How to Get More From Doing Less
I'll take his word for it. My sole experience with a three-minute plank left me hungry for less. Fortunately, new research makes a powerful argument for shorter holds performed more frequently.
The study, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, is by Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
McGill was among the first to show that the endurance of core muscles is much more important than their strength when it comes to their primary role: to provide stability for the lower back. But as the researcher who did more than anyone to popularize the plank and other stability exercises, he sees no point in taking any of them to extremes.
"There's no utility to this kind of activity, other than claiming a record," he says. "It's probably detrimental to other aspects of human performance."
McGill's new study shows a better way to use the plank.
"Repeated 10-second holds created a residual stiffness that enhances performance," McGill says.
How It Works
Athletic performance depends on being able to generate power through your arms and legs. That power is only possible if your torso and hips provide a solid, stable platform.
Imagine a sprinter, for example. The speed and rhythm of his legs and arms depend on a rigid torso. Same with a quarterback throwing downfield, or a fighter delivering a punch or kick, or a golfer teeing off. Their mid-body muscles need to be tight for the throw, kick, or drive to have any force behind it.
In his study, McGill had the subjects do extensive core-training programs. Half of them did stability exercises, beginning with planks, side planks, and bird dogs, holding each for 10 seconds at a time.
They did 5 sets of each exercise, starting with 5 reps (10-second holds), then 4, 3, 2, and 1. The other half did dynamic exercises, starting with crunch variations. After six weeks, the ones who did multiple 10-second holds of the stability exercises saw the biggest increase in torso stiffness.