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Planking: Straight Talk on Its Benefits and Techniques

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Planking has become a popular exercise routine in recent years. It is a core-strengthening exercise that can be performed almost anywhere, making it a convenient option for individuals looking for a quick workout. Essentially, planking involves holding a position that mimics the push-up position but with the arms bent and the body weight supported on the forearms or hands rather than the hands and toes. In this article, we aim to provide an informative and detailed discussion on planking, including its benefits, how it's done correctly, precautions to take while planking, and alternatives to planking.

The popularity of planking can be attributed to its effectiveness in toning and strengthening muscles and improving overall fitness. With its simplicity and convenience, it has been embraced by people of different ages and fitness levels, ranging from professional athletes to beginners. Numerous social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, have also played a significant role in popularizing planking. It is not uncommon to see individuals challenging themselves and others to hold a plank for extended periods and sharing videos online.

The purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive guide to planking, covering everything from its definition and popularity to its benefits, proper techniques, precautions, and alternatives. Whether you're a fitness enthusiast or a beginner, this article will offer valuable information to help you perform planking correctly and safely. We aim to provide a clear and concise discussion in plain language, making it easy to follow and understand.

Benefits of Planking

Planking is an excellent exercise for strengthening the core muscles, which are responsible for stabilizing the trunk and pelvis. It is a highly effective way of improving posture and reducing the risk of back pain. Here are some of the benefits of planking:

Improves Posture

Planking helps to strengthen the stabilizing muscles in the back and abdomen that support good posture. When these muscles are weak, it can cause the shoulders to slump forward, leading to back and neck strain. By performing planks regularly, you can improve your posture and reduce your risk of shoulder and back pain.

Reduces Risk of Back Pain

Planking targets the key muscles in the back, including the erector spinae and multifidus, which are responsible for maintaining spinal stability. By strengthening these muscles, you can reduce your risk of back pain and injury. Additionally, planking can help to alleviate existing back pain by reducing strain on the muscles supporting the spine.

Enhances Athletic Performance

A strong core is essential for many athletic activities, including running, skiing, and cycling. By performing planks, you can improve your core strength, which can enhance your overall athletic performance.

Helps in Weight Loss

Planking engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including the core, arms, shoulders, and legs, leading to an increased metabolic rate. An increased metabolism, in turn, helps in burning more calories, and thus helping you lose weight.

Increases Metabolism

Planking raises the body's metabolic rate, which helps to burn more calories even after you have stopped the exercise. This effect is due to the fact that planking engages multiple muscle groups, leading to an overall rise in metabolic rate.

Burns Calories

Planking is an isometric exercise and quite intense on the muscles, which makes it effective in burning calories. While the exact number of calories burned in planking depends on factors such as age, weight, and intensity of the exercise, it is considered one of the most efficient exercises for burning calories.

Reduces Fat in Abdomen Area

The abdomen area is a common area for fat accumulation. Planking is a highly effective exercise that can help reduce fat in the abdomen area through engaging the core muscles. By doing planks regularly, you can tone and tighten the muscles in the abdomen area, giving you a slimmer and more toned appearance.

Improves Flexibility

Planking requires your body to remain in one position for an extended period, helping to stretch and elongate the muscles in your legs, back, and arms. This increased range of motion can help improve overall flexibility and reduce muscle tension.

Stretches Muscles

Planking works several muscles simultaneously, including the hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, and back. This integrated approach provides a full-body stretch, leading to greater flexibility and range of motion.

Increases Range of Motion

By engaging and stretching the core muscles, planking can increase the range of motion in your hips, shoulders, and spine. This increased mobility can help reduce stiffness and discomfort in your everyday activities and make exercising feel more comfortable and natural.

Relieves Muscle Tension

Planking engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously, allowing you to distribute the stress and tension throughout your body evenly. This balanced tension can help alleviate muscle tension and soreness, leading to an overall feeling of relaxation and well-being.

How to do Planking Correctly

Planking is a highly popular exercise that can help strengthen your core, reduce back pain, improve posture, and enhance athletic performance. While there are many variations of planking exercises, it is essential to know how to do them correctly to get the maximum benefits and avoid injuries. Here is how to perform planks correctly:

Pre-Planking Exercises

Before starting planks, it is important to do warm-up exercises to prepare your body. Some effective pre-planking exercises include:

  • Jumping jacks
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks

After warming up, it is essential to stretch the muscles in your back, hips, and hamstrings. Try the following stretching exercises:

  • Child's pose
  • Cat-cow stretch
  • Downward-facing dog

Positioning

There are several variations of planking exercises that target specific muscle groups. Here are three basic planking exercises:

  • Elbow or hand plank: Start in a push-up position, but instead of lowering yourself to the ground, hold the position with your arms extended, either on your hands or forearms, depending on your preference.
  • Side plank: Lie on your side, with your legs extended, and place your elbow directly below your shoulder. Lift your hips and knees off the ground, creating a straight line between your shoulder and feet.
  • Reverse plank: Sit down with your legs extended in front of you and your hands placed directly behind your hips. Lift your hips, creating a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Even though planking is a simple exercise, it is easy to make mistakes that can compromise your form and lead to injuries. Here are some common mistakes that you need to avoid:

  • Hips Too High: When your hips are too high, you are not engaging the core and back muscles enough, leading to little benefit and more strain on the shoulders and arms.
  • Hips Too Low: When your hips are too low, you are not engaging the core muscles enough, and you are putting more strain on your lower back.
  • Sagging Butt: When your butt is sagging down, you are not engaging the core muscles enough, which can lead to back pain and posture problems.

