A Story We Almost Missed

Around 600 words, estimated reading time: 3-4 min.

Coverstory (1)Last June, Men’s Health published a short article titled “I Planked One Minute Every Hour at Work for Two Weeks”.

We missed this story when it was published. And since Men’s Health is not our idea of a reliable source of health & fitness information, it would have flown indefinitely under our radar without a special mention in the issue #147 of Wandering Weights, Dan John’s newsletter.

(If you do not know Dan John, suffices to say that he is our idea of a reliable source of health & fitness information. You can learn more about him at danjohn.net.)

The story is interesting and motivating, and it’s a good example of activity hack following sound sport science principles. Yet sports science plays no role whatsoever in the story as written. And its most important lesson reads between the lines.

What happened

The author of the article, Reegan van Wildenradt, is as physically fit as one can be without being a competitive athlete — she runs, teaches classes at a commercial gym where she also lifts weights. Her reason to chose planks was that “[planks] wouldn’t cause [her] to sweat through [her] work pants, as opposed to [her] first idea of speed-walking a lap around the office every hour”.

While she did not have high hopes, her planks proved more challenging than expected — if not more sweaty — and her choice yielded greater rewards than expected, both cosmetic and athletic: a flatter stomach, more shapely arms, and improvement in strength during her gym workouts.

What really happened

Reegan started with a staple exercise of the classes she teaches: front forearm planks for time. She made fast progress and chose to do side planks switching side every 30′ seconds to avert boredom. Quite ironically, if she had been more committed to her initial exercise selection, she would have wasted her time (almost) entirely.

In Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Stuart McGill argues (based on solid data) that doing planks for extended periods time is, in fact, useless: progress in the exercise does not come from the ability to maintain posture — which comes very quickly, as exemplified by Reegan’s progress — but to maintain stability when entering and leaving the plank position.

The benefits Reegan reaped from her two-week long hourly practice were actually almost exclusively the result of frequent side switches. There is some marginal cardiovascular benefit from lowering oneself to the floor and getting back up, which accounts for the “almost”. Dan John has interesting thoughts about that topic and his recommendation agrees with those of McGill. Great minds, etc.

The moral of the story

The Men’s Health piece is doubly ironic. On the one hand, Reegan van Wildenradt is a gym instructor, which is probably why Men’s Health editors asked her to run that story as well as some others that appear in her resumé. On the other hand, she is also a gossip reporter, a line of work that actually requires investigative skills (if one does not want to report yesterday’s gossip).

Anyone can read a synthesis of McGill’s recommendations for back exercises in a 4-page article titled “Enhancing Low-Back Health Through Stabilization Exercise” (freely available on ReseachGate). Reegan had most likely the skill to find the reference, draw the conclusions we have drawn, and report them. But nobody asked her to.

The Men’s Health piece is characteristic of the mainstream health and fitness information, where the difference between good and bad advice is often a matter of sheer luck. Meanwhile, authors like Stuart McGill, Dan John or Pavel Tsatsouline offer quality information for free. No doubt, it is in part as an advertisement for their more commercial ventures, but it suffices to make us “savvy laypersons” (as McGill refers to his non-professional audience).

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