By Charles Staley Breaking Muscle
The 3 Benefits of an Exercise
Whenever you perform an exercise, there are three basic benefits you might enjoy as the result of doing it:
- Improved body-composition (and by extension, improved health)
- Improved functionality (and by extension, improved health)
- Fun/excitement/personal challenge
In addition, there are at least five different categories of cost involved with doing any exercise:
- Equipment/Facility requirements
Now with those costs and benefits at top of mind, let’s take a look at the popular plank exercise.
Potential Benefits of the Plank
1. Improved Body Composition
I’d argue that this is by far the primary benefit that those who do planks expect to experience. On this parameter however, the plank fails to deliver, and that’s a significant understatement. In order to positively influence body composition, an exercise must burn a lot of calories and/or promote the growth of new muscle tissue. Since planks involve no actual movement, they don’t burn a significant number of calories, nor do they disrupt homeostasis enough to cause muscular hypertrophy.
The benefits, or not, of the plank.
I wasn’t able to find reliable stats on how many calories planks burn per unit of time, but I do remember seeing a study that said deadlifting 385 for 8 reps only burns about fifty calories. So comparatively, you’d probably need to hold a plank for about fifteen minutes or so to achieve a comparative energy burn.
Often, when I make critiques like this, someone will inevitably say. “Well, at least they’re doing something – why are you criticizing it?” Yes, planks are better than staying home and watching TV from your couch. Although come to think of it, if you stay home, you won’t risk being injured or killed in an automobile accident on your way to the gym to do something you could just do at home to start with.
2. Improved Functionality
Proponents of planks often state “core stability” as their rationale for doing them, and at least on the surface, this strikes me as a more valid expectation than improved body composition. With that said, however, I never do planks (well not exactly never, but I’d estimate the total time I’ve spent in planks over my entire lifetime would be less than twenty minutes). Yet just out of curiosity, the other day I held a plank for two minutes without a great deal of difficulty. So clearly, whatever core stability I have must come from lifting heavy weights, since that’s all I do in terms of fitness activities.
From a specificity point of view, you could raise reasonable questions about the functional specificity of both the movement itself, as well as the long durations people typically perform it for. In other words, what type of real-life challenges will the plank make you better at? Don’t look at me. I don’t know, either.
IF YOU CAN HOLD A PLANK POSITION FOR TWO MINUTES, YOU PROBABLY HAVE ENOUGH CORE STABILITY AND THEREFORE, DON’T NEED TO DO PLANKS. IF YOU CAN’T, IT’S LIKELY THAT YOU’RE SIMPLY WEAK OR OVERWEIGHT, WHICH MEANS THERE ARE FAR BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN PLANKS.
3. Fun/Excitement/Personal Challenge
It’s important to acknowledge that there is a highly subjective aspect to the things people find fun, interesting, challenging, or personally rewarding. So if the plank falls into any of those categories for you, I have no issues with that at all.
The Cost Of Doing Planks
Despite my decided lack of enthusiasm for the plank, I must confess it comes with a low cost, which is probably the best rationale for doing it in the first place (if you must!).
1. They Take Time
All exercises require time, and planks are time-consuming as exercises go. Typically, planks are held from 1-2 minutes. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t be likely to spend more than 5-10 total minutes doing planks during any given workout, so I can’t make the argument that planks are particularly time-consuming.
2. Low Risk
Planks are low-risk, save for those whose overall health and physical conditioning might preclude the exercise (I was about to say “movement,” whoops!) in the first place. So in practical terms, planks strike me as being very low risk.
This is the subjective aspect of exercise cost. Personally, I find planks to be tedious, but you might not share that view, of course.
4. No Equipment/Facility Requirements
None required. Planks rank extremely low-cost in this category.
Planks require little skill. Score this as a win for the plank.
My Risk-To-Reward Summary
For me, doing planks is analogous to watching a crappy movie because you got a free ticket to the theater. Sure, you could go, but why?
Personal trainers who spend a lot of time making their clients do planks remind me of karate instructors who spend a lot of time making their students do jumping jacks – it’s just an easy way to burn time. I’m not even going to elaborate on that because it strikes me as intuitively obvious.
An Alternative to Planks
That’s a fair question, and it comes down to the benefits you’re hoping to obtain. If you’re looking to improve body composition, I’d dial your diet in and lift weights. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about your core stability, I’d first ask yourself why you feel your core stability is lacking. If you come up with a reasonable answer, I’d do things like this:
If you’re just looking for a bit of personal challenge, then by all means, plank away.