One of the most common body parts for which patients seek out physical therapy is the spine, and particularly the lumbar spine, or lower back. Lower back issues range from muscle strain to disc disorder to stenosis (that is, narrowing of the openings for nerve roots in the spine), among others. However, a question physical therapists generally hear from a person with a spinal condition is, “What is the best exercise for my core?” While this is a loaded question, as every person’s situation may be different, there is one exercise for essentially any person looking to strengthen their core: the plank.
Planks are isometric exercises, meaning exercises that are designed to elicit a static muscle contraction. There is little to no movement during a plank – no forward, backward or sideways bending and no twisting or rotating. For this reason, planks are one of the safest core exercises that can be done. Planks also engage not only abdominal and back muscles, which is what most people mean when they say “core,” but also muscles in the shoulders, scapular (or shoulder blade) region, thoracic (or mid back) region, and buttocks, hips and thighs. Essentially, planks require a person to engage quite a bit, so the plank is quite an all-encompassing exercise.
The traditional plank is performed in either a push-up position, meaning face down and propped on outstretched hands and toes, or a semi-push-up position, meaning face down and propped on bent elbows and toes. However, planks can be graded and varied to make them either easier or more challenging, based on an individual person’s need. For example, to make a plank easier for a person who either is early on in recovery from a spinal injury or who is unaccustomed to planking, performing a plank on an elevated surface, such as the edge of a couch or bed, will make it more doable.
Depending on a person’s ability, planks can be held for varying times and performed either once or several times in a row. There is not necessarily a right or wrong amount of repetitions or hold time, as it varies from person to person. Some will be able to hold for only 20-30 seconds, others for a full minute. No matter the time, do what is right for you. Perhaps try two or three of those planks with as much rest in between repetitions as needed to recover properly. Over time, as your comfort with planking improves, and as your core strength and muscle endurance improves, plank hold time, number of repetitions, and variations for difficulty can be progressed so that continued benefits occur.