It is one of those instances where aesthetics and science — or, to put it differently, the prevalent notions of beauty and health implications — are on the same page.
Developing the core muscles, which drive lower-limb movement (any movement for that matter) and stabilise the upper body and protect the spine, is and should be a priority, the reasons notwithstanding. It does not matter if it is for flaunting the washboard abs or for building a solid base for sport, or just to keep the awful lower-back pain in check.
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Core workout holds a prominent space in schedules with an emphasis on exercises meant to isolate the muscles in the region. The goal has been to develop them fast – playing to market demand (the six-pack-mongers are a species in itself). Enter planks.
Planks are more-or-less responsible for pushing the once-popular ab crunches out of vogue. Well, the crunches had their fair share of problems — the strain the repeated movement creates on the spine and the neck was too much to ignore. Planks, it was touted (still is), take the ills and injury-inducing potential out of core exercises. They partially do.
The various iterations of planks, just like crunches, are a double-edged sword. Safety while planking requires attention to detail, form, the right duration and level of strain. Yes, shivering is not good! Planks, if done improperly, could lead to shoulder and neck injuries, and damage the lower spine. They could also raise blood pressure and stress the cardiovascular system.
Coordination in planks
It may be hard to visualise the muscular coordination involved in planks. Especially since we associate coordination with movement, and planks are isometric exercises with no motion involved. The muscles get worked through contraction while maintaining the pose.
“It requires almost a full-body muscular coordination,” says Jagmohan Kumar, senior physiotherapist at Back 2 Fitness, New Delhi. “The plank position is like a suspension bridge across a river. The anchoring points, the two banks, are the forearms and the toes. While these are the four points where the weight of the body is grounded, the muscles that work in balancing are activated right though [the body’s] length with the maximum load coming to the middle part, the core. To maintain balance, adequate strength is needed on the upper-body muscles too [shoulders neck and upper back] and the legs. And there is coordination involved among these muscles. Any imbalance or weakness leads to additional stress on that part and injury.”
Maintaining the plank pose involves all the muscles acting in synergy, in varying proportions of load of course, and getting the breathing right. These are the fundamentals that yoga propagates too, ensuring balance and synergy while performing an asana or a pose.
“Breathing is important but is often ignored,” says Kumar. “Many hold their breath. This is dangerous. It stresses the body, and you don’t want stress while performing any work, including exercise. Holding the breath puts strain on the heart too and can also create fluctuations in the blood pressure. The suggestion always is to count out loud while holding the pose. You should be audible in the room. That will ensure you are not holding your breath. You should breathe normally.”
Planking it right
Those who swear by planks call them a journey. They test muscular endurance and grit. The whole exercises of fighting off time and gravity while you feel the muscles engaging can get addictive.
However, planks have their limits and would be inadequate beyond a point — the suggested duration being 20-30 seconds for beginners and 90 seconds for the seasoned. That is where the variations come in. Shifting of the lever by extending the anchoring points (arms and feet), lifting one arm or leg, incline planks, etc. help overcome the inherent limitations. Side planks and their variations help target the side muscles and stabilisers.
Putting the basics in place to start with is important.
“It should begin with strengthening the subsidiary muscles where the load comes,” says Kumar. “The shoulders, arms and legs. Otherwise, these parts could get injured. Also, systematic loading is key. Instead of full-lever loading (on toes and arms), we suggest doing simpler versions with the lever shortened by anchoring on the knees instead of the feet. After the body gets comfortable, you can shift to regular planks. The same rule applies for side planks.”
Staying long duration in a plank position is also an open invitation to injury. Anas Hussain, a fitness consultant, coach and founder of Anas Hussain Fitness Academy in Kochi, Kerala, prescribes bite-sized sets.
“In planks, the duration matters,” says Hussain. “But you don’t have to stay for three or five minutes straight. Instead, you can do it in sets. To many I suggest a 30-second plank hold and 30-second rest, repeating it six times. That ensures the muscles are fresh enough to maintain the form and balance. Form is important. Arms and toes should be firmly planted, the back straight, and core muscles engaged and tight. The body should maintain a straight line. Head or spine should not sag. Variations are key too and mixing exercises is important to give the core a wholesome workout, avoiding muscle fatigue and injury.”
A common tendency is to push towards the failing point of the body, fighting through shivering muscles to increase duration. There is a raging debate on this aspect of planks, or any isometric exercise, with a school of thought believing that it helps in maximising gains. The other section is a stickler for balance.
“Any strain adds imbalance,” says Kumar. “Over time, it leads to injury. It is much like pushing a car. If you go beyond the rev range that its engine can accommodate, it starts to shudder. The muscles shivering is body’s way of showing that the limit is approaching. I always advise people to not to push till failing point.”
Everything has a core
Planks are, indeed, an excellent set of exercises to build core strength and balance. However, it should not be forgotten that the core muscles are involved in almost all our daily activities and exercises. We are inadvertently doing core while doing squats or activities such as walking, running, swimming, climbing the stairs.
“The important point is to get your movement and focus right while doing any activity,” says Kumar. “There are many supplementary exercises for the core. Dead lifts are one which I personally prescribe. Again, be mindful of the limits and loads. Squats, jumping jacks, running — [no matter what] exercise you do, the core is getting engaged and the muscles are getting strengthened. Isolating and working out, using planks or anything else, can be incorporated twice or thrice a week. Overdoing it is also harmful.”
Fitness, as a life-long pursuit, is not about immediate gains, and core strength is not about six packs, but about how it adds balance, strength and ease of mobility into your life. Exercises, including planks, are meant to facilitate the journey. However, they all come with a user manual. Sticking to form and function is key, and so is maintaining focus, knowing the purpose of the exercise and its dynamics. That will ensure you are maximising its potential and minimising the ills.
- Planks can also cause injury. So, paying attention to detail, form, and the right duration and level of strain is crucial.
- It is important to breathe normally while planking. Holding breath is a strict no.
- It is advised not to push through shivering muscles while holding the plank pose.
- Planks, along with other core workouts, can be incorporated into a weekly schedule. Twice a week should be adequate since all the other exercises engage the core in one way or the other.