A plank (this is not John)
Perhaps the simplest of all bodyweight training moves, the plank is also one of the great exercises for runners as it works to build strength in your entire body. The straight bodyline creates tension from ankles to head, making you work and strengthen not only the abs but the glutes, obliques, back muscles, hips and everything else needed for a strong running core.
To test it out, chief sub and the
sucker person behind our 'I did press-ups for a month' feature, John, gave it a whirl.
Why the plank? Why not? It’s an excellent exercise that works the entire core, which improves running efficiency (a weak core means you have to work harder to maintain form, which means you expend energy you could be using to run further). You may also feel it in your shoulders and lower back, though I did not. Finally, it’s an exercise you can do almost anywhere. I choose to do it in my bedroom, first thing in the morning. I position myself in front of a mirror, though Lord knows it’s not for reasons of vanity. I want to ensure I maintain form for the duration. A quick glance will do, by the way. After that, I keep an eye on the watch on the floor in front of my hands. I decide to begin with one minute. I hit 1:10, and it’s fairly easy, though I do notice that my stomach tends to dip a little towards the end, like a shop awning in a downpour. I suck in my bellybutton, but stop when it seems to be touching my spine.
On day two I hold the position for 1:25. Afterwards, since I’m already on the floor, I do 20 press-ups and pick up an errant sock (not at the same time). Already I’m beginning to feel the static nature of the plank is going to test me more than the physical demands of the challenge itself. When I exercise I like to move a lot, which is why I don’t like t'ai chi or queueing.
By the end of the week I’m up to 1:35, which is not much of an advance on my efforts five days earlier. I sometimes have to remind myself to pull in my stomach, but it’s going well. It is, however, effortlessly, epically boring.
During this week I reach 1:40 without too much difficulty, though it’s becoming a chore. With my previous month-long challenge I enjoyed topping a previous effort. With this, I certainly feel the effort involved, but I am not getting a sense of achievement. It’s like teaching a cat to do a trick.
RELATED: Watch how to perform a perfect plank
Up to 1:52, almost a minute more than when I started. This is gratifying, and suggests I am more driven by such goals than I thought I was. Or, perhaps as such goals become attainable, I decide to aim for them. These are the kinds of rambling, vaguely relevant thoughts that occur as I balance there, on forearms and toes, while also trying to breathe steadily rather than holding my breath, which, oddly, seems more intuitive in such a static position. Intuitive, but very dumb.
I continue to improve my time, in part because my muscles are getting used to being called into action every day, but mostly, I feel, because I have added some variety to the move: I lift one leg about 30 centimetres, hold for 10 seconds, then repeat the move with the other leg. This helps pass the time, and I have to work much harder to stay relatively still. I can feel my lower-back muscles and my glutes getting involved, and they seem to like being active. Late in the day, but this feels far more satisfying as an exercise.
I am also noticing a greater tension in the muscles running down either side of my spine, though it’s hard to tell if it’s the trapezius muscles, which cover the upper back and extend down the spine, or the erector spinae muscles.
By the end of the month, I can maintain the position for 2:15. There is some shuddering throughout my body in the final seconds, like a space capsule re-entering the atmosphere, but I don’t collapse in a gibbering heap. I feel I could continue and hold it for longer as I continued to strengthen my core, but, frankly, I don’t want to. Incidentally, the world record for holding the plank is a ridiculous eight hours, one minute and one second, set by Chinese police officer Mao Weidong in 2016. He cited strength training as the secret to his success. That and a lot of free time, is my guess.
Whether the month of doing the plank has improved my running form is difficult to ascertain, but I do find myself more aware of my posture during the day, especially when I’m sitting down. My core feels solid and tight. This exercise alone will not result in washboard abs, but I am not prepared to make the calamitous changes to my lifestyle that would be required to attain a stomach I could scrub wet clothes against, an impulse that has never occurred to me. I am happy knowing I don’t slouch at my desk and feel confident that as I hit mile 10 I will have the core strength to remain upright without having to think about it or use up energy that is badly needed elsewhere. Should you try it? Sure, but include as much variety as you can (such as the side plank, plank with shoulder touches and one-armed plank) or you risk moderate levels of insanity.
Next: weighted squats. I sense pain is not too far away.