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Planking Your Way to A Full-Body Workout

By Kate Zanoni, LPTA

It’s true! You can get a full body workout with one exercise. It may sound like a myth, but there is one legendary strengthening and stabilization move that will simultaneously work your arms, shoulders, chest, upper and lower back, abdominals, gluteals and quadriceps: the plank!

Holding a plank is certainly a physical challenge, but it’s often just as much of a mental workout.  It’s easy to psych yourself out and quit when you start feeling “the burn” before you truly reach muscle fatigue. As a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant at Loudoun Sports Therapy Center, I’ve experienced the mental struggle myself while going head-to-head with patients and fellow co-workers. I like to motivate my patients by completing planks with them during their physical therapy sessions. I’ve found that setting goals and working together to achieve health and fitness marks is much more effective than doing it alone. Grab a friend, a family member, or a gym buddy, set up a plan and get to work! Motivate each other and cheer each other on as you conquer your goals.

Before I begin my planks, I set a personal goal ahead of time to hold each plank for a little longer than the previous time. I recently set a personal goal to hold a static full plank for two and a half minutes without allowing my lower back to sag. This is a common compensation that can cause injury and lead to lower back pain or even a lumbar muscle strain. As soon as I reached my 2.5-minute goal, my arms and legs began to shake, a sign of the beginning stages of muscle fatigue. I quickly collapsed onto my workout mat, feeling spent and exhausted.

The truth is the plank is a very powerful position. Holding a standard plank is physically difficult because your upper body weight is resting either on your forearms or on your wrists (depending on whether you’re on your forearms or on your hands with your arms extended). Meanwhile, your lower body weight is supported on the balls of your feet. The majority of this exercise is felt in the abdominals, which are necessary to engage during a plank to stabilize your entire body. Your core is not just those abdominal muscles. It is also your lower back, your upper back and your hips. Because the core is often a weak area for many people, the plank is one of the most strenuous exercises, but it’s also one of the most effective core strengthening activities when performed properly.

Whether performing a plank in a standard position on your forearms and the balls of your feet or in a modified position on your knees with your arms extended straight, this exercise engages your biceps, triceps, shoulders and chest along with your core, gluteals, quadriceps and ankle stabilizers. A plank is a full-body toning activity.

When beginning a plank, it’s important to set realistic goals and start small. Begin with a goal of holding a plank for 12-15 seconds. To safely and effectively perform a plank, start in a modified position on your knees. Raise yourself up onto extended arms with your hands in line with your shoulders (or lower yourself onto your forearms with your elbows in line with your shoulders). Repeat this until you can master the position without allowing your lower back to dip into excessive lordosis (increased concave curvature of the spine). Performing a plank in front of a mirror will help you keep tabs on your form.  You can see right away if your back is dipping or your hands and elbows are not properly aligned beneath your shoulders.

The key is to start small and build upon your success. Keep your lower back strong and your abdominals engaged throughout each plank hold. When you feel comfortable, increase your hold time for 20-30 seconds each. Repeat each plank 3-4 times. Work your way up to one- to two-minute holds with a 45 second rest in between each repetition.

Remember that correct form is critical! Holding a 30-second plank with proper form is much more effective than holding a one-minute plank with poor form. Planks help you tone, burn calories and increase your overall physical and mental endurance. Challenge yourself to perform a minute or two of plank holds each day and you will quickly feel a difference in your overall strength.

If you or someone you know is experiencing pain, please call Loudoun Sports Therapy Center today at 703-450-4300 to set up an appointment with one of our physical therapists. We will set up a comprehensive plan of care to address your range of motion and strength deficits as well as addressing your personal fitness goals. Learn more about us on the Web at www.loudounsportstherapy.com and like us on Facebook!

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