be here.jpg

The Power of the Plank

I was first introduced to the concept of planking during the the 2011 season premiere of The Office. It was the episode where many of the employees were lying face down in random, and often ridiculous, places. Andy, who had just taken over as boss, implores Dwight to take care of the situation. And he does.

I learned about a less dangerous and more useful version of planking when I started attending Stroller Strides a couple of years ago. Toward the end of many workouts we would be instructed to hold a plank for thirty or sixty seconds. Sometimes we would do side planks, planks with shoulder taps, or even plank jacks. All of these plank variations aimed to strengthen the core, shoulders, arms, back, and glutes. Engaging more than twenty muscles at the same time, a plank really is a total body exercise. (I can't find a list of these twenty muscles, but three different websites claim it, so it must be true.)

In case you aren't familiar with planking, here is a helpful picture that illustrates proper form.

Now that I do some version of the plank most days, correct form has become almost second nature. When I first started planking, I was definitely guilty of dropping my hips and arching my back -- also known as the "saggy plank." Sagging is never good.

Whereas everyone agrees that proper alignment is key to an effective plank, there is some disagreement among fitness professionals as to whether it is better to do a plank on your hands or forearms. After scouring the internet for insight, I found general consensus on two points: 1) there is a greater risk of injury when performing the plank on your hands and 2) shoulders and triceps are targeted during planks on hands while abdominal muscles will reap more benefits from a forearm plank. I've tended do planks on my hands, but I will definitely try to do more on my forearms from now on. Who doesn't want amazing abs?

Regardless of whether you plank on your hands or forearms, it is clearly a practical exercise. It is easy to learn, doesn't require equipment, and poses both a physical and mental challenge. It's not surprising that plank challenges have popped up all over the place. Just check out your Facebook feed at the beginning of the new year. My family has even gotten into planking during get togethers. It's a great way to not feel quite so guilty about the big holiday meal and to avoid discussing politics, religion, and the latest family drama. Asher and Annabelle even join in -- although, they tend to pike more than plank.

My most serious plank challenge, though, has been the November Body Back Boost one. At the end of each class, we all plank. The goal is to increase our time by as much as possible. So even though Megan is superwoman and started out being able to plank for about a gazillion minutes, I could still win if I, say, double my time and she only adds a minute or two to hers. (Of course, we are all winning because we are all getting stronger, but a Dutch Bros gift certificate is on the line!)

Last summer, in the midst of half marathon training and frequent strength training, I finally held a plank for four minutes. Unfortunately, I'm back down to about two and a half minutes. I think that half of my problem is that I haven't gotten more than two hours of consecutive sleep in at least three months. Sleep is important! But I'm making progress toward dropping night feedings and have been committed to exercising every day. My goal is to reach at least three and a half minutes by the end of the month. It probably won't be enough to win, but I'm planking all over the place in an effort to get stronger.

But why? A growing number of fitness professionals are even starting to speak out about the overuse of planking and the limited benefits of exceeding two minutes. It's cool that Mao Weidong planked for exactly eight hours and one minute and will be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, but is it really worth dedicating any serious amount of time or effort to this goal? I've been reflecting on this question and have come up with two reasons why increasing my plank time is important to me.

The first is because planking is hard. After a minute, I always want to stop. I want to give in and collapse into a comfortable child's pose. I want to give in to the little voice that is always there, telling me that I can't do it, chiding me for even trying. My body might be shaking, but the real battle is in my mind. My thoughts volley back and forth from "you aren't worth it" to "you can do hard things." A successful plank is less about the time on the stopwatch and more about which voice wins.

Planking is also helping me to understand time in a different way. Before I had kids, I often thought of time as a countdown. One more day until my birthday party, a month until summer vacation, a year until graduation. But then I got pregnant and started thinking about time in terms of how much of it had passed. Twelve weeks pregnant, baby is two months old, it's been thirty-six months since I slept through the night. . . When I am planking, though, time is both a countdown and a measure; I have planked for two minutes and I hope to hold it for two minutes more. As a mom, I want to try to think about time from both perspectives. They say that the days are long but the years are short when you are a parent, but I wonder if I can make the years slow down, make them just a little longer, a little richer if I change my thinking. When I consider how we just celebrated Asher's third birthday, I want to also keep in mind that we only have fifteen more years before he goes out into the world on his own. I don't want to be constantly mourning the passage of time, but I desperately want to be more completely present in this moment we are in. When I am planking, I am present with every muscle (well, at least twenty of them) and all of my attention. I think I can learn a lot from this practice. Maybe Dwight should have given planking a try.