Planks and pushups are examples of effective, full-body exercises that you can do virtually anywhere. They’re deceptively simple, such that many people pass over them in favor of flashier workout techniques, but don’t be fooled: Planks and pushups are a solid exercise choice that can help you build a strong core, upper and lower body strength and more.
There’s a reason why the U.S. military still uses pushups as part of their basic training and physical fitness tests — it’s a demanding maneuver and also one that can be used as an indicator of fitness. What’s more, it’s possible to modify pushups to suit any workout level, from beginner to advanced.
Similarly, planks are also suitable for all levels and engage many muscle groups in your body simultaneously, making them an ideal way to train your whole body. If you’re still wondering why planks and pushups are worthy of being added to your regular workout routines, here are some top reasons to consider.
Five Top Benefits of Planks
Planking involves holding your body off the ground in a straight line. To perform one, start off on your hands and knees, then lower your forearms to the floor so your arms form a 90-degree angle.
Move your feet back and, with only your toes on the ground, hold your body and legs stiff. Be sure that your low back is not sagging, your knees are straight and your abs are tightened. Now hold for at least 30 seconds. What can you gain from this straightforward bodyweight exercise (which uses your own weight to provide resistance)?
1. Strong Core Muscles — Planks not only work your transversus abdominis muscles, which are the deepest layer of abdominal muscles, and other primary core trunk muscles, they elicit the greatest activation compared to other exercises like a traditional trunk flexion and extension exercise.
In fact, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that “the forearm plank variations required over two times the average activity of the rectus abdominus, external abdominal oblique and lumbar erector spinae,” than another core exercise, which suggests they may “be optimal in terms of maximizing strength, improving stability, reducing injury and maintaining mobility.”
2. Reduced Back Pain —Because planks build up your core, they’re excellent for preventing back pain. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), “Because the plank exercise requires minimal movement while contracting all layers of the abdominal fascia, it is an excellent way to strengthen the core, which, in turn, helps reduce low-back pain. As the deep abdominal muscles become stronger, your midsection tightens.”
Further, research shows that exercise focused on activating the deep trunk muscles, such as planks, may be beneficial for low back pain.
3. Increased Balance and Flexibility — Planks target the muscles needed for proper posture, stability and balance. According to Dwight Chapin, team chiropractor for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, “Planks strengthen the muscles that make holding a neutral spinal posture possible, reducing the stress to your back even when sitting.
Improved abdominal strength and core stability will also enhance your balance and flexibility, making your movements more efficient and reduce the risk of injury.”
4. Improved Athletic Performance — Endurance plank tests are associated with measures of athletic performance, and being able to hold a plank longer may be a marker for better endurance as well an ability to quickly change directions (such as while playing soccer).
5. Better Posture — Planking requires engaging the muscles necessary to stay upright and maintain proper posture, including your back, chest, shoulders abs and neck. According to Glenn Wright, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, “They [planks] maintain the stability of the core muscles, which support proper posture by safeguarding an erect position and proper alignment of the spine.”
Plank Variations to Try
Planks are a versatile exercise, which only adds to their appeal. If you find that standard planks are too challenging, for instance, you can start off with your knees on the ground, as demonstrated by Mercola.com personal trainer Jill Rodriguez in the video above.
If you’re looking for more of a challenge, try planking with your feet elevated on a bench. Further, rather than keeping planking as a static exercise, you can incorporate some of the variations below, which are also demonstrated by Rodriguez:
• Up Down Plank — Start on the floor on your knees in straight-arm position. Next, move to your forearms, hold for two to three seconds and move back to a straight arm position. Up and down is one repetition
• Planks With Leg Raises — Start on the floor with your knees bent and in the straight-arm position. Pull one leg up toward the ceiling as if a string were pulling your leg from behind the knee. Hold for one or two seconds and bring it back down. Repeat with the other leg. This is one repetition.
• Plank With Knee Crunch — Place your hands flat on a chair or bench, placing your body in the plank position, bearing your weight on your toes. Bring your right knee to your right elbow and return to the start position. Repeat with your left leg. This is one repetition.
Five Top Benefits of Pushups
Pushups share some commonalities with planks, including keeping your body stiff and straight during the exercise. Planks are sometimes described as a pre-pushup. From the plank position, but with your palms flat on the ground and elbows straight, lower your body all the way down, allowing your sternum to gently touch the floor.
