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Should you try a 30-day plank challenge?

Julie Wilcox demonstrates plank position

It seems like they are all over the Internet these days: 30-day plank challenges that promise to get you ripped abs, quick. But if you’ve thought about trying one, you might want to reconsider your approach and remember that, like all forms of exercise, a plank has its advantages and disadvantages.

When done with correct alignment, planks are a smart addition to any workout to strengthen deep core muscles, arms, shoulders, neck, back, hips and legs.

However, 30-day plank challenges, which require holding a plank position every day, should be done with caution, as bad technique can cause injury.  

What is a plank?

Planks refer to the many ways we can hold the trunk of our body off the ground in a straight line.

There are many variations, including the top of a push-up plank, forearm plank, one-legged plank and those that include movement for a cardio element.

They aren’t just for strengthening, either.

“On the one hand, planks serve as a definite endurance and strengthening exercise for our core,” said Clifford Yun, a doctor of physical therapy at Alta Physical Therapy in New York City. “On the other hand, they are an evaluation tool.”

When doing a plank, neck or low back pain may indicate weaknesses in the upper or lower parts of the spine. Be careful if your back sags toward the ground because of a weak core. Sagging can compress vertebrae, put pressure on discs and cause shoulder joint inflammation.

Consider building strength before doing a plank challenge by doing sit-ups or Pilates and yoga exercises.

The 30-day plank challenge

The most common plank challenge is:
Days 1-2: Hold for 20 seconds
Days 3-4: Hold for 30 seconds
Day 5: Hold for 45 seconds
Day 6: Rest
Days 7-8: Hold for 45 seconds
Day 9: Hold for 60 seconds
Days 10-30: Increase by 30 seconds every 2-3 days. By day 30, you’ll be up to 300 seconds.

Beware that diving into a plank challenge with any of the weaknesses Yun described may cause more pain than strength benefits.

If you begin to experience pain during the challenge, it’s best to restructure your workout. For example, start with shorter periods of holding the plank– 5, 10 or 15 seconds– focusing on perfecting your form. From there, establish the number of sets and reps that are appropriate to maintain solid alignment.

The benefits of plank

Planks help our bodies:
- stand upright and tall with good posture
- improve balance and sports performance
- easily manage everyday activities like getting up from a chair or picking up a child
- prevent osteoarthritis, as well as muscular and joint aches
- maintain digestion and metabolism.

If you are trying to get a six-pack ab look, supplement planks with sit-ups, crunches and other abdominal exercises.

The bottom line: Plank can be a great way to build core strength, when used as part of a balanced exercise program that takes into account your individual body condition. However, when an exercise program like a 30-day plank challenge doesn’t take into account your body’s limitations, you could be at risk for injury.

Julie Wilcox is a professor of health and fitness at St. Francis College in New York City, and the founder and CEO of The Julie Wilcox Method (JWM). The JWM offers the perfect online solution for total wellness by integrating the three essential pillars of health: Yoga, fitness and nutritious food. Through instructional video classes and daily plans for each pillar, as well as hundreds of recipes, Julie teaches JWM members how to get fit, be flexible and eat right at home, at work and during travel.