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Are Planks Overrated?

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Back in 2008 I was doing research for a story in Men’s Health when I came across a particular journal article that helped influence how many people train now their abs. The study revealed that planks activate significantly more of  your rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscles) than crunches. In fact, this particular study (which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research) found that planks cause 100 percent activation of your six-pack, whereas crunches only led to 64 percent activation.

In a time when people where already beginning to shift away from “traditional” abs exercises like crunches, many took this research to mean that planks were the best abs exercise (100 percent always sounds good). As a result, you could easily make the argument that planks have become the most popular abs exercise–or maybe the most popular exercise of all–during the last five years.  Planking even became something of a national phenomenon for about 15 minutes. But the discovery of their benefits might have also been the downfall of how planks became overused.

Planks look great on the surface. They apparently don’t have the downside of causing lower back pain. While planks certainly have their benefits–and they are superior to many core exercises–the misunderstanding of that research and went from an underrated exercise to one that is overrated.

In a survey of 20 different fitness experts, 80 percent listed planks as the most over-used and abused exercise. The reasons ranged from false promises to poor integration into your workout. This is not to say that planks are bad or shouldn’t be used, rather they are not always prescribed for the right reason. For instance, if your goal is abs that pop like a cover model, many coaches don’t believe that planks alone will lead to those type of results. (And that’s not even included the diet portion of the conversation.)

One of the most interesting responses came from Martin Rooney, creator of the Training for Warriors system. (Might I add that Martin’s training program is one of the best I’ve seen and is definitely #BornApproved.)

Martin trains everyone from the average business woman and stay-at-home mom, to some of the biggest names in the NFL and UFC. And yet, planks are not his top priority. In fact, when he answered a question about three exercises that he would not spend extra time on, here’s what he had to say:

I would say plank, stability ball plank and one-legged plank might be some of the most overrated.  Hey, I am not saying these are not effective in producing core recruitment, but I am saying that these exercises are simply not fun or as challenging as they could be. In fact, I say that the plank in recent years has made training less social and actually castrated the pushup. Face it, you can’t really make a connection with your gym partners while you worry about the elbow pain you feel while face down during a 5-minute plank.

But take it a step farther. You want exercises that offer more “bang for your buck.” And the pushup is, after all, a plank with special features. Everywhere I go in the world, when I have people do pushups, which is essentially a plank with more muscle recruitment of the upper body, people sag at the waist and can’t use the most important piece of equipment they have: their own body. 

So, instead of mindlessly holding a plank for a few minutes, why not try to bang out pushups for the same time instead?  You get the same core work while also building some strength, burning more calories, increasing mental toughness and creating the confidence that comes along with it at the same time, which are some of the main areas of focus for everything I teach in Training for Warriors.  

Finally, if you have only a few hours a week to work out, make sure you are getting the most out of it.  Sorry planks. I know trainers may currently like you, but you simply don’t make my final cut when I am out of time to maximize community and results.

Martin’s analysis, while controversial, is accurate. Pushups do work in the same way as planks. An exception to the rule would be if you can’t hold a plank–or perform a correct pushup (with no hips sagging and lower before your chest nears the floor, one of the most common pushups mistakes)–planks can be a great way to build up the strength you need to do pushups. After all, oftentimes people think that their pushup deficiencies are just a matter of upper body strength, when in reality poor core strength if commonly a weakness that can prevent you from pushup success.

Once you’re able to hold a plank for 30 to 60 seconds, there’s no need to learn to hold for extremely long durations. Holding a plank for 5 or 10 minutes–while very impressive–isn’t necessarily going to have increasingly beneficial returns. Instead, it’s better to add some sort of dynamic movement, whether it’s pulling a sled, doing a row, or trying a “stir the pot” variation. They’ll be a much more effective and efficient use of your time once you’ve mastered the basics.

No More Exercise and Fitness Confusion

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About Adam Bornstein

Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning editor, speaker and business consultant. He is the CEO of Born Fitness, a company that specializes in viral content creation, publishing, online coaching, social media, and branding. View all posts by Adam Bornstein →
  • GTR

    I liked the article because it is the first one that I have read that makes you look at planks in a different way. Why just do a plank when you can do a push up and get more out of it :) What about the side planks though? How would you spice them up to engage more muscles?

    GTR

    • SirViP

      Raising opposite foot and arm will help improve balance and will work your core stability muscles.

  • Cruton

    “Pushups do work in the same way as blanks” I think that is a typeo.

  • Graciany Miranda

    I would like to see a video on Alpha deadlifts please!

  • Mike

    Great article! Planks have definitely been very overestimated. I like the suggestion of doing pushups instead. When done correctly, they can be just as effective for your core!

  • mickey long

    I think I know what is going on here. Martin is trying to sell us his famous Warrior training.