Next, do a full range of motion by pushing up all the way with your elbows, paying attention to their alignment. The ideal angle from your sides is about 45 degrees. In the video at the top of the page, Darin Steen demonstrates the perfect pushup.
You’ll notice that it’s a slow, controlled movement with a three-second contraction. Control is key, as an improperly performed pushup will not yield the same benefits. However, done correctly, pushups can offer many benefits, including the following:
1. Build Strength — Pushups target your chest muscles, shoulders, back of your arms, abdominals and the serratus anterior (the muscles under your armpits), simultaneously. A typical pushup requires you to lift 50 to 75 percent of your body weight, which will help you build strength in your upper body and core.
2. Protect Your Shoulder Joint — Weak muscles around your shoulder joint leave it vulnerable to injury. Pushups target the shoulder muscles, building strength and helping to protect the area from stress and injury.
3. Boost Your Metabolism — Bodyweight exercises like pushups work multiple muscle groups at the same time, requiring your heart to work harder and ultimately raising your metabolic rate for increased fat burning and weight loss. As noted by the National Personal Training Institute:
“When done properly, pushups are a great metabolism booster because of the inherent physical exertion needed to perform them properly.
As your muscles call for more oxygen, your heart responds by pumping blood around the body faster to deliver the goods. The increased metabolic rate helps you burn more calories and you’ve started a cycle of the gift that keeps on giving.”
4. Build Stronger Bones — Weight-bearing exercise like pushups is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis, because as you put more tension on your muscles it puts more pressure on your bones, which then respond by continuously creating fresh, new bone.
5. Tone and Strengthen Your Arms — In a study evaluating eight triceps exercises commonly used by people looking to tone their arms, the triangle pushup was among the most effective, as it registered the highest levels of muscle activation. Cedric X. Bryant, ACE chief science officer, explained:
” … [T]riangle pushups not only produced high levels of muscle activation, but these exercises can be safely performed by the vast majority of exercisers, require little to no equipment and a relatively short amount of time to produce a positive result when included in a regular fitness routine.
These exercises are the perfect example of how fitness can be achieved, no matter how limited on time or access to equipment an individual may be.”
A triangle pushup is performed similar to a standard pushup, except your hands are placed in a triangle shape on the floor, with your index fingers and thumb touching to form a triangle.
Have You Heard of the Plank to Pushup?
If you’re wondering which is better, planks or pushups, it’s like comparing apples to oranges, and truthfully you’re best off including both of them in your workouts. For some variation, however, you can try a plank to pushup, which combines the two exercises, giving you the benefits of both.
Start off in a plank position, then lower yourself into a pushup position and push back up into a plank. You’ll work your shoulders, arms and core muscles, building strength throughout your body. If you’re not yet strong enough to perform a pushup, you may want to start with planks, building up enough strength until you can hold one for 30 seconds to one minute.
At that point, move on to standard pushups and, when those become too easy, try some of the variations below. With each tweak of the movements, you’ll target different muscle groups for a more comprehensive workout while decreasing the risk of plateauing:
- Incline or decline pushups will increase the work against your chest and abdominal core muscles. The incline pushup is done with your hands on a stable chair or bench. Decline pushups are done with your feet up on a bench or stable chair and your hands on the floor.
- Alternately raising a leg as you raise and lower your body increases the work on your upper body and glutes as you work harder to stabilize your balance.
- Wide leg pushups are done with your legs wider than shoulder width apart. This increases the work of your core muscles.
- Side crawl pushups are done after rising to the start position. Move your right arm and leg to the right, then your left arm and leg to the right until you are in the correct position to raise and lower your body. Once you have done one pushup, move to the left again using the same technique and do another pushup.
Even with variations, pushups and planks should make up only one part of your overall fitness routine. Exercise is crucial for disease prevention and physical and mental health. Plus, it even slows down aging by stimulating the regeneration of the energy-producing mitochondria in your cells.
In addition to bodyweight exercises like pushups and planks, be sure your exercise routine includes additional strength training and high-intensity exercises, and always listen to your body, altering your workouts so you feel challenged while giving yourself adequate time for recovery in between.
*Article originally appeared at Mercola. Reposted with permission.