5 minute plank challenge

Fitness challenge: “I held a plank every day for a month – this is what happened”

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Test your core strength and mental resolve with this no-equipment, easy-to-follow fitness challenge. One writer set herself the ultimate strength test: a five-minute plank challenge. Here’s how she got on…

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, 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 lockdown, I decided 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!

What is the five-minute plank challenge?

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

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

I asked Strong Women trainer Emma Obayuvana to explain the benefits of this: “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 while working at home during lockdown, the challenge was actually starting to sound more appealing.

What is the correct way to do a plank?

The last thing I had to do before getting started was make sure I knew how to properly do a plank. Luckily, Emma gave me a checklist of things to make sure I was 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

There was nothing left to do but start my five-minute plank challenge. Here’s my diary of what happened.

Five-minute plank challenge: week 1

Day 1

New Year’s Day! Woke up feeling spritely (I was in bed by 10pm, after all) and went for a 30-minute run. Did a one-minute plank on my elbows as part of my warm-up and counted every painful second of it on my phone timer. Did another minute after the run – it felt good to finish with! Went for a two-hour walk, polished off the prosecco on the sofa and didn’t bother with the other three minutes.

Total: two minutes

Day 2

Woke up, did a one-minute plank while getting ready, then went on a 12,000-step walk. Did another minute afterwards (without looking at the timer). Pushed myself to do a third minute while making my dinner. 

Total: three minutes

Day 3

Did 1.5 minutes without counting down seconds – yay! Went on a 19,000-step walk, felt too tired to plank again afterwards – nooo.

Total: 1.5 minutes

5 minute plank
Hollie doing a plank before a run in her hallway.

Day 4

Lockdown officially in place – very low mood, no exercise (which probably made me feel worse). 

Total: none

Day 5

First day back at work and I remember the whole “taking control of happiness” thing. Very early start – I did a one-minute plank while listening to the news then another minute later in the morning before a 30-minute run. And a third minute before hopping in the shower (who am I?). Watched press conference and did a fourth minute purely as a distraction. Did last minute on the kitchen floor while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Total: first full five minutes

Day 6

Did one minute in the morning before cardio workout. Managed to do a two-minute plank for the first time ever while waiting for the kettle to boil – the kitchen floor is my new lucky place.

Total: 3 minutes  

Day 7

Tummy felt sore for first time (a good sign! Is an ab growing?) Did ANOTHER two-minute plank before my run. Then another 1.5 minutes on the trusty kitchen floor before dinner – the most painful one yet. Feels like I’m getting better though, right?

Total: 3.5 minutes

Five-minute plank challenge: week 2

Day 8

None! Rubbish! Lazy day, it’s just too cold and miserable.

Total: none

Day 9:

Listened to Laura Branigan’s Gloria for inspiration and did 1.5 minutes in the morning. Went for a run before a looong day at work. End of first week back: a good enough reason to have wine instead of more planking.

Total: 1.5 minutes

Day 10

BACK ON IT. Listened to Gloria again… and it worked! Started the day with a 1.5-minute plank then did 80s aerobics class in the living room (really got into it). Added another 1.5-minute plank into workout. Then, for the first time, switched things up a bit and did side plank for 30 seconds on each side. Did a final minute on elbows at the end. Felt tired but it’s getting easier to do them more grouped together.

Total: five minutes

Day 11

One minute in the morning before a run and one minute before a shower. Felt quite sore and a bit bloated. Also went on a (very cold and wet) two-hour cycle around London and was very, very tired.

Total: two minutes

Day 12

Joe Wicks is back, so did one minute before and one after his PE lesson (yes, I’m a big fan). Took a mid-morning break from work and did another minute – was actually nice to stretch out. Did another two minutes on that kitchen floor again, but with a few seconds break in between. 

Total: four minutes

Woman doing a side plank

Day 13

Sick day, totally rested body and slept most of the day.

Total: none

Day 14

Felt MUCH better and started with an early morning one-minute plank. Decided to keep it going another 30 seconds. Went for a run then did a minute-long mid-morning plank. Felt on great form! Did another minute after lunch (not the best idea…) and another following my evening glass of wine (which I’m adamant might have helped). Felt 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 

Did a morning minute and another 1.5 minutes as part of cardio workout. I decided to check in with Emma, who gave me this feedback on my progress: “In terms of aiming for longer plank holds, what really helps, and what I feel should be done to strengthen the core, 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). Watch this video on my Instagram where I perform a 4.5 minute dynamic plank to the beat of the music: 

Day 16

Did a 1.5-minute plank before my run. Thinking about Emma’s advice, I really need to work on other core exercises (wahhh!), 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

Why oh why do I not follow the advice I know will help me? Did a 1.5-minute plank before a run then… did nothing for the rest of the day.

Total 1.5 minutes

Day 18

Did a barre class to work on my core but then, rather inexplicably, didn’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 did).

Total: 1.5 minutes

Day 20

Right: FINAL PUSH. Did two half-minute planks during the Joe Wicks PE lesson. After it finished I did 30 seconds on each side then another minute on my elbows. Changing it up did help. See, I did listen to Emma’s advice!

Total: three minutes

Day 21

Found my plank tune: Kelly Marie’s Feels Like I’m In Love. Did 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! Did another two minutes while my friend spoke 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 was horrible but I did it after another barre class in my living room. Basically, I just kept switching it around after each minute: on my sides, elbows and hands. I also lifted 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.

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Images: Getty, Hollie Richardson

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…