  • http://www.workoutnirvana.com/ Suzanne Digre

    I agree with this so much! I can’t support “plank challenges” that have people doing a long-ass plank every day. Alas, very few people listen though.

    • bruno

      I do planks every other day.

  • http://www.iicrew Cliff Graves

    Actually i disagree. If you can hold a plank for 5 minutes next you should try with added resistance. That is what resistance training is ” RESISTING”. The muscle fibres have to contract harder and harder as the intensity builds. You keep adding resistance when you have mastered your allotted set time. Finally, this type of training method is fantastic for the “social” bit you mention when performed with a couple of buddies boy does it become competitive

    • bruno

      Endurance and length of focus is an important benefit as well as muscle development. Nothing wrong with going up to 10 minutes or more. Adding weights is certainly a way to go, but mix it up — add weights some times, other times go for stamina.

  • http://www.iicrew Cliff Graves

    Oh the other thing I forgot to mention was my mate was an apprentice “oily rag” (car mechanic) and the geezer had muscles popping out all over the place…………at school he was a skinny little sh.t……so you know what does that tell us. When I asked him what he was mainly up to in his daily work he often would say…”down in the pit assisting the engine replacement”………..folks we are talking here about functional isometrics. As trainers WE MUST embrace this important factor and give our clients what they want………..MUSCLES

  • Rick

    It’s totally different!! Nobody here could say that planks and push ups feel the same. I never feel my abs working as hard as they do when I do planks. Push ups are great. I can do many push ups with perfect form. Planks are always very difficult after 60 seconds. I feel my abs and lower back concentrating much harder than when I do push ups. Now if I was to go extremely slow when doing push ups drawing each one out for 3-5 seconds then maybe that would be different . However, doing a normal push up routine is not like doing planks. I’m quite boggled how a fitness “expert” can say something so direct and be so far from the truth…

  • Rick

    Warrior training is a complete hoax… This guy is brain dead… Planks are a phenomenal safe routine that is easy on the body, yet such a stimulating workout… Anybody that talks down planks is clueless… Sorry

    • bruno

      Self-mastery is a true byproduct of the long plank. Master thy self, then the worrier can master the world. In our 10 second attention-span society, we don’t even focus on our internal thoughts anymore. Thinking is for stupid people… what a mixed up culture. Fact is that when we don’t think we let others do the favor for us — don’t do me any favors please, as I can think for myself — and long planks help strengthen my mind’s focus.

  • http://www.fromsugar2success.com/ Thomas Meli

    This was an informative article that brings some balance into tmix. However – while long planks may not be enjoyable for some people, I actually thoroughly enjoy them and look at them more as a physically strenuous meditation. I like how the long plank challenges force you to focus and stay with it, even when you think you’ve got nothing left… That’s just me.

    • bruno

      Long planks master the mind and body. Tell me, do you get bored? I doubt it. When you are in control of your mind there is nothing to get bored about. Long planks are the mind putting the body in its place.

  • bruno

    Ok, so some give false promises. But you missed some of the
    other benefits as well. Such as:

    1) A quick way to elevate your heart rate

    2) Nothing helps more to keep your abs pulled in

    3) Planks are an exercise that either the beginner or an experienced
    athlete can do.

    But, the biggest benefit is TOUGHNESS. “Mindless exercise…” you
    say? On the contrary, it takes a very strong mind with willful mental control
    to tough out a long plank. If you are bored, then you are not holding it long
    enough to reach this state. And don’t tell me how awesome you are because a 10
    minute plank is like staring at the floor while your mind wonders about calculus
    – your mind will be fully occupied. Fact is too many pseudo-athletes are not
    tough and want to reap benefits with the least amount of effort. These wimps
    need to respect the benefits of the long plank. It will also increase their
    confidence in the shortest period of time. If all someone wants is a fun time
    in the gym then just go have sex (with protection of course) no gym required.

    By the way, I kick off my upper body workouts with a 5 min.
    plank – nothing gets me more in the frame of mind. Oh, if you are truly bored,
    then try some challenging mental gymnastics (you pick the academic topic) while
    doing that 20 minute plank…solve the world’s problems while facing the floor and
    planks will become even more valuable. Truth: bored people are not thinking –
    planks are no excuse for boredom.

  • Bill Nadraszky

    I have started to love doing planks just because it is an easy way to recruit a lot of core muscles that I don’t really hit otherwise. I have to agree though, with limited time in the gym (full body/one workout/40 minutes) I am just not getting the chance to do them and instead do them at home whenever I think about it, definitely not structured which is bad.

  • Jenelle

    “So, instead of mindlessly holding a plank for a few minutes, why not try to bang out pushups for the same time instead?” I appreciate what you’re suggesting, but I can’t do pushups for a few minutes.