and I’ll use it regularly. It is essentially the muscles in your midsection. Sometimes I call it “abs & friends” since the rectus abdominis is the most well-known of the bunch. All these muscles work together to keep your low back stable, help you balance and rotate, and transfer force between the upper and lower body.

A lot of times when you hear that word, it’s someone saying to “engage your core”, which basically means flexing, or tightening, those muscles

There are a lot of different “cues” out there to help people get a feel for engaging the core. A lot of times these are presented in a professional setting, so you will hear things like:

  • Pull your belly button to your spine.
  • Use your abs to pull your rib-cage and pelvis (or belt buckle) towards each other.
  • Imagine getting punched in the gut.

If one of those worked for you and you felt your core muscles activate, great. If you’re still having some difficulty, fear not!  I’ve got a better one that works particularly well in this forum of me writing a blog for KISW, and you practicing at home- instead of on a crowded gym floor or quiet PT clinic: FARTS!

That’s right, to engage the core: Imagine you’re trying to hold in a fart.  Did you feel all that pressure you just created in your stomach region? Yup, those are your core muscles engaging. Pretty simple, right? Cool, now I can just say “engage your core” from here on out.

For the record I’m not encouraging people to actually hold in their farts on the day-to-day. I think in a time where people are so divided by politics, religion, tax brackets, and so on, the world could use a little more unity. We’ve got this awesome, hilarious thing that literally EVERYONE does. It will feel good for you and make others around you laugh, AKA make the world a better place. And everyone’s walking around not talking about them and holding them in… This is a problem. So fart often and fart loud. Society needs it. I’m dead serious.

(But while you’re planking, just imagine you’re holding one in.)

While we’re on the subject, you’re also going to want to get a feel for engaging your glutes (AKA butt cheeks) while planking. You may have felt them tighten up a little when you held in that fart but we’re gonna ratchet it up. I’ve got another super sophisticated cue on this one too…

To engage your glutes, squeeze your butt cheeks together like you’re trying to crack an egg between them. Once again, I don’t actually encourage doing this in real life, just imagine it while you plank!

The plank variation I’m demonstrating below is from the Push-Up Position. This is cuz you can do a bunch of cool sh** from this position. We'll get to that stuff later. Master this first!

I like it because it recruits the arms and shoulders more than a forearm plank, and also reduces the amount of gravity you have to resist by putting you at a steeper angle. Because of that, it’s great for beginners.

Once you master form, if you focus on a creating a metric F***TON of tension with your muscles AND focused forceful breathing, it’s great for advanced exercisers.

If it’s a little too difficult at first, no problem! I always include a To Make It Easier option (or two) for a reason. Use it if you need to! Don’t let your ego tell you where you “need” to be. Perfect form is the goal. I encourage you to film yourself occasionally for some visual feedback as you progress.

3 Focus Points:

  • Straight line from ears to ankles. (Don’t let your hips or low back hike up or sag down!)
  • Engage your core.
  • Engage your glutes.

Pace: I like to hold it for about 5 DEEP breaths at a time for 3+ rounds, and have short rest periods (1-2 breaths) between rounds. This will be different for everyone. If you’re new, try starting with 3 breaths and experiment away! You want a short enough time that you’ll be able to maintain near-perfect form, and long enough that you’re really feeling it by the end. I like counting by breaths so you don’t have to constantly watch a clock, and also because breathing will play a role in progressing your plank (as you’ll read below,) so it’s good to get in the habit of focusing on it early!

To Make It Easier: Find an elevated surface to place your hands on, so your body is more upright. This way you’re dealing with less gravitational force, and can just focus on creating tension and stability. I start some people completely upright on a wall, and have others using a step 6 inches off the ground. Experiment with it and find an angle that works for you! You can also try it from your knees, but most people I work with prefer the elevated approach.

To Make It Harder: Once you work your way up to holding it for 3 rounds of 5 deep breaths on the ground, simply focus on engaging your core and glutes harder without breaking form. When you can do that at 10/10 intensity, focus on intensifying the breathing. This is a severely underrated skillset. Breathe forcefully into your belly while maintaining that core stability. You should feel the air increase the amount of pressure in your core with each breath. I like to call it "balloon breathing" because on the inhale you can visualize blowing up a balloon hanging down from your ribcage; then on the exhale, imagine blowing up a regular balloon with all that breath you just took in.

Programming Suggestions: Shoot for 3 rounds a day, 3x a week or more. 3 rounds a day everyday will give you rock hard abs real quick. Your nutrition will determine if and when you ever SEE those abs, but it’s still really cool to poke your own belly and feel some definition in there! Also people with low-back pain can expect to see a decrease in that as they develop core strength through the plank and other exercises I’ll show in the future!

Recommended Listening: The Mothership "The Plank"

C’mon man… Everyone knows how much I love Ten Miles Wide. A lot of people also know they used to be called The Mothership, and on their first album had a song called “The Plank”… It’s my favorite song on said album. This was a no-brainer!

Aside from the obvious name fit, I also think it’s got a good tempo and energy for this particular exercise. It’s not so fast and aggressive that it makes you want do some more explosive, movement-based exercises (like push-ups, which are coming next week!), but it’s also intense enough to keep you focused on engaging those glutes and core HARD!  

Next Up: The Push Up

If you've got any questions/comments/success stories/struggles, feel free to come join the private Down With The Fitness Facebook Group

Take Great Care!

-Matt Koch