I’m a little more than three minutes in and my body is shaking. No amount of attention to breathing is helping. Nor is visualisation, short-term goal-setting or any of the other pain-control tricks I’ve read up on. All my mind can do is form a question, one that can’t be helpful to the cause: Why am I doing this?
Like a lot of daft ideas, this one was born of overconfidence. A couple of years ago Richard Hazard, a 41-year-old construction firm director, held a plank for 51 minutes, 11 seconds. On seeing Hazard’s time, what I thought – and what I was foolish enough to say out loud – was that, while impressive, it didn’t seem absurdly out of reach like most world records generally do.
Sprinting 100 metres in 9.58 seconds; squatting 454 kilograms; running 52 marathons in 12 months… now they’re absurd. But a 51-minute plank? With some intensive training, it seemed… possible?
I knew I could already knock off a couple of minutes without crying like a baby and it was boredom rather than discomfort that made me stop. One or two of the boys here found that remarkable and a pretension took root that I might have a decent core. There are so many things I’m useless at: skateboarding, backstroke, singing in the higher registers – perhaps a gift for the plank was a compensatory endowment that I was duty-bound to make the most of.
I wasn’t entirely delusional, least of all about the broader appeal of what I’d be attempting. On a list of the most spectacular athletic feats, the plank would appear just ahead of jogging on the spot. How many women do you know who get all aflutter watching a guy plank?
And if the record seemed attainable, it’s because the thought of having a crack at it has occurred to roughly .000001% of the world’s population. Even so, for the next two months, training to hold a monster plank would be my raison d’être.
But life doesn’t stand still. I soon learnt that Hazard’s 51:11 record was an old mark, smashed in December 2011 by George Hood, a former US Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Aged 54, Hood marched into a pancake joint in his hometown of Naperville, Illinois, and perched rod-straight on elbows and toes for 80 minutes, 5.01 seconds. If Hazard’s record had seemed strangely within reach, Hood’s didn’t. Time to bail? Tempting, but too late. I was locked in. In my mind, though, getting somewhere near Hazard’s record still seemed like enough to earn at least bragging rights in the pub.
Over the next eight weeks I would receive a crash course on the core from exercise physiologists, strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers. What I learnt crystallised the drawbacks of a spongy mid-section and the benefits of having a granite one – and the best and fastest ways to bring about the transformation.
The pay-off? Whip your core into shape and you stand not only to eradicate niggles and guard against injury, but also to increase your chances of excelling in your sport of choice. “If you can get the centre of your body strong,” says strength and conditioning trainer Robert McGivern, “everything else will fall into place.”
To get within reach of any record I’m going to need a programme – and not just any programme. Multiple studies have anointed the bicycle crunch as the most complete core exercise, but my one experience with this move was disastrous. It so severely aggravated a hotspot in my lower back that I needed painkillers for a week just to turn up to work.
With the red ink through the bicycle crunch, that leaves only about 246 core exercises to choose from. Chris Pappas is an exercise physiologist and strength and conditioning coach who could talk for days about “core stability” – which he defines as your ability to maintain postures and transfer force from one area of your body to another. Core stability resides not in the show muscles of the six-pack, but in the deeper musculature, he explains. And it’s less about size than activating muscles in the right sequence.
You might think this sequencing would be automatic, but it’s not. It starts out that way, but we sabotage the process through years of slouching.
“Think of core stability as the foundation for core strength,” says Pappas. “To be truly strong in the core you have to be stable first.”
Turns out Pappas is much more impressed by advanced core stability than he is by a visible six-pack, which more reliably indicates very low body fat than a perfectly functioning middle.
Building stability is partly about exercise, he explains, but just as much about holding yourself well in the cafe queue and recruiting your glutes whenever you haul yourself off the couch.
As for the plank, Pappas is ambivalent. Sure, he says, it works your core. But it’s not functional, in the sense that you don’t assume that position in everyday living – except perhaps when you’re having sex, he concedes. “But even then there’s movement.”
In my big plank, he advises, the muscles working hardest will be my rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and lats. As these fatigue, other muscles will pick up the slack until they too give out and I crumple face-first to the floor. He’s loathe to tell me exactly how to train. “When it comes to exercise prescription,” he says, “anyone who tells you their way is the only way is someone you shouldn’t listen to.”
It’s a Thursday morning and I’m sweating bullets in a core-blasting class at my local gym. This intense 30-minute session operates on the idea that the best way to train your core is through dynamic exercises like squatting and lunging, which treat the body as a system rather than an assembly of disparate parts.
Which is all very well, except I spend most of the class faffing about with a resistance band and trying to mirror instructor Amy Jones’ multi-limbed, set-to-music movements, instead of feeling the heat in my abs, or anywhere else.
Afterwards, Jones joins me at the cafe next door. Most guys neglect their core, she says. “Their programme is Monday: chest; Tuesday: arms; Wednesday: shoulders… it’s all aimed at getting big up top.”
Over time, she says, that sort of training erodes your claims to athleticism by raising your centre of gravity, while ramping up stress on your hips, knees and ankles. With a body out of proportion, you don’t even look good. Forever hunting, climbing and making stuff, our prehistoric ancestors worked their core without thinking about it. Today, “core” as a concept is ubiquitous, yet never before has the everyday call on this cluster of muscles been less onerous.
It’s no coincidence that the term “core” infiltrated mainstream fitness via the field of rehabilitation, rolling in around the early Nineties in the shape of an exercise ball.
