You probably don’t know that Tom Hoel held a plank for four hours and 28 minutes on May 22, 2015, setting a world record.
You probably don’t know that this is the second plank record for Hoel, a 52-year-old Dane. His previous record of three hours and eight minutes, set in 2014, was obliterated by Chinese policeman Mao Weidong a few months later. Weidong planked for four hours, 26 minutes.
And you can’t possibly know that, while I was exchanging emails with Hoel for this article, his record was being shattered by George Hood, a 57-year-old trainer and former Marine, in Southern California. He went five hours, 15 minutes.
You don’t know any of this because, on the surface, it’s hard to fathom a more pointless record to pursue. The two minutes Hoel added to Weidong’s standard is probably longer than any plank you’ve done in your life.
My longest plank is three absolutely miserable minutes. I did it because Bill Hartman, a physical therapist in Indianapolis, said that no one should attempt advanced core exercises unless they can hold a plank at least that long. It was probably eight years ago, and I’m still bitter about the experience.
I suppose it’s a relief to know that Hartman has moved on from his three-minute rule. (“We’ll do this only occasionally and not as a standard,” he says.) But that leaves open a serious question: How long should a plank be? What’s a realistic standard for those of us who want core strength and stability but have no desire to set records?
Veteran strength coach and Men’s Health contributor Dan John has a firm answer: two minutes. That’s what he recommends in his new book, Can You Go? John is also clear about the value of going beyond two minutes: There is none. “Enough is enough,” he says. “It’s just a plank. More is not better.”
You may be surprised to learn that one of the record-setting plankers agrees. (For a deep dive into the best way to train your middle, read Six Pack Science.)
The Outer Limits of Inner Strength
Tom Hoel is a teacher, trainer, and group-exercise instructor in Frederikssund, a Danish town of about 15,000 that’s best known for its annual Viking celebration.
He’s also a gym owner, and until recently, his competition consisted of small, independent gyms much like Aerobicgarden, the club he owns with his wife. But then a large chain moved in, and he needed to do something to stand out from the crowd.
He started with an eight-minute plank at home. In early 2014 he added five minutes a week until he built up to an hour.
A year ago he planked for more than three hours, breaking the existing record by a minute. Then came his four-and-a-half-hour plank on May 22.
“This time the response has been much bigger due to the fact that the plank as an exercise has grown in popularity,” he says.
More and more people are testing themselves, which means more and more of us understand just how tough it is. (Test yourself in new ways with these 5 Plank Variations That Work More Than Just Your Abs.)
But he’s quick to point out that not everyone is suited for the challenge.
“Very few people will benefit from the plank training I’ve been doing,” he says, adding that three-minute planks are the maximum in his group-exercise classes.
Hoel’s background is in gymnastics, and he won a national title in competitive aerobics in 1997. He believes the body control he developed in those sports, along with the ability to push himself, gave him a solid platform for extreme planking.
But he says the biggest obstacle is mental. “You have to develop strategies to convince yourself to keep going. These are transferable to many areas in life.”
How to Get More From Doing Less
I’ll take his word for it. My sole experience with a three-minute plank left me hungry for less. Fortunately, new research makes a powerful argument for shorter holds performed more frequently.
The study, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, is by Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. McGill was among the first to show that the endurance of core muscles is much more important than their strength when it comes to their primary role: to provide stability for the lower back.
But as the researcher who did more than anyone to popularize the plank and other stability exercises, he sees no point in taking any of them to extremes. “There’s no utility to this kind of activity, other than claiming a record,” he says. “It’s probably detrimental to other aspects of human performance.”
McGill’s new study shows a better way to use the plank. “Repeated 10-second holds created a residual stiffness that enhances performance,” McGill says.
Here’s how it works: Athletic performance depends on being able to generate power through your arms and legs. That power is only possible if your torso and hips provide a solid, stable platform.
Imagine a sprinter, for example. The speed and rhythm of his legs and arms depend on a rigid torso. Same with a quarterback throwing downfield, or a fighter delivering a punch or kick, or a golfer teeing off. Their mid-body muscles need to be tight for the throw, kick, or drive to have any force behind it.
In his study, McGill had the subjects do extensive core-training programs. Half of them did stability exercises, beginning with planks, side planks, and bird dogs, holding each for 10 seconds at a time.
They did five sets of each exercise, starting with five reps (10-second holds), then 4, 3, 2, and 1. The other half did dynamic exercises, starting with crunch variations. After six weeks, the ones who did multiple 10-second holds of the stability exercises saw the biggest increase in torso stiffness.
McGill sees this sets-and-reps approach as an improvement on the standard way of doing planks and other isometric exercises.
His study focused on the benefits for athletes (half the subjects were experienced Muay Thai fighters), but there’s another group that may gain even more: “I’ve seen plank-related injury in people who’re already back-pain sufferers,” McGill says. “They just did inappropriate durations.”
It’s up to you to decide whether you like your planks short or extended. The key, as with any type of training, is to make it challenging. Ten-second holds sound easy until you do 5 sets of three different exercises. That’s tough.
And that two-minute plank Dan John advocates? “From one minute to two minutes is the hard part,” he says, especially if you’ve never tried going beyond 60 seconds. But two minutes and one second? “Absolutely no value at all.”
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