Don’t Make This Ab Mistake

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absembeddedPhotographed By Lauren Perlstein.
To plank, or not to plank — that is not a tough question. The answer is always yes: Planking is one of the best exercises you can do to engage (and tone) the muscles of your core and improve torso stability. So, rather than asking whether or not you should plank, ask yourself: Do I actually know how to plank correctly?

“Many fitness programs tend to have people hang out in a plank position for a long time," Clifton Harski, director of training and national head coach at California’s popular Fitwall workout studios, explains. "This is a problem because it shifts the burden of the exercise from the core — where we want it — to the lower back, shoulders, and hips... Just because holding a plank for a prolonged period of time is ‘hard’ does not mean it is good!”

Instead, try doing four sets of planks, holding each for only 10-15 seconds at a time. Wait, only 10 seconds? Sounds like piece of (gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo-friendly) cake. It's not; 10-15 seconds is still tough, but it's the smarter way to plank, say Harski and other experts. You don't want to sacrifice form, and maintaining the right position is more manageable in short spurts. Remember: You want quality, not quantity (of seconds).

Here, your step-by-step plank breakdown:
1. Set up with your elbows underneath your shoulders and your fists closed.
2. Aggressively squeeze your glutes (imagine crushing a walnut between your cheeks), quads (think about pulling your kneecaps up towards your hips), abs (pretend you’re bracing to take a punch to the stomach), and fists (like squeezing out water from a wet towel).
3. Then, drive your elbows into the ground and pull them towards your toes — like you are pulling the ground back towards your feet, but your elbows won't actually move.
4. Keep your back flat and spine long from head to toes: no slouching, arching, or sinking.
5. While you are planking (aggressively) you should not be holding your breath. You should be able to inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips while maintaining full-body tension.
6. Try four sets of planks for 10-15 seconds at a time.

“It's effectively a full-scale tension war throughout your body,” Harski says. “[But] you shouldn't feel it in your shoulders, neck, hip flexors, or lower back.” Harski isn’t the only pro to endorse the shorter, multiple-set plank philosophy. On Equinox’s Q blog, master trainer Josh Stolz says, “being able to hold a traditional plank for 10 minutes isn't very functional for anything except just that.” Sam Stauffer, a coach for Thrive Training Systems, shows Men’s Health exactly what a tense, active plank should look like.

Well-known fitness trainer Dean Somerset says “if you can do more than 15 seconds in a plank position, you’re not tensing hard enough. Work HARDER!” And, on that inspirational-trainer-yell note, we'll let you get to your plank practice.