“I tried the 5-minute plank challenge – this is what happened”

Hate planks? Wish you had a stronger core and upper body? When writer Hollie Richardson set herself the ultimate strength test of trying a five-minute plank challenge, she doubted she’d see much of a difference. One month on, here’s how it changed her body and mindset for good.

Planking can be dreadful. You get down onto your hands and toes and it feels simple… easy, even. But within seconds, you start to feel the creeping burn in your shoulders and core, and before you know it, you’re shaking like a leaf.

If holding a plank for 30 seconds feels a lot (whatever variation you try), what do you reckon a five-minute plank hold feels like? I’ve always hated planking and most core-strengthening exercises, but after nailing Couch to 5k during the first lockdown, I decide to set myself a fitness challenge that would both test my resolve and improve my running. After all, the key to a strong runner is a strong core.

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What is the five-minute plank challenge? 

I’m relieved to learn that the five-minute plank challenge isn’t as horrendous as it sounds. I just have to make sure that I spend a total of five minutes each day in one of several plank positions. While this means I can split up the five minutes throughout the day, the aim is to build up to a day where I can hold one plank for the full five minutes. 

What are the benefits of the five-minute plank challenge?  

Strong Women trainer Emma Obayuvana explains: “A strong core irrespective of the plank hold time is integral for our bodies. A strong core protects and supports your lower back. In fact, some lower back issues can be attributed to a weakened core. 

“Core muscles also support your posture. And another function of the core is to stabilise the body, therefore a stronger core means better balance as pelvis, hips and lower back muscles are working together, allowing for greater ease in support in your daily activities.”

Considering the amount of back pain I’ve been experiencing from hybrid working, the challenge is actually starting to sound more appealing.

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What is the correct way to do a plank?

The last thing I have to do before getting started is make sure I know how to properly do a plank. Luckily, Obayuvana gives me a checklist of things to make sure I’m doing when planking:

  • body stays parallel to the floor
  • pelvis is tucked in, so rotating your pelvis to the front (no arching of lower back)
  • legs straight
  • glutes engaged (squeeze your bum)
  • shoulders over your wrists
  • shoulder blades are away from each other
  • belly button pulled in

With that all in mind, here’s my diary of what happened.

Five-minute plank challenge: week 1

Day 1

I wake up feeling spritely (I was in bed by 10pm, after all) and go for a 30-minute run. The warm-up includes a one-minute plank on my elbows and I count every painful second of it on my phone timer. I do another minute after the run – it feels good to finish with a core-blaster.

In the afternoon, I go for a two-hour walk, polish off the dregs of an old bottle of prosecco on the sofa and don’t bother with the other three minutes of planking.

Total: two minutes

Day 2

I do a one-minute plank while getting ready in the morning, then go on a 12,000-step walk. Do another minute afterwards (without looking at the timer) and push myself to do a third minute while making my dinner. 

Total: three minutes

Day 3

A breakthrough: I manage 1.5 minutes without counting down seconds – yay! Go on a 19,000-step walk, feel too tired to plank again afterwards and so sack the rest off – urgh.

Total: 1.5 minutes

The best thing about a plank challenge is that you can do it anywhere, including your hallway.

Day 4

Thanks to current events, I’m in a very low mood and do no exercise (which probably made me feel worse). 

Total: none

Day 5

After a couple of days of annual leave, I’m back at work. I remember the whole “taking control of happiness” thing. It’s a very early start, so I do a one-minute plank while listening to the news then another minute later in the morning before a 30-minute run. 

I manage a third minute before hopping in the shower (who am I?), and the squeeze in fourth minute while watching the news. The fifth and final minute is done on the kitchen floor while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Total: first full five minutes

Day 6

Do one minute in the morning before a cardio workout, and manage to do a two-minute plank for the first time ever while waiting for the kettle to boil. Clearly, the kitchen floor is my new lucky place.

Total: 3 minutes  

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Day 7

I wake up today with a dull throb in my belly (is an ab growing?) Do another two-minute plank before my run, and then another 1.5 minutes on the trusty kitchen floor before dinner – the most painful one yet. It feels like I’m getting better though, right?

Total: 3.5 minutes

Five-minute plank challenge: week 2

Day 8

I do nothing – rubbish! I just can’t be bothered.

Total: none

Day 9:

Listening to Laura Branigan’s Gloria for inspiration, I do 1.5 minutes in the morning. And before a long day at work, I head out for a run. In the evening, I choose wine over more planking. 

Total: 1.5 minutes

Day 10

I listen to Gloria again… and it works! I start the day with a 1.5-minute plank then do 80s aerobics class in the living room. Add another 1.5-minute plank into workout, and then, for the first time, I switch things up do a side plank for 30 seconds on each side. At the end, I sink onto my elbows for the final minute. I’m knackered but the five minutes definitely feels more manageable when it’s grouped together.

