Like many people now holed up in their apartments, I’ve turned to fitness videos for the first time ever. In these videos, we do something that fitness experts call a “circuit.” A circuit, I’ve learned, can include many things—push ups, burpees, water breaks, unresolved tension between different trainers—but they very often also include planks.
Early in quarantine, my roommate and I did one of these circuits. Everything from sit ups to squats was more or less doable for me until we started forearm planking. I immediately started shaking; by 30 seconds I had collapsed. I watched from the floor as my roommate held her plank, silently and stoically, for more than a minute.
I will admit my first instinct was not generous. I wanted to tip my roommate over, preferably with my own hands, while whispering how could you do this to me.
Because we were pretty well matched in the other exercises, and because I rock climb recreationally, and because I could do four pull-ups (yes this is a brag!!!!), I arrogantly thought I would be able to hold a plank for at least as long as my roommate. I could not. In fact, it turned out I could not hold a plank for longer than most of my coworkers and friends. During every single PopSugar video I did, I would make my way through all the exercises until some sort of plank-related activity came up. Once we hit the devil’s move, I always had to stop and take a rest.
I wouldn't have questioned my 30-second (at most) plank time if it weren’t for so many people I knew, in similarly moderate-to-fine shape, absolutely destroying me. Many could go for over a minute; one friend sent me a screenshot of her stopwatch that read 2:07.
“Have you thought about maybe you’re just too weak,” my friend Lindsey texted me when I told her about my investigation. Yes, it’s literally all I think about.
Did it really matter? Some experts don’t even think that holding a plank for longer gives you a better exercise. But I will be the first to admit I wasn’t necessarily here for exercise reasons. I wanted to know why I couldn’t plank for longer and whether that made me a failure.
To help better answer my questions, I reached out to Taylor Walker, a Barry’s Bootcamp trainer and the instructor in the PopSugar video I often do after work. I emailed Walker, asking if 45 seconds (which was what I thought I could do at the time, but upon further investigation it turned out to be 30 seconds) was a respectable time for a plank hold. She wrote back saying it was “VERY GOOD!” and that “planks are HARD.” Unconsoled by her positive feedback, I asked if Walker would video chat with me to help me improve.
Walker and I talked over Zoom, where she patiently watched as I held a plank for her. Afterwards, she gave me a few tips: Lift my abs into my spine, squeeze my butt, push into my heels, and press into the ground with my hands flat. As a new planker I had not realized that the exercise wasn’t just about my core—I should be feeling tense everywhere. (I’m listed as “David Hill” on Zoom because I was logged into a friend’s paid account, not because I was catfishing.)
“The thing about a plank is that it’s really a total body exercise,” Walker said. “If you’re getting super fatigued in your mid-section, you're probably just squeezing your core so tight and not focused on any other area of your body.” She advised that a lot of planking was mental as well; remembering to breathe, keeping your mind from thinking about the clock.
I asked Walker why it might be that I could best most of my friends in one area, like pull ups, but fail so miserably in others, like planks. “It’s so individual, you can’t put a good or a bad label on it,” Walker said, emphasizing that 30 seconds was a great point to be at. She reminded me that we all have different strengths and limits and I was just newly learning about some of mine. “All of a sudden you have this move that’s extremely humbling,” she laughed. Walker said to improve my endurance, I should try to do 30 seconds on, move into dolphin pose, then return to the plank.
So what did I learn about myself? I’m unnecessarily competitive and just fine at planking. Sometimes I feel like crying like a baby while I exercise, and that’s okay. I need to get my own paid account for Zoom interviews. And planking—for any amount of time—is not a proxy for moral character.
Walker and I ended our conversation where I hope no other conversations of mine ever end again: planking together.