Planks. You're Welcome.

Why it’s time to stop doing sit-ups or crunches, and try plank and push-up exercises instead.

 A Straight-Arm Plank.

A Straight-Arm Plank.

Doing sit-ups or crunches has long been viewed as part of an essential exercise routine. The problem is that the classic sit-up often does not isolate the core stomach muscles you hope to build up. While crunches are more effective, either exercise can potentially damage your lower back and hip flexors. Not good.

As reported in a Lifehacker article, Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute, explained that his organization stopped teaching people to do crunches because the "full flex" movement — the actual "crunch" part of crunches — puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves (and most potential for nerve damage) is in the back of the spine, which is the very part that bends and strains during a sit-up.

The Lifehacker article added that the repeated compression and strain on your spine from old-fashioned sit-ups can lead to herniated disks. Unlike the more regenerative parts of your body, Jason Fitzpatrick, the article’s the author, explained that your spine has a shelf life, and putting unnecessary strain on it is a sure way to end up with an eventual injury.

 Please stop this. Seriously.

Please stop this. Seriously.

So, what can you do to get that six-pack you dream of having? We recommend something safer and more effective: plank exercises. Planks build your core muscles and sculpt your body by utilizing isometric strength. Done properly, planks can also improve your body posture, while strengthening your shoulders, arms, glutes, and hamstring muscles.

Best of all, you can do plank exercises just about anywhere. They don’t require special equipment or much space, making them a perfect exercise to do at home or in a hotel room. In just 5-10 minutes, you can fit in a round of exercise that can give you the strength of 10 men. Okay, we’re exaggerating, but over time, you can tone up, strengthen your core muscles, and improve your posture. Bigly.

Some plank variations include:

Forearm Plank

The classic plank exercise, you can perform this by lying face-down on the floor with your legs extended. With your forearms resting on the floor and bent at the elbows, suspend yourself above the ground from the tips of your toes to the elbows. As you do, contract your ab muscles to help exercise them and support your back.

Be sure to keep your back in a straight line from your toes to your shoulders (no dipping — that can strain your back) and keep your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Make sure to avoid your shoulder blades from coming together by pushing outward with your shoulder and abdomen muscles. This will help avoid straining and hurting your back and shoulders. Finally, make sure to look down as you perform your planks to keep your neck straight. Doing so can avoid injury to your neck or spine.

Hold the plank position for 60 seconds or longer if you can. Try for one to three reps.

If you’re just starting out, you might find it easier to do the forearm plank with your knees touching the ground and isolating your core muscles to your bent forearms supporting your weight until your strength improves.

This YouTube video can show you how to safely perform planks to avoid injury. 

Straight-Arm Plank

This variation on the classic forearm plank looks a lot like a push-up without all the huffing and puffing. Keep your back and legs arrow-straight from your ankles to your neck, tighten your ab muscles, extend your arms to the floor directly beneath your shoulders, and hold for 60+ seconds. To build up your arms and shoulders, try a variation of the straight-arm plank by performing this with one arm off the ground, then alternating to your other arm. 

If you’re just starting out and find this to be too challenging, try the straight-arm plank with your knees touching the ground until you are strong enough to fully extend the full length of your body.

Side Plank

Now that you’ve worked your ab muscles, it’s time to work your obliques, the muscles on the sides of your abdomen. Side planks are perfect for this. Lie down on your right side, stacking your left foot atop your right, and suspend yourself from your feet to your shoulder either by resting on your forearm bent at the elbow, or with one arm fully extended. Keep your body in a straight line. Hold on for 60 seconds, then return to the standard plank position and repeat on your left side. Try to do three sets.


Variations of this include starting the side plank with your hip resting on the floor, then slowly thrusting your hips upward, a sort-of side pushup. Do this 12 times for each set. Another variation is to lift your upper leg and arm upward (in 12 repetitions per set). Doing so will exercise many more muscle groups along the length of your body.

Dolphin Plank

Another twist on the standard plank blends in a popular yoga move that will strengthen your back and hips. With your arms bent at the elbows, your forearms supporting your weight on the floor, and suspending yourself from your toes, start in the standard plank position, lift your hips into an inverted “V” shape, then return to the normal plank position. Try for 15 repetitions.

 The Dolphin Plank

The Dolphin Plank

Other plank variations

Now that you have mastered the essential plank exercises, why stop there? Try these:

  • Caterpillar planks, where you perform an extended arm plank while bringing one knee at a time up to your chest and returning to your plank position.
  • Improve leg strength performing one-legged planks by lifting one leg at a time off the ground. Aim for 15 repetitions.
  • A more challenging variation is an opposite-limb extension plank, a twist on the standard plank by raising one leg and your opposite arm simultaneously.
  • Try doing planks with your shins and toes on a chair or stability ball, which can build your shoulder muscles.

Need more guidance on how to perform different plank exercises? This three-minute plank workout video from YouTube can help:

Push-ups

What? Push-ups? Yes, push-ups. When performed properly, push-ups don’t just build your back muscles and shoulders; they can strengthen your abs and other core muscles as well. This New York Times article explains why the push-up is still the enduring measure of fitness.

To learn more, a good place to start is a website called 100 Pushups (sign-up required). It can show you the best and safest ways to do a push-up to avoid injury and get the most from your exercise. And this YouTube video will show you how to perform the push-up the right way.

Adding planks and push-ups to your fitness routine can help you exercise safely, improve your strength and posture. You’re welcome.

About the Author

Brian Teeter is author and publisher of the Healthy Trekking travel guidebooks.  Become a smarter traveler by reading his new book, 300 Healthy Travel Tips available on Amazon and Apple iBooks.