Planks - love them or hate them? No I’m not talking about floor boards or scaffolding, I mean that exercise where you position yourself face down, with legs straight, supporting your body weight on your arms. And then you stay there. For quite a long time.
I was at a dinner party just after New Year and as usual the conversation came around to exercise resolutions. When someone told me that her teacher had them stay in a plank position for two minutes. I nearly choked on my ‘amuse bouche’! Because when it comes to plank love or hate,I am firmly in the latter camp. Every workout I go to, even my jazz dance class, involves the plank, and lord knows I used to teach a lot of them myself in my aerobics days. But that was 20 years ago, surely it’s time to move on?
The plank is often called a Pilates exercise, and in the popular mind that equates, falsely, to core strength but nowhere in Joseph’s Pilates’ work will you find the plank. One of the principals of Pilates is ‘Flowing Movement’, holding a position for a couple of minutes until you can’t keep it up any more is positively anti Pilates. True, there are a couple of Pilates exercises that look like the plank, but in true Pilates there is movement involved: a push up or a down facing leg lift. If you only see these pictures in a book you wouldn’t realise the body was moving too. Pilates exercises are never held beyond the point of struggle, the idea is to stop before you struggle, strength will develop gradually without stressing the joints.
This is a strong position and people do it hoping to gain strength. I’m an advocate of functional exercise, I want enough strength to pick up a heavy suitcase and put it on the overhead rack without struggling, to get up and down from the floor easily without using my arms or to run easily. Yes, the plank will give you strength- to do the plank, but holding a plank for an extended period brings lots of issues.
The tendency is to round the upper back, hunch the shoulders with head poking forward. Overusing the shoulders in this position can promote tension in the superficial muscles surrounding the shoulder and neck, tightening the chest. The last thing we want our our smart phone and screen users who already have too much tension in those areas. If you habitually hold a position with poor posture, that’s what you will train your body to look like: hunched shoulders, rounded back and poked neck. Most people come to me to alleviate those postures. If the individual doesn’t have good posture, a held plank raises blood pressure, strains the wrists, compresses the lumbar spine. No matter how much you “squeeze your abs” if bones and joints are misaligned, you're in trouble. Gymnast or circus performer? Still love the plank? Work on your deep postural muscles first!
- Patricia Issitt is a movement therapist and Pilates instructor based in York.