“Core” is new but not newfangled, says McGivern, who at 50 has seen many fitness trends come and go. “Take an old-school move like the burpee,” he says. “Even though it’s been around forever, it’s a core exercise. And a good one.”
Another core master is Jayden Bull, a 22-year-old gymnast on track to compete for Australia at the 2016 Olympics. Bull’s first coach was a Chinese taskmaster, Yu Ting, who didn’t use the word “core” but banged on about “middle-body strength”.
Training on the gymnastic apparatuses builds that, says Bull, but it’s not enough for his purposes, nor mine. Despite what you might have heard, gymnasts do lift weights to get in shape for competition, favouring compound exercises like dead lifts and squats.
To increase core strength fast, Bull tells me to combine these moves with all manner of planks, as well as farmer’s walks, in which you hold a single dumbbell in one hand and resist the urge to lean while shuffling across the gym floor or your back garden.
The core strength you get from this kind of training will help with everything, says Bull. “It’ll help you get out of bed, it’ll help you carry the shopping and it’ll protect you from back pain.”
Great. But my desperate hope is that it extends my plank, because six weeks out I know I’m in trouble.
What was I thinking? Yes, I can get to three minutes all right. But I’d never pushed on from there. Now that I’m trying to, two discoveries have torpedoed my confidence: pain (mainly in my upper arms) that hits like a year’s worth of bad news, followed by a burning in my abs that spreads like lava.
Having talked the talk, I’m now spending a good part of the dark hours contemplating abject humiliation. Personal trainer Jason Kelly comes recommended as the guy to talk core with. It takes Kelly just seconds to size me up and diagnose my problem: it’s my backside – or lack thereof.
Your rump is part of your core, explains Kelly, and in many guys it’s the weakest link. Trouble starts when we stop engaging it when sitting down and standing up, relying instead on gravity and our backs respectively. Hours a day spent sitting tightens the hip flexors, further inhibiting what guys like Kelly call “gluteal activation”. For men, the result is less often a flabby bum than a flat one that deprives you of horsepower on the golf course, soccer pitch or wherever you ask your body to perform. You want a conspicuous rump, insists Kelly, because “with flat glutes you won’t be able to transfer force from bottom to top because there’s an energy leak.”
Kelly sends me off with some bum-activating exercises tacked onto my still-taking-shape programme, promising they’ll help my plank. “Bigger glutes will take some of the pressure off your back and abs. They’ll stop you from sagging and you’re going to last longer.”
Several trainers also direct me towards Dr Stuart McGill – a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada who’s apparently done more research into the core than anyone else. His key finding? That the bread and butter of abdominal training, the crunch, should have no place in your regimen. According to McGill, crunching causes disc bulging and herniation in the lumbar spine. The breaking point varies between individuals, but do enough of them and you will screw your back, he warns.
You can do a complete core workout with just three exercises, according to McGill: the bird dog (resting on your hands and knees, simultaneously lift opposite arm and leg, hold, then switch sides), the side plank and the pot stirrer (perform a plank on an exercise ball and rotate it with your elbows).
For several weeks I follow a far more elaborate core workout and notice its effects. On the tennis court I feel more stable through my shots, with a heightened sense of being “planted” while my hips and body rotate around an axis. Simply walking feels different – there’s more grunt in my engine – and my stomach feels powerful enough to crack a walnut in my navel.
While the many elements of my routine make it interesting, as the day nears I begin to regard that variety as an indulgence. Just as John McEnroe says that the best way to get fit for tennis is to play tennis, I’m sensing the best way to prepare for a long plank is to plank. Triple-setting a 45-second handstand with 10 chin-ups and 30 metres of bear crawling might make you feel like you’re working hard, but that’s soft compared with holding a plank for five minutes.
So for the last two weeks I do nothing but plank. Not just in workouts, but randomly throughout the day. I plank in the office. I plank in front of the television. I plank in the bedroom. I plank at the beach. I plank waiting for a train one night. I plank on Christmas Day. I plank on one arm. I plank with feet elevated on the dining room table. Sometimes my son puts a foot on my back to make things harder. Sometimes the cat hops up there. Am I overtraining? Trainers assure me that’s all but impossible with non-loaded core exercise. This is something extreme you’re attempting, they tell me. Do whatever helps.
In that vein I seek out an expert on pain, since coping with it, I sense, will require more than physical training.
The key to controlling pain is to stop it progressing to suffering, says Deakin University School of Psychology lecturer Dr Stephen McKenzie, co-author of Mindfulness For Life.
Pain is merely a sensation in the body, McKenzie tells me a few days out. Mine won’t become suffering unless I catastrophise it with thoughts such as, “This is f**king terrible!” and “I can’t stand it!”
“Just be fully accepting of the reality of the present moment, no matter what sensations are taking place,” he soothes.
Come the day and the overriding sensation quickly becomes a horrendous sense of strain. I need a miracle. Hazard had spoken of a “numbness” that set in for him after a while, a kind of second wind of planking. What I get instead is muscular failure in my triceps, which fold me to the carpet at bang on six minutes, crestfallen – and not a little embarrassed.
The bright side? According to my physio, a five-minute plank is elite – most guys struggle to get past a minute. Also, my core still had juice in the tank; it was my spaghetti arms that let me down. Finally, as well as egg on my face (and a heightened respect for Hazard and Hood) I’m left with a metallic middle. Maybe this was worth it, after all.