Somewhere along the way, the plank lost its way with athletes. For many, the classic core challenge became a competition centered around how long the position could be held, rather than how much tension was being created. But time, as it goes, is a misguided measure of a plank’s effectiveness.
Your body can’t create the tension required to hold a true plank for much longer than 20 seconds. What's more, ‘passive hanging’ (what most of us do when we stay in a plank for too long) leaves the lower body forgotten, opening the floodgates to postural and alignment issues.
Performed correctly, you shouldn’t be able to hold a plank for longer than 15 to 20 seconds before acceptable form falls apart. It’s called the active plank.
Imagine placing your forearms or hands on one side of an Arctic ice shelf and your toes on the other, with a two-foot divide between the sides.
Your aim: As modern day kettlebell revolutionary Pavel Tsatsouline put it, ‘to create high tension from your toes to your nose,’ explains Chris Frankel, head of performance at San Francisco-based TRX.
Raise your knees off the ground and ‘pull’ both sides of the ice shelf together. Lower yourself closer to the ground by squeezing shoulder blades together, while maintaining tension between abs and glutes.
When you’ve attained the proper war of tension, hips won’t sag or pike. Pick a spot several inches in front of fingers and fix eyes on that spot to maintain a surfboard-like straightness throughout the entire body.
Perform two to three active sets of 7- to 10-second planks with a 2- to 3-second ‘reset’ in between sets, suggests Stuart McGill, Ph.D., professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo who is a renowned expert on the topic. This shorter time duration allows you to focus solely on the intensity of your total-body contraction, as well as the alignment of your hips and shoulders.
The active plank’s purpose goes far beyond the exercise itself, says Frankel. “We look at the plank as part of our functional, everyday movement,” he explains. “It’s all about ‘alignment with intention,’ which enables more fluidity when performing other exercises.” Every exercise requires at least a degree of core contraction. The feedback from an active plank can be applied it to any and every movement.
Squats and deadlifts, for example, are total-body movements that require a heavy bracing of the abdominals and glutes. To be performed safely and most effectively, both require a certain degree of tension throughout the movement.
A pull-up—while it requires a lesser degree of abdominal bracing and glute activation than a heavy squat—still requires it. Having the active plank in your fitness repertoire will help guide proper back and shoulder positioning, allowing you to generate more power while pulling yourself upwards.