Exercise has a huge impact on both my physical and mental health. I’ve taken a brisk walk almost every day for the last 16 years (at my treadmill desk, around my classroom or school gym or outside strictly between the months of June and September), which works well for me. I also know, however, especially as a woman who is getting older (I’m not complaining; it’s better than the alternative) that I should be adding weight-bearing exercise to my routine (to strengthen muscles of course but also bones – plus some studies have shown it boosts brain function and has the additional benefit of boosting metabolism) but I just can’t stand it. I go in little spurts of strength training and then stop again – I hate all the “How many seconds? How many reps? Do I switch sides now?” stuff when I could just be walking and enjoying a podcast.
Despite my previous failings, I wanted to give strength training another try, in a very low-key way: something multi-purpose, equipment-free and not too time-consuming (and if it was something that I could turn into a blog post, even better!) which is how my 30 Day Plank Challenge came to be. Let’s be honest: a plank challenge is not original, nor is writing about it (I actually got my idea from Dr. Jen Ashton’s book The Self-Care Solution, though her month long challenge involved daily planks AND pushups) but it still seemed perfect for me…and here’s how it played out!
It seemed so logical to wait and start on the 1st of a month, but that date had just passed and I wanted to jump – plank – right in. At least it was a Monday, typically the day that most people start new exercise routines. While I was aiming to start with 60 seconds, my arms began to protest only 11 seconds into my first plank, and I quickly modified my Week 1 goal to 30 seconds a day instead.
I like to walk laps around my classroom on my lunch break and I tried to remember to stop halfway through to drop and get my daily plank crossed off my to-do list. While planks work many body parts all in one shot, my abs and legs have always been stronger (relatively speaking) than my upper body, where I really started to feel that good ol’ Jane Fonda burn. (I was a child when those videos came out, but I started seeing references to them as soon as I was old enough to read my mom’s magazines.) Planks strengthen several muscle areas (back, neck, chest, shoulders, biceps, abs) and also help improve posture, balance and flexibility – that’s a lot of power packed into a short exercise, which is exactly why it’s ideal for me.
On Day 3 I remembered Dr. Jen writing that she did her planks while waiting for the shower to warm up, so I tried it while running a bath, but I’m not sure it’s an activity meant to be done naked. While “look down” (i.e., at the floor) is part of the advice given for good plank form, if you look too far down towards your toes the angle can be a bit…startling.
By Friday (Day 5) I was able to do 30 seconds twice a day – kind of like the 60 second goal I had set for myself! I could feel my body start vibrating halfway through, but was still able to hold myself in position, which experts say is essential – there’s no point continuing once you lose proper form.
After further research (the research phase of any project is much more fun than the implementation, am I right?) I realized there’s a huge range of possible plank variations: seemingly straightforward ideas like side planks, fingertip planks and leg-lift planks right through to intimidating sounding twists like “sea witch plank crawl” and “90 degree bird dog plank”. I know they say variety is the spice of life but I’m really not all that spicy. My goal for the week was to continue with the standard forearm plank and bump the time up from 30 to 40 seconds.
As my mind wandered during one session and I temporarily lost count, I wondered if it would be better to use a timer for this challenge rather than trying to keep track of the time myself, or if maybe the counting actually helped me focus? (But there’s always the issue of how fast to count, whether or not to do it Mississipilessly…you know what I mean.) I tried my phone timer and enjoyed not having to worry about measuring off the minute, so the decision was made.
While planking at school, I came to the conclusion that some clothing is just not suitable for planking on one’s forearms, for example shirts with bows placed right where the arms need to hold the upper body up on the floor. I also realized that my new classroom floor is quite nice. I had never had much opportunity to stare at it daily for a fixed period of time before.
On Day 10 I started to feel some tightness/soreness in the chest and shoulder area, but a common side effect of Tamoxifen (my post-cancer hormonal therapy medication) is joint pain so it was hard to tell if it was a plank effect or not.
Time to move up to 50 seconds! My continued online research gleaned tips for how to get more out of your planks, for example by squeezing your glutes, so I tried…and literally could not squeeze those muscles the way I was positioned. I adjusted my legs a bit and attempted to make some clenching happen…but no, wait, that was a Kegel.
By Day 18 I noticed my stomach feeling a bit harder…was it some bloating from my Tamoxifen and fondness for Diet Cokes, or was I actually developing some new muscles? On Day 19 I missed planking for the first time – with no real excuse. I know it would be easier to stick with it if I planked at the same time every day (I am very much a creature of routine and habit), but for some reason I prefer to do it when I “feel like it”.
Day 20 was a Saturday and I decided to get my girls involved in the action. Of course they could hold the position much more easily than I could, and one even asked, while showing perfect form and without the slightest hint of exertion, “Are you sure this actually does anything?” (She will be the one with fewer parcels under the Christmas tree.)
I successfully added another 10 seconds to my plank for a total of 60 – my original goal! On Day 23 I tried it at lunchtime again while wearing a blouse and skirt, so I directed my body to ensure there would be no accidental skirt look-up if the custodian happened to come in on his COVID-sanitizing rounds during those 60 seconds.
As day 30 approached, I began to assess the results of my experiment: I definitely felt tighter (in a good way) through my chest and shoulders, and was certainly starting to feel results in my abs as well. The fact that I went from 30 to 60 seconds was a great improvement, and while my natural inclination was to increase to 70 and keep on going, I really want to make sure I keep proper form (and motivation) and I’ve also learned that it’s a misconception that the longer the plank the better the results. At some point you just max out in terms of benefits, and you’re actually better off doing several shorter planks through the day than one superlong one.
For a one minute a day investment, not only for my body but also psychologically, with the belief that I’m doing something worthwhile, it’s definitely worth continuing.
Are you a planker? Do you have any tips for me? If not, would you ever consider a plank challenge? Maybe we should try something together in the new year. I’d love to hear from you!