Over the past 15 years, as the “functional” fitness movement – with its emphasis on performance over aesthetics – has captured the hearts and minds of the industry as a whole, the plank has usurped the crunch as the personal trainer’s go-to abdominal exercise.
You simply lie face-down on the floor, steady yourself on your forearms and you're set, right? Abs! Core stability! Great posture!
Almost, but not quite.
It's true that, when performed properly, the plank works just about every muscle of the midsection – front and back – not to mention the glutes, shoulders and arms.
The problem, of course, lies in that whole "when performed properly" part of the equation. As simple as the plank may seem, they're actually not easy at all. Because of this, most of us are doing them wrong.
To make things right, we're going to steal a page from the Big Book of Eastern Bloc Exercises (note: this is not a real book). Forget what you may have learned from spandex-clad infomercial trainers; today, we're going to channel the wisdom of our Russian comrades and hone the technique known as the "hard-style" plank.
The scenario being played out in typical health clubs everywhere involves being told to lie prone on the ground, weight on the forearms, abs contracted. Easy, right? Never mind the sagging hips, the cranked neck, the complete lack of tension throughout the torso.
Just about anyone can hold this position for a full minute, if not longer, and this leads to the plank being thought of as nothing more than an easy-breezy form of active recovery, a chance to hang out after a hard set of lifts.
Make a few tiny adjustments, though, and you're lucky to hold on for 30 seconds.
The plank is essentially an anti-movement – its main job is to prevent flexion and extension of the spine, creating a solid link between the upper and lower body.
By allowing the hips to rise or fall, or by bending the neck to look up, we defeat the purpose of the exercise.
A proper plank demands a relatively straight line from head to heels. As for those arms, rather than tucking them in close to your ribs, place them further up so that the elbow crook is beneath your face. And while we're talking about elbows, you'll want to bring them close together, narrowing the base of support.
Chances are, these adjustments alone will change your perception of the plank, but we're not done yet. They're called hard-style planks for a reason! We need to add some tension to the mix.
To do this, clench your butt really tight, like you're trying to crack a walnut between the cheeks.
Also, contract your thighs by pulling your kneecaps toward your hips while simultaneously driving your forearms into the floor and pulling them toward your feet.
That total-body trembling you're feeling? That's good. That's the plank doing what it does best.
Take your time in mastering these adjustments. Start slow, aiming for two to four sets of 15- to 20-second reps, gradually work toward a 60-second hold. Be patient, and soon enough you'll have yourself a plank even Vladimir Putin would be proud of.