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How long can you plank?

Plank on toes

The plank – an exercise where you hold your body off the floor with your elbows and toes, is a commonly used exercise to ‘work the core’. Often a test for how long you can stay in this position is used to see how ‘strong your core is’ and for some trainers, it is part of their fitness assessment. Planking is the sport of how long you can stay in this position and the current world record is 5 hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds. Wow, you might say, that must be a really strong core, or is it?

The plank was first developed by a man called Stuart McGill, who discovered that if you were in a face down position, you could effectively activate the deep abdominal muscles otherwise known as the transverse abdominis. Using technology, he was able to find out how effective this exercise was and how long they were activated. His recommendation was, and still is, 8 to 10 seconds. This was just for the transverse abdominis. This muscle group is part of what is commonly known as the core, but it is not the only muscle. The three other muscles that are part of the core are the diaphragm, pelvic floor and multifidus, which is a small, deep but important muscle in the lower back.

So the question - how long can you plank for? Well, it has to start with how long you can contract the weakest muscle in the core. If your weakest muscle group is your pelvic floor and you can only perform 3 second holds, then it makes sense that your plank would be held for 3 seconds and no longer. If you are struggling to identify the deep abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominals in standing, then doing a full plank is not recommended. So lifting your body onto your elbows and toes is not ideal for everyone and if the core muscles are not working appropriately, the focus would be on the other muscles involved in holding the position (this happens anyway as your upper and lower body is also required to hold the position).

An ideal place to start with modifying the plank would be to lie face downwards on the floor and just focus on lifting the pelvic floor and activating the deep abdominals (sensation should be felt only across the hip bones and not under the rib cage). Then moving onto the elbows and holding just the upper body off the floor. These are both excellent core exercises and as long as the pelvic floor and deep abdominals are gently contracted with control with a full relaxation at the end of each repetition then you have completed good quality core contractions.

If this is completed successfully over a few weeks, then progressing to holding the torso off the floor by lifting up onto the elbows and knees is the next step. The important point to note here is that you require a pelvic floor and deep abdominal activation before initiating the lift and relaxing these muscles after the body has relaxed down to the floor.

The length of time to be in this position is for however long that a pelvic floor and deep abdominal activation can be maintained – which according to research is a maximum of 10 seconds.

Written by Marietta Mehanni, Pelvic Floor First ambassador