Total: five minutes

Day 11

Today, I do a minute in the morning before a run and one minute before a shower, and I feel quite sore and a bit bloated. 

Total: two minutes

Day 12

Remember Joe Wicks? I jump onto YouTube for one of his PE lesson (yes, I’m a big fan) and do a plank before the session begins. Working from home has a number of advantages, including being able to take a mid-morning break for another minute plank – and it actually feels good to stretch out. Later on, I get down on the kitchen floor again for a two-minute hold, with a few seconds break in between. 

Total: four minutes

The key to nailing a long plank is to try all sorts of variations as you work up to it, SWTC trainer Emma says.

Day 13

Sick day: to try to recover, I rest and sleep for most of the day.

Total: none

Day 14

Feel so much better and start with an early morning one-minute plank. I decide to keep it going another 30 seconds, and later do a minute-long mid-morning plank. Manage another minute after lunch (not the best idea…) and another following my evening glass of wine (which I’m adamant might have helped). Feel guilty for being 30 seconds off target… but not guilty enough to do it.

Total: 4.5 minutes

Five-minute plank challenge: week 3

Day 15 

I check in with Obayuvana, who gives feedback on my progress: “In terms of aiming for longer plank holds, what really helps is performing other abdominal exercises. By building core in a variety of ways and keeping the muscles guessing with this variety, the duration of the plank hold can be greatly improved. In this case I’d say when doing the other core exercises, try not to have much rest, keep it to a minimum, to simulate that intensity of isometric plank hold.

“Music is also key and can be super motivating. Another thing I’d say is that performing dynamic planks helps greatly. So that’s staying in a plank position, but performing different movements (side plank, knee bends, etc).”

Day 16

Thinking about Obayuvana’s advice, I really need to work on other core exercises, diversify my plank positions and try not to space out my planks too much. I also need to find some great tunes to plank to. 

Total: 1.5 minutes

Day 17

Despite getting all that super-useful advice, I do a 1.5-minute plank before a run then… do nothing for the rest of the day.

Total 1.5 minutes

Day 18

I try a barre class to work on my core but then, rather inexplicably, don’t actually do any planking.

Total: none

Day 19

It’s my birthday and I’ll only do my signature 1.5-minute plank before a run if I want to… (so that’s what I do).

Total: 1.5 minutes

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Day 20

Right: final push. I do two half-minute planks during the Joe Wicks PE lesson, and after that’s over, I squeeze in another 30 seconds on each side before the last minute on my elbows. Changing it up really does help. See, I did listen to professional advice!

Total: three minutes

Day 21

I finally find my plank tune: Kelly Marie’s Feels Like I’m In Love. I do one minute on my elbows, 30 seconds on each side, then a third minute back on my elbows. That’s three minutes of constant planking. I do another two minutes while my friend speaks to me on speakerphone later that evening.

Total: five minutes

Day 22

Bonus day. I refused to finish without doing a full five minutes at once. It’s horrible but I do it after another barre class in my living room. I keep switching it around after each minute: on my sides, elbows and hands. I also lift my knees to my chest while on my hands, but never once let them hit the floor. Victory is mine.

Total: five minutes

What did I learn from the five-minute plank challenge? 

This diary proves that I am pretty inconsistent when it comes to exercise. But I’ve actually been thankful to have a challenge to keep me going and motivate me (without being too hard on myself when I just wasn’t feeling it).

I’ve also realised it’s actually so easy to incorporate a plank into my exercise, such as a pre-run warm-up. And, I cannot believe how many minutes of planking I have done this month. It shows that my body is getting stronger and I am capable of doing it, but I wonder if my mental attitude sometimes stops me from pushing it a bit more?

I’ll be completely honest: five-minute planking isn’t something I’m going to continue doing everyday. But I am definitely going to try and do a two-minute plank most days. It’s a nice way to warm up in the morning and I think it will continue to make other core exercises much more manageable.

I still hate planking, but that just makes me feel even better about how I’ve performed this month. I might not become Wonder Woman, but I still did it.

My tips for the five-minute plank challenge 

  • Definitely listen to music or a radio show while you’re planking to take your mind of doing it, or weave the plank into one of your other workouts.
  • Planking for as long as possible means you get it out of the way and don’t need to think about doing another one for the rest of the day, so work on staying in the position that little bit longer each day.
  • Be aware of your posture and check it after each minute to make sure you’re getting the full benefits.
  • Try mixing it up by switching to side planks! It actually distracts you from the fact you’re planking for so long and it strengthens different parts of your core.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself: I had some truly terrible days but I got there in the end.

Images: Getty, Hollie Richardson

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