Special to The Globe and Mail
There are 1,440 minutes in every day. If you practise healthy sleep habits, eight hours or 480 minutes are used to sleep. That gives you just less than 1,000 minutes to pack in the rest of your life. After commuting to and from work, putting in a good day at the office and unwinding with an end-of-day Netflix binge, many spend close to 80 per cent of their waking minutes sitting. And, if you haven’t heard, sitting is the new smoking.
So, how much of the time that remains are you willing to dedicate to your own personal health? Despite the best of intentions, the honest answer for most Canadians is very little. If that is your truth, then here is a lifeline that will cost you only two minutes, or 1 per cent of your remaining “free time” each day: Learn how to plank.
1. Planking will improve your core strength, body definition and ability to move.
When comparing the returns you get from body-weight exercises for the time invested, planks win out. If you sit all day, your core muscles may now be hiding under love handles. Planks will wake these muscles up, including your abdominal wall, obliques and glutes. The benefits of a strong core are limitless. By engaging these muscles on a regular basis, you will notice positive changes in how you look, move and feel in short order.
2. Planking will improve the health of your spine and build a defence against back pain.
If you are still doing sit-ups to strengthen your core and back, stop. Sit-ups can put hundreds of pounds of compressive force on the spine. By lying on the floor and pulling your upper body toward your knees, you place your back in a vulnerable position. This exercise compresses your spinal discs and is not healthy for the spine.
Done correctly (see below) planks allow you to build strength in your core without stressing your spine. If your back has given you trouble in the past, be sure to discuss your plank technique with a qualified health professional first. Back-pain sufferers should also consider incorporating cat/camel, abdominal bracing and side-bridge exercises with planks.
3. Planking will improve your posture, balance and metabolism.
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. The daily habit of planking will also lead to an increased daily calorie burn resulting from your core activation.
How to do a proper plank:
Get on the floor on a mat or towel in a push-up position.
With your elbows bent at 90 degrees rest your weight on your forearms, keep your trunk straight and spine rigid. With only your forearms and toes now touching the ground, lock your pelvis to your rib cage by engaging your abdominal wall. Another way to think of this is to bear down, tightening the muscles that circle your torso and pelvic floor, linking your pelvis and shoulders. Your body should be in a straight line from ears to toes with no sagging or lifting through the pelvis. Continue to breathe deeply while holding this posture.
Remember to keep your head and neck in a relaxed, neutral spinal posture with your eyes focused on the floor, at a spot between your forearms.
For beginners, start by holding this position for 10 seconds. If this is too tough, then modify the position by starting in a bent-knee plank position – resting on your forearms and knees (instead of toes), while keeping the spine rigid. The goal is to gradually increase the time you can successfully hold a plank to two minutes or 1 per cent of your free time each day. If you can hold a two-minute plank, seek advice about advancing this exercise.
Finally, if your form suffers, stop. You may notice that if you try to push past your comfort zone your body starts to shake. This shuddering sensation is a normal result of muscle fatigue. Maintain the plank as long as you can hold proper form or until you hit your time goal. Your body will shake less as you become more fit. Planks will deliver the desired results – pretend planks will not.
Planking everyday will enhance your spine stability by practising motion and muscle-activation patterns that will prepare you for all types of challenges the rest of the day presents. It is well worth the investment of two minutes a day and will get you on a path to a healthier you.
Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga, team chiropractor for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.