This is our third installment in a multi-post series that explores whether common exercises are safe or unsafe for core health.
The Move: Plank
The Verdict: It Depends
The plank is one of my favorite exercises -- it globally strengthens the core muscles while improving stability and core function. However, this is an exercise that can be injurious if performed incorrectly. The good news is that there are a variety of modifications to make some version of a plank safe, accessible and appropriately challenging for everyone.
When should I skip or modify a plank?
Anyone who is pregnant or whose core has been compromised (due to diastasis recti, back pain, pelvic prolapse, abdominal surgery, etc.) should opt for a modified version of the classic plank to ensure safety. I also recommend that anyone who is new to planks or exercise in general, or who has taken a hiatus from exercise, begin with an incline plank or knee plank before progressing to a full plank.
Why modify planks during pregnancy?
The degree of pressure exerted on the abdominal wall in a full plank creates an unsafe challenge for pregnant women and anyone suffering from diastasis recti. Some of the most severe cases of abdominal separation I have encountered resulted from an acute injury while performing a full plank during second or third trimester, when the challenge became too much and the individual felt the front and center of her abdomen suddenly “give way” or “unzip.” Many people, including fitness professionals, do not realize how serious the risk is for sudden muscle fatigue, dangerously spiking intra-abdominal pressure with potentially dire consequences for both the abdominal wall and the pelvic floor. A much safer option, and the modification I recommend during pregnancy, is to perform a wall plank.
How can I maximize benefit and minimize risk while performing a plank?
The key lies in the direction of core engagement and the breath. Whether performing a wall plank, a knee plank or a full plank, it’s not possible to place a hand on the abs to ensure they are drawing up and in toward the spine on engagement as opposed to barreling or flexing forward. The safest way to provide biofeedback that ensures you maintain proper engagement is to perform Core Compressions™ throughout the duration of the pose. That means slowly pulsing the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor up and in toward the spine while exhaling on engagement. Allow a tiny release of the abs, enough for a shallow breath, between each pulsing squeeze. If it becomes difficult to maintain this slow, pulsing rhythm of the abs engaging toward the spine with each exhalation, pause and exit the plank. You can then resume after a brief rest, or carry on with a modified version of the plank. For example, if you were doing a full plank, pause and bend the knees to lower from a full plank into a knee plank.
What is a safe plank progression to build strength?
When getting started with planks, It is always safer to begin with the highest incline, which is the lightest load for the core, and progress downward as you get stronger and more confident. For example, begin with a wall plank, then an incline plank on a high, stable surface (such as a kitchen counter, or a tall dresser against a wall), followed by a lower piece of furniture (a bench, or the back of a sturdy sofa), then a knee plank on the floor, a full straight-arm plank, and finally a forearm plank on the floor*. As you gain strength and confidence performing these correctly and consistently, and when diastasis recti is no longer present, you can introduce many other variations included in our EMbody Surpass workouts, such as slow mountain climbers and plank spiders.
Quality and control is more important than duration.
Always listen to your body and pause, rest and modify as needed. It is more beneficial to perform a set of short-duration planks with perfect form than to hold a single plank so long that you pass the fatigue threshold, losing form and risking injury. When it comes to planks, quality and control far outshine duration. Correct form and proper breathing are crucial. When in doubt, come out.
*I do not recommend progressing all the way to full planks during pregnancy, but an incline plank against the wall is a great option. Wall planks are included in many of our prenatal EMbody Prepare workouts.