The plank works. In fact, according to a study conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University the plank works your core more effectively than traditional crunches and, better still, won’t wreck your back, either.
However, this is not an article that is attempting to debate the planks utility or usefulness, at this point that is beyond reproach, what we're going to do here is work out firstly, whether the plank is a credible a fat-burning tool and secondly, just how long you should be holding. The answers to both of which you can find below.
Do Planks Burn Belly Fat?
So we'll start with the big question, do planks burn belly fat? As PT and the founder of Lemon Studios, Sam Shaw, explains, planking will aid your weight-loss ambitions, but using them as a fat burner and nothing else is a bit like opening a bottle with your teeth, yes, you can do it, but there are definitely better tools for the job. ‘The bodyweight plank is a brilliant exercise for strengthening your abdomen, your oblique muscles, your quadratus lumborum, your lower back and your glutes,’ says Shaw. ‘It’s also a brilliant all-round low impact exercise for strengthening the core and helping reduce injury in day to day life.’
‘In terms of burning belly fat, performing a static plank will use up some calories, but it won’t be instrumental in burning belly flat specifically as you can’t spot reduce where you lose weight from. Belly fat loss would come down to having the correct and optimised nutrition and ensuring that you are expending more energy than you are consuming.’
Can You Get in Shape with Planks Alone?
To answer this question you really need to know what you're looking to achieve. If you want to build massive arms or tree trunk legs, then planks aren't the way to go. If you want strengthen your core on the other hand...
‘Planks are an effective way to strengthen the core, trunk and lower back to minimise any injury and to help support other movement patterns in training such as deadlifts and squats, where a strong trunk is paramount,’ says Shaw.
So How Long Should You Hold a Plank?
According to professor and spine specialist Stuart McGill, PhD, the answer is just 10 seconds.
‘There’s no utility to this kind of activity other than claiming a record,’ said McGill, who was speaking to The Telegraph. Instead, McGill believes you will see greater benefits from planking for three 10-second intervals rather than long holds. ‘Basically, holding repeated holds of 10 seconds is best for the average person. But for people looking to better back health they should be doing the Big 3 (curl ups, side-plank and bird dog) every day. My conclusions come from many studies that we have performed, not just a single one.’
McGill, who spent 30 years as a professor of spine biomechanics, also warned that you should avoid certain back exercises first thing in the morning.
‘Your discs are hydrophilic, which means they love water, they suck up fluids, so when you go to bed at night you’re shorter than when you wake up in the morning. Your spinal discs are much more inflated, they don’t like to bend and actually it has three times the stress.’
McGill recommends not doing bending exercises in the morning, such as pulling your knees to your chest or sit-ups. He believes it would be much wiser to wait an hour, go for a walk and let gravity “squeeze out some of the water.”
Wait, Is That Really How Long You Should Be Holding a Plank?
As you can imagine, not everyone agrees. Speaking to The Independent, Benji Tiger, a personal trainer at Orange Theory in Florida said, ‘You should be holding a plank for 30 seconds to a minute.’ And if you were to do planking intervals, ‘holding for 20 seconds each time would be better.’
Veteran strength coach and Men’s Health contributor Dan John suggests holding the plank for no more than 120 seconds. In his book, Can You Go? if you can’t hold a plank for 120 seconds, you could be doing something wrong in your workouts because a fit and healthy guy should be able to do a two-minute plank, but not a second longer. ‘It’s just a plank,’ he says. ‘More is not better.’
How Many Calories Does a One-minute Plank Burn
For most people, planking for one minute is going to burn between two and five calories, which is why we say that if fat loss is your goal, it may be better to choose another exercise. ‘You will burn some calories from planking,’ says Shaw, ‘but in terms of mass of calories burned you would be better performing an exercise that raises your heart rate and necessitates the use of other joints and muscles such as a jump squat or deadlift.’
How to do a Plank
Let’s pause the stopwatch for a moment. Despite the varying opinions on how long you should hold position, it’s agreed, thankfully, that the most important part of planking comes down to form.
In the press-up position, your feet should be together, arms slightly wider than shoulder width and your weight resting on your forearms. Most importantly, your body should form a straight line and be stiff from head to toe as you brace your abs. The moment your back begins to sag, is the moment you should stop, no matter how long the clock has been ticking.
You can find our complete guide to planking, here.
How Many Sets of Planks Should You Do a Day?
Once you've mastered the plank, you're going to want to take it up a notch, and that's where this planking programme from Shaw comes in. We've taken it back to basics, but if you can perform a traditional plank for a minute, skip the half-plank section.
‘Planks are an excellent way to strengthen the core, so I would recommend for the average man, depending on strength level, starting with 30 seconds a day in a half-plank position, so on the knees in a pronated-arm position (palms facing down), then building up to one minute,’ says Shaw. ‘The next progression would be a full plank on elbows and toes, keeping the core tight so as to focus on the correct muscles – the abdomen and obliques — and keeping glutes squeezed tight. After 30 days, you could plank for 1 minute, repeating this five times, with a 30-sec-to-one-minute rest between each plank.
‘The focus should be on maintaining accurate form, engaging the correct muscles so as not to injure or put strain on the lower back. You could then work to a side plank, resting on the elbow to focus on hitting slightly different parts of the trunk – in particular the oblique muscles to help build all round strength,’ he adds.
What Will Planking for 30 Days Do?
Planking alone isn't going to make you leaner and stronger, but you could definitely do worse than daily planks. As Shaw explains, after 30 days of consistently planking, the average man should see ‘a dramatic improvement in core strength and they should also be able to sustain the plank for a longer period of time.’
‘They would start to see abdomen definition providing they were in a caloric deficit, and were following an accurate nutrition plan so as to drop body fat. Overall they would feel stronger and see a reduction in lower-back pain,’ Shaw adds.
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