Plank Angst

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Planks… you know that exercise whereby you attempt to make a rigid plank of your body while propped up on forearms and toes? When I saw the plank challenge over on Elements, Northern Light’s new wellbeing platform, I thought, “Planks! I remember being great at those!” I joined a team then spent the next week and a half trying to figure out when I was going to slot that extra 10 – 15 minutes into my day.
My first idea was to do bursts of planks throughout the day as a break.
  1. Environmental Obstacle #1
    This never organically happened. I’m subconsciously avoiding it because there’s no carpet upstairs and it will hurt my elbows, I thought, a problem I trouble-shot by getting out a rolled-up exercise mat and leaving it at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. Environmental Obstacle #2
    The mat stayed there for several days which, I figured out, was probably because I wasn’t looking forward to rolling it back up multiple times a day. This I corrected with a plan to saw a forearm-sized chunk off one end.
  3. Environmental Obstacle #3
    More days went by causing me to conclude I couldn’t bring myself to ruin the mat.
Finally, embarrassed that as a former wellness coach I wasn’t able to SMART goal my way into optimizing my environment for success, I gave up and decided I’d just tack the time onto the end of my morning exercise.
First day on the floor I became exquisitely aware of how very long a second actually is. Good grief, am I not even going to be able to hold out for 1 minute, I thought wildly??? Grimacing, I hunkered down, hunched my shoulders, bowed my head, gritted my teeth and toughed it out for all of 3.5 excruciating minutes. Where on earth had my core strength gone? Or wait a minute…was my recall of superior core strength a delusion? Do I do this often?
For the next couple of weeks my technique was to bow my head for extra rigid concentrating strength, position the phone under my nose and scroll Facebook. The following week my chiropractor said he’d never seen my neck so messed up. “What on earth have you been doing!” He was truly impressed.
Apparently, I’m not the only one doing something bad with my head to get through a plank. Beacon Health wellness coach and personal trainer Dani Reardon says this is a common form problem and she sees it frequently in her fitness classes.
Good form is worth the discipline. As you would think, planks are quite useful in strengthening those core muscles, which is good because solidly strong abs aid in balance and stability, support the lower back and improve posture. But, Dani adds, there is generally no reason or added benefit to going longer than a minute at a time. (I was shocked at how relieved I was to hear this; it changes everything, including my willingness to continue planking after the challenge.) Once you hold a plank beyond your ability to maintain good form – i.e., a neutral neck position – then you are actively working against yourself.  A neutral plank neck position has you looking a few inches out in front you.
What’s more, there are ways to make planks fun! Try these variations, direct from Dani:
  1. High/Low: start high with straight arms, then drop down to your elbows and back up and so on and so forth
  2. Taps: tap your right shoulder with your left hand, and then left shoulder with right hand. Done from the high plank position
  3. Punches: From a high or forearm plank: punch straight ahead of you alternating arms
  4. Plank jacks: jump your feet out wide and then back in. These can also be done with tapping one foot out at a time to decrease impact and intensity. This can be done from high or low.
You can also take virtual fitness classes straight from Dani and other Beacon Health wellness coaches! These online classes are available for all employees, not just those on the Northern Light Health Plan.
In sum, with muscles and most everything else, using is good because losing is the alternative as discussed last week, but overusing and abusing is not. If you’re having trouble getting yourself to do it, there’s a good chance something in your environment has not been optimized in a way that will make it easier for you. Here again, it’s worth the trial & error. In the end, adding a minute-long plank onto the end of my morning exercise works the best for me and I’m still doing it even though the 100 points have been earned. A minute is nothing to tack onto my morning routine and by the end of the year my core will be 365 minutes stronger. But I’ll tell you what….if I was forcing myself to face 3.5 minutes of that? No way.