Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Coach Laura: The Plank - Not Just For Walking

We all know that exercising is important. We probably get guilty just thinking about it, in fact, because we hear it all the time, and if we’re not as diligent at is as we hear we’re supposed to be, the guilt sinks in. It may seem too daunting to start, or if you’ve started, it might seem as though you’re not seeing results, or maybe you worry that you’re doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, or not enough of the right thing, or…the list is endless.

No matter what phase of your exercise program you’re in, there’s one thing you can start doing or add to your routine that will increase your flexibility, strengthen your core muscles that support joints, and even make you look better. Interested? 

The plank – so simple and easy to do, yet complicated and difficult. No, I don’t mean to make it sound confusing. It IS simple, although doing a plank well when first starting off is challenging, and that’s part of what makes it fun. It’s the perfect exercise for any person at any phase of physical fitness. It can be modified for beginners and challenging for experts while still giving you all the benefits. 

To perform the plank movement, lie face down on the floor, hands underneath your shoulders. Inhale and brace your core by sucking in your abdominals and rolling your shoulder blades back and down. Exhale and lift up onto your hands and toes, keeping your body straight and not allowing your hips to rise up or sag. Keep your head aligned with your spine by looking at a spot on the floor about 6 inches above your hands. Hold for as long as you can, aiming for a 30-second hold.

If resting on your fingers is too difficult, you can modify the move by resting on your forearms instead. 

Holding this position for one minute will work your abs more than you think (almost 66 percent more than crunches, according to research). If you can’t hold it for one minute to start off with, that’s okay. Practice makes perfect, as they say. Time yourself and watch yourself improve. As you practice regularly, you’ll surprise yourself with how quickly you will improve.

If holding a plank for one minute is already no problem, try for two or three at a time. As an added challenge, and to really carve your core, try reducing your stability by raising one arm, one leg—or both—and holding the plank position for 30 to 60 seconds. Just make sure you don’t allow your core to move or rotate (that’s cheating).

Even just being aware of how you hold your basic core and practicing each day on proper core and body alignment will give you many of the same benefits of a plank. In my indoor cycling classes, even though we’re merely sitting on a bike and pedaling, I emphasize core awareness and posture and alignment. One of my students told me that in the two months he’s been coming regularly to my class and being self-aware of his core, even by the basic things I do in my class, he has increased his weight lifting program by 30%. Yes, you read that right – he can now bench press 30% more now than he could two months ago, simply by strengthening his core. And this is a man in his late 60s!

Instead of putting yourself on a guilt trip for watching TV instead of exercising, just take the next commercial break you have – give yourself the best 30 seconds you’ll have all day.



AskTheGeologist said...

Yeah! The PLANK.

Long ago I noticed that I could suddenly get a painful back. This might be when I went horseback riding in the Andes, or trying to climb into a truck with a loaded backpack on. It could become really excruciating.

Twice I saw chiropractors. Then a fellow USGS scientist pointed out to me how I could get my spine back into alignment and stop pinching that nerve (this nasty problem is called spondolysis).

There's a better way than having to frequently "pop" your own back into alignment:

Do core-strengthening exercises so the vertebrae cannot pull apart easily - core exercises including the Plank. With back-arches and scrunches, these combined will almost always keep the back-pain away. That is, unless I'm traveling or otherwise preoccupied, and forget to do these.

I've noticed that it takes about 10-14 days of NOT doing core-strengthening exercise before a pair of vertebrae will pop out of alignment. Dang. Instead of guilt, my back is talking to me: you've been slacking off again!

In that sense, doing the Plank for me a lot more motivation than simple guilt. Failing to do it leads to PAIN. ;=P

AskTheGeologist said...

...or spondylolysis.