I’ve never been one to make (and then feel bad about breaking) a bunch of New Year’s resolutions. But I am determined to make 2017 The Year of the Ab. My abs, specifically. Because even though I’m fit—I run several times a week, hike, ski, rock climb and do the occasional yoga class—my middle is still kind of mushy.
If you’re in a similar situation, feel free to join me in a year long plank-a-thon. Rumor has it not only will our abs be rock hard, but our posture will improve and our backs will be stronger too. “Done correctly, a plank is an isometric contraction of all the muscles that stabilize the spine, hips and shoulder girdle,” explains Christa Bache, MA, a personal trainer in New York City. “It is truly a whole body exercise.” The key words there are “done correctly.” The plank is all about form, so here, Bache shares some tips for getting the most out of every plank:
- Start elevated and master that before progressing to the floor. Bache recommends putting elbows on a bench so that the body is on a slant. “If you can hold that posture and stabilize the body, then you can move to a lower incline (like elbows on a Reebok step) then to the floor,” she says.
- Try your planks both supported on your elbows and with straight arms. “You’re working the same muscles in both positions, but they are recruited in different ways, so it’s good to challenge yourself to do both,” says Bache.
- Assess your form starting at the top. Check to see if your head is dropping—if it is, that affects the alignment of your whole spine. Head should be in a straight line with your body, eyes looking straight down between your hands.
- Make sure your butt isn’t sticking up in the air. If it is, pull it back down (but down let your hips sag toward the ground either). You want your body in a straight line from shoulders to hips.
- While holding your plank, think about activating all of the muscles that are working to maintain that position. Keep your legs straight with your quads contracting, tighten your buttocks and brace your abdominal muscles by trying to pull your belly button up into your spine.
- Now the really tricky part: maintain normal breathing while holding this posture. Bache says to start by holding the plank for whatever length of time you can, gradually working your way up to a full minute. Another approach is to do sets of repeating planks, holding the posture for just 10 to 15 seconds but doing three to eight repetitions. “Think quality over quantity,” urges Bache. “Success is all about doing it well.”
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.