If your time is limited, you may want to incorporate the plank into your workout. It takes only a couple of minutes a day, requires no special equipment and strengthens your core—and more.
The plank is an isometric exercise (meaning there’s static contraction of muscles without movement) that works a variety of muscles beyond the abdominals, including those in your back and shoulders, along with your glutes, quads, inner thighs and calves. It’s better in some ways than sit-ups, which work only the abs and can be risky for people with low back problems. Having a strong core is important because it increases stability and efficiency of movement and decreases the risk of injury.
Also called a front or prone plank, the exercise is done in a prone position, similar to a push-up but with your weight resting on your forearms and elbows instead of your hands. And unlike a push-up, you hold the position, rather than raise and lower your body. If you do yoga, you may already be familiar with the plank, since it is a pose in some yoga sequences.
To do it properly, your torso should be straight like a plank, with your head aligned with your spine. Your elbows should be directly below your shoulders, with your forearms and palms flat on the floor directly in front of you. To hold the position, your abdominals must be taut throughout (pull your belly button in toward your spine to engage the muscles), with your thigh muscles also contracted. Don’t let your back sag, and make sure not to shrug your shoulders or bend your knees. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds; then gently lower your body back down to the floor and repeat once or twice. Over time, you can work up to holding it for 1 to 2 minutes or longer. Stop if you start to shake or feel any pain in your back, shoulder, knee, or neck.
To make it easier: If you’re not very fit (for example, if you have weak abdominals) or just find the regular plank too difficult, start with a modified plank, in which you support yourself on your knees, similar to a modified push-up position.
To make it harder: While in the regular plank position, lift either one arm (straight in front of you) or one leg (be sure not to excessively bow or lower your back) for 5 to 15 seconds, and then switch sides. For even more of a challenge, raise one arm and the opposite leg at the same time. Resting your elbows and forearms on an unstable surface, such as a large exercise ball, also increases the difficulty level—and the rewards. But be careful if you have back, shoulder or balance problems. Is the plank the best way to work your core, as is often claimed? We couldn’t find any studies comparing it to other core activities, so it’s hard to know. In any case, it’s a good idea to incorporate a variety of core activities in your workouts, including dynamic (moving) ones in the standing position (such as standing side crunches and exercises with a medicine ball).