By doing planks correctly, you can avoid injuries, strengthen your core, and achieve the maximum benefits from this simple yet effective exercise.

Precautions to Take While Planking

Planking is a safe and effective exercise for most people, but there are some precautions you should take to avoid injuries and get the best results. Here are some essential precautions:

Breathing

Proper breathing is crucial during planking to prevent dizziness and ensure maximum oxygen intake. Here are some breathing tips:

  • Inhale and exhale slowly: Focus on taking deep breaths in through your nose and exhaling slowly out through your mouth.
  • Avoid holding breath: Holding your breath can cause a spike in blood pressure and lead to dizziness or fainting.

Time and Frequency

To avoid overexertion or injury, it's important to follow these time and frequency guidelines:

  • Start slow: If you're new to planking, start with a shorter time frame, like 10-15 seconds, and gradually work your way up to longer periods.
  • Gradually Increase time and frequency: Over time, increase the duration and frequency of your planks as your body adapts to the workout.
  • Take adequate rest: Allow your body to recover by taking breaks in between planking sessions or alternating planks with other exercises.

Medical Conditions

While planking is a low-impact exercise, it may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with underlying medical conditions. Here are some precautions to consider:

  • Consult doctor before planking: If you have any medical conditions like spine or neck problems, it's essential to consult with a doctor or a physical therapist before starting planking.
  • Avoid planking during pregnancy: Pregnant women should avoid planking because it puts pressure on the abdomen area, leading to discomfort or harm to the fetus.
  • Modifications for individuals with injuries: If you have any injuries, like a shoulder injury, you can modify the plank exercise by placing your forearms on the ground instead of your hands or gradually increasing the intensity as you heal.

By being mindful of these precautions, you can enjoy the benefits of the plank workout while minimizing the risk of injury or discomfort.

Alternatives to Planking

While planking is a great workout, it can become monotonous, or you may want to add variety to your fitness routine. Here are some alternatives to planking:

Yoga Poses

Yoga is an excellent alternative to planking because it improves flexibility, balance, and mental focus. Here are three yoga poses that you can do instead of planking:

  • Tree Pose: This pose improves balance, stretches the legs, and strengthens the core. Stand with your feet together and lift your right leg up to rest on the left thigh. Bring your hands together in prayer position in front of your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
  • Warrior II Pose: This pose strengthens the legs, core, and arms. Start by standing with your feet about four feet apart. Turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly inward. Raise your arms to shoulder height, one in front of you and one behind you. Bend your right knee, keeping your left leg straight. Look out over your right hand. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
  • Extended Triangle Pose: This pose stretches the legs, torso, and arms. Start by standing with your feet apart, about four feet. Turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly inward. Stretch your arms out to either side and exhale as you bend to the right, placing your right hand on your ankle or leg and your left arm straight up. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.

Cardiovascular Workouts

Cardiovascular workouts are excellent full-body exercises that can improve heart health, reduce stress, and increase endurance. Here are three cardiovascular workouts that you can do instead of planking:

  • Running: Running is great for improving cardiovascular fitness, increasing bone density, and reducing anxiety and depression. Start by running at a comfortable pace for 15-20 minutes and gradually increase the time and pace.
  • Cycling: Cycling outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike is a low-impact exercise that burns calories, strengthens leg muscles, and improves cardiovascular health. Start cycling for 20-30 minutes at a moderate pace and gradually increase the intensity.
  • Jumping Jacks: Jumping jacks are a full-body exercise that improve cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, and coordination. Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides. Jump up as you spread your legs and raise your arms above your head. Jump back to starting position and repeat for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Resistance Training

Resistance training involves using weights or your body weight to build muscle mass, strengthen bones, and improve metabolism. Here are three resistance training exercises that you can do instead of planking:

  • Sit-ups: Sit-ups are excellent for strengthening the abdominals and building core strength. Start by lying on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent. Cross your arms over your chest and curl your upper body toward your knees. Lower your back to the ground and repeat for 10-15 repetitions.
  • Squats: Squats are great for building lower body strength, improving flexibility, and increasing balance. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands clasped together in front of your chest. Squat down as if you're sitting in a chair and then stand back up. Repeat for 10-15 repetitions.
  • Lunges: Lunges strengthen the core, legs, and glutes. Start by standing with your feet hip-distance apart and step forward with your right foot, bending your right knee and lowering yourself down until your knee is at a 90-degree angle. Step back to starting position and repeat on the other side. Repeat for 10-15 repetitions on each side.

Adding these exercises to your fitness routine will keep you challenged and motivated while providing an excellent total body workout.

Conclusion

Planking, when done correctly, is a fantastic exercise that can lead to numerous health benefits. Its convenience, simplicity, and effectiveness make it an ideal option for fitness enthusiasts of all levels. Here are some main points of this article:

  • Planking strengthens the core, which improves posture and reduces the risk of back pain.
  • Planking can help with weight loss by increasing metabolism, burning calories, and reducing fat in the abdomen area.
  • Planking can improve flexibility by stretching muscles and increasing range of motion.
  • There are certain precautions one should take while planking, including breathing properly, gradually increasing time and frequency, and consulting a doctor if necessary.
  • Yoga poses, cardiovascular workouts, and resistance training can serve as alternatives to planking, providing variety and total body workouts.

Our final recommendations for those starting with planking to keep in mind are:

  • Starting with short intervals and gradually increasing time and frequency
  • Focusing on proper form and breathing
  • Always being mindful of pre-existing injuries or medical conditions

The future scope for planking as a workout method is also promising. Continued research and innovation in the fitness industry will likely lead to new and improved variations of the exercise, optimizing its health benefits.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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