Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Great Plank Challenge

My story
During the 2nd trimester of my pregnancy I suffered diastasis recti, a split in the rectus abdominal muscles (a.k.a. the 6-pack). Hold your middle 3 fingers together and place them vertically above your navel. That plus a little more is how separated my abs had become. For the remainder of my pregnancy I was instructed not to flex my core because doing so could cause the split to widen. After giving birth I was then advised to only follow the prescribed therapeutic core exercises until that gap was closed. Performing certain exercises, like crunches, risked the separation becoming permanent. It took almost 6 months to close the gap. I didn’t time my first plank postpartum, but I do remember it was only seconds long.

The Great Plank Challenge
Recently a friendly plank competition started between my friend, Molly, and I. In just a few weeks I’ve reached numbers I’ve never hit before.  When we realized our little “max plank war” was inspiring others we started The Great Plank Challenge on Facebook. The current group record, held by Molly herself, is 6:30, and anyone, anywhere is welcome to join in! In just a few short days we are up to 28 members and growing. One of our group members had this to say on dailymile: “I joined The Great Plank Challenge on FB. I am a newbie to planks. But after running 7 today I made it through to my best time yet.” It’s incredible seeing so many people post their PRs, some as plank rookies and some from people who haven’t planked in a very long time. All those PRs inspired me to write this guide so that they can continue on their journey and keep posting higher and higher PRs!

What is the core?
Your core is the center of your body and is where stability and power originates so you can perform essential, daily functions such as standing and walking.  Some of the muscles involved are the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, and muscles of the back such as the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, paraspinals and the psoas major.

Planking is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, way to strengthen all the muscles of the core. According to LIVESTRONG, a stronger core can “reduce the chances of spinal injuries and lower back pain, improve athletic performance, result in better balance and coordination” and assist you in achieving a toned look of your abs and backside.

Many have asked why can’t they just do a bunch of crunches? Won’t that achieve the same thing?
Here’s why…

So…how did I go from a 30-second plank to over 6 minutes???

With just a few minutes of commitment a day you will impress yourself with how long you can go. Planks have never been the bulk of my fitness program, and they shouldn’t be yours either. Instead use them to compliment a cardio and strength training program for overall health and fitness.

I treat planks with the same approach as I do marathon training. If you want to be able to run 26.2 miles, would you start with 20 miles, 5 days a week? No, of course not! You would start with shorter runs a few days a week, with a long run of, say, 6 miles once a week - then build that one long run per week up to 8, 10 miles, etc., until you’ve acquired the strength and stamina to go for 20+ miles. Your core muscles are like any other muscle and will fatigue quickly if overworked. Planking every day is fine (and something I enjoy doing) but you won’t be all-out maxing your effort every day. We need to respect our bodies by planking smart! 

Step 1: Your first plank
First off we need to learn proper isometric plank form. Here is a great video on how to execute a plank.
Image courtesy of
 Check yourself in a mirror or have a buddy spot you and correct you until you nail the form. It is a far more effective workout if the plank is performed correctly for 30 seconds vs. incorrectly for 3 minutes. Start it off right and I promise you’ll be increasing those digits in no time!!

Once you’re confident your form is right, perform a plank and hold as long as you possibly can in proper form until you are forced to drop down and remember this number. Whether it’s 20 seconds or 2 minutes it doesn’t matter because you are working on YOUR best time. Don't think you can manage pushing through the burn? Put on your favorite song to distract you. My favorite for plank work is "Try" by Pink.  You jotted down that number right? That number is what is referred to as your PR or personal record, and you’ll be using that number to customize your very own progressive plank plan.

Step 2: Your weekly plan
Now that you know your PR, pick a day of the week that you will be attempting your next PR. Because I tend to use weekends for long distance running I’ve picked Wednesday, but you can pick the day that works best for you. Before we look over the plan, don’t forget to stretch when you’re done! Lie flat on your back and extend your arms up over your head and stretch yourself out from fingertips to toes or try upward-facing dog. A tabata timer can be extremely helpful for timing the rotations, repetitions and vacuums.

§  Day 1: Rest or plank 50% PR (E.g. PR of 1:30 = 45 seconds, PR 3:00 = 1:30)
§  Day 2: Plank rotation, 3 sets or until forced drop (reverse, side, standard, side). Watch how here. Reverse plank can be performed straight armed as well according to comfort.
o   Level 1: 10 seconds each plank
o   Level 2: 30 seconds each plank
§  Day 3: 25% PR plank repetitions with 30 second rest drops, repeat x3 or until forced drop
(E.g. PR of 1:00 = 0:15 repetitions, PR 3:00 = 0:45, PR 6:00 = 1:30, etc.)
§  Day 4: Learn a new variation or perform your favorite variation – this day is purely for fun!
§  Day 5: Perform abdominal vacuum (see instructions below)
o   Level 1: Hold 15 seconds, release 15 seconds, repeat x4
o   Level 2: Hold 45 seconds, release 15 seconds, repeat x4
o   Level 3: Hold 1 minute, release 10 seconds, repeat x4
o   Variation: Try pulsing instead of holding
§  Day 6: Rest or plank 50% PR
§  Day 7: PR attempt: If you don’t PR that is OKAY. In the beginning you will likely experience many PRs followed by plateaus. The key is to keep at it and not give up! Remember how far you’ve come and how much easier it is getting. Have you noticed the shakiness occurring later and later? Is your breathing more relaxed and less labored? These are all signs of improved core strength. Keep planking! Your next PR is just around the corner!!

Abdominal vacuum
This move, also known as the stomach vacuum, activates your transverse abdominus which compresses the abdominal viscera (your internal organs). Think of it as a built in girdle. To execute the vacuum, stand upright and place one hand on stomach and one hand at the swell of your back, exhale all the air out of your lungs, completely. Expand your chest, and bring your stomach in as much as possible, and hold. Visualize your navel sinking into your backbone. Once mastered, this can be performed in variation from standing, kneeling, seated, or lying position. Get creative and try them at your desk at work, while you’re sitting still at a traffic light, while washing dishes…the possibilities are endless and you will be rewarded with a sleeker waist! And ladies, once you master this move you can double-up and perform Kegel exercises at the same time. This is a great postpartum exercise.

Planking with known injuries
We've had several people join TGPC who have had a varying history of injuries including those of the shoulders, back, knees, and ankles. Planking is a full body effort and many of these people reported that they felt too much pressure at the injury site. Some plankers dropped out of the challenge while a few still planked with obvious limitation. Some of the plankers were able to reach a PR. This is highly dependent on the individual and their specific injury and the amount of work involved! If you are wishing to plank with any injury I encourage you to discuss this with your care provider beforehand to avoid any potential for further injury. 

When you're ready to aim for double digits, head here.

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