We used to believe that as long as we exercised, our body would be strong and problem free. Twenty years ago, I felt like my body kept breaking. I had started doing triathlon, joined a club, started racing and then started having problems with my hamstrings. It was so bad that I had to get an MRI to understand why I was in so much pain. Apparently it was due to my WEAK CORE! I didn't understand: I swam, cycled and ran and loved doing ab crunches - and now I'm told that I have weak muscles around my spine? The MRI showed it. There are muscles surrounding your spine that support the back and torso, which is what stabilises the entire body. "Core" was the new buzzword at the gym.

What muscles constitute the "core"?

As you would expect, the abdominals: Rectus abdominis (top level), obliques (mid level) and transverse abdominis (deep level, closest to the spine). Your diaphragm and pelvic floor are apart of your core. Your upper/mid back muscles and glutes also are core influencers.

Plank is one of the best exercises for a strong core, as long are you pay attention to your body positioning. "I have no upper body strength" is the biggest complaint about this pose. The article below gives some helpful options. It's not all about upper body strength.

Types of plank

There are many variations of plank. Plank is used at gyms, personal trainers, running clubs, Pilates and yoga. This isometric pose (static exercise) tones up your arms, shoulders, back, and core muscles.

The most popular plank poses is high plank and forearm plank. One would think that forearm plank is easier than high plank, but try both for 30 seconds and see for yourself. Forearm plank is great if your have hand or wrist pain.

Other planks include: Side plank with full arms or on forearm, you can lift alternate legs or arms to challenge yourself in any variation of plank.

The best way to modify plank

To make plank more accessible, there is nothing wrong with doing any plank variation on your knees. Just start off in full plank, and drop to the knees. the knees need to be further behind the bottom, otherwise you will be in a table top shape, with little benefit to working the core.

Plank tips

I have seen many people do plank and sometimes they are posing more risk to their bodies than benefit. If anyone has seen our on demand videos, we constantly give tips for safer poses and variations to make it easier or more challenging.

How to do plank safely

  1. Start off on your hand and knees, and extend legs
  2. Think about your position: You want to rest a plank of wood on your back. The image below shows an arrow from the head moving down the body.
  3. Though you are still, lengthen the spine so your head is reaching forward and heels are pushing backward.
  4. Your hands have full contact with the floor meaning, use more of your palms and push the floor away.
  5. As you push the floor away, protract your shoulder blades, meaning pull them apart. You want those rhomboid muscles to dome upwards. That stabilises the shoulders.
  6. It's better to lift the hips up to protect your lower back.
  7. To maximise the core strengthening part of this exercise, pull in your belly button and pull up your pelvic floor.

When I teach my classes, some people look very uncomfortable doing plank. They do blame their lack of upper body strength for risky plank form (they have more strength than they give themselves credit for). People are risking hurting their lower back, shoulders and neck if they don't make changes to their usual plank methods.

Tips to avoid injury in plank

  1. If plank is uncomfortable, drop to your knees. That will take some of the pressure off immediately.
  2. Lift your hips. Not as high as downward dog, but make an effort to lift the hips higher.
  3. Most people let the muscles between their shoulders blades sag downwards. Work on pulling your shoulders apart. Look at the difference in shoulder blade positioning in the image above. The upper back looks rounded, which helps separate those shoulder blades.
  4. Lift your ears away from the shoulders. If your shoulders are crunched near your ears, that's asking for a sore neck.
  5. Keep the head lifted. Look forward of your hands. Try not to let the head drop downwards.
  6. Remember to drop to the knees if you are struggling. Yes, this was mentioned in the first point but it's important. Maybe try standard plank for 10 seconds and do 20 seconds on your knees. Work up to full plank. It's better to have safe positioning than injuries.

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The plank article was inspired by my circuits trainer Lou Ferriman. She is suggesting a plank challenge this month which is always a bit of fun. I'm hoping to do my first OCR (obstacle course race) this year. Lou has won various events including Spartan World Champs and is a true inspiration to all who meet her. @fitiqforlife @fitiq_lou

Competing in races and winning races requires serious dedication. Lou is constantly working on how she can improve her form in all the exercises she does, yes, even plank!! Whether you are aiming to win a race or just get into a regular exercise routine, doing each exercise mindfully is what makes your strong and injury free.