We can thank a guy called Dr Stuart McGill for the popularity of hovers and planks. McGill, a world-renowned lecturer and expert in spine function and injury prevention and rehabilitation, was one of the first to highlight how ab exercises such as crunches lever the spine back and forth creating a lot of intervertebral pressure, which can wear out the spine in the long run. He came up with the idea of training the muscles of the core while holding a spinal neutral position – and so hovers and planks were born.
Why hovers and planks are superior
A few years back Dr Jinger Gottschall and the team at Penn State University compared the muscle activation of a collection of common abdominal exercises. This study highlighted how your core muscles work a lot harder in the hover or plank position than they do during isolated exercises such as crunches or oblique twists. This increased muscle activation is because integrated core exercises use the upper body, the lower body and all the core muscles in between – that’s a big network of bracing going on and as a result your abdominals are working really hard.
These exercises also train your core muscles the way they are needed most often. How often do you sit up from a lying position? Throwing, walking, climbing stairs … they all require the coordinated action of your core muscles with your arms and legs, so, training them in this manner makes a lot of sense.
Hovers and planks are also great for building strength endurance, which is important because of how the postural muscles of our core work – they don’t work in short hard bursts, where they hold you up for a short time and then collapse, they work consistently during a lot of our daily activities – so endurance is key.
What’s the difference between a hover and a plank?
The difference between a hover and a plank is simply leverage.
In a hover you are resting on your elbows, and with your trunk relatively parallel to the ground the lever (formed by your trunk and legs) is lengthened out. Your abdominal muscles must work hard as there is a large area of the trunk to support and gravity is pulling a longer lever down to the floor.
Planks are slightly easier. You are up on your hands, so your trunk is angled upwards. This makes the lever slightly shorter, and as a result there is less pressure on the abdominals.
Hover or plank: What’s best for your core?
While both the hover and the plank are great integrated exercises, recent EMG tests by Dr Jinger Gottschall show that the hover provides increased activation of the core muscles; the rectus abdominis, external oblique, erector spinae and the glute max. With the plank you benefit from increased limb activation; the anterior deltoid, lateral quads and the lateral gastroc (a.k.a. the calf).
It’s the hover that provides superior activation of the core muscles.
How to do the perfect hover
The most important part of setting up a hover, or a plank, is getting spinal neutral and then locking on the muscles of the core so you have a bracing mechanism that keeps your back stable and stops your mid-section from sagging.
This is what you need to remember:
- Ensure your back is long and straight – with your shoulders, hips and knees or ankles all aligned.
- Keep hips and shoulders square and your butt down. Brace your abs to support your lower back.
- Maintain neutral posture where you have a slight inward curve of the lumbar spine (lower back) and a very slight outward curve of the thoracic spine (upper back).
- By keeping your eye gaze down towards the hands (on your fists in a hover, or just in front of your fingers in a plank) your neck is safely aligned.
TOP TIP: You should feel the load in your core. If you start to feel it more in your lower back, drop to your knees.
The common mistakes to avoid
People often hover with their hips lifted up in the air. When you do this it shortens the lever, which makes the move much easier – and less effective.
The other common mistake is a saggy middle. This occurs if you don’t effectively brace the core and lose that neutral spine position.
How long should you hold a hover?
It all depends on the individual. If you’re just starting out, begin on your knees rather than your toes, hold the hover on your knees for ten seconds, have a rest and then repeat 6-8 times.
Once you can complete 10-15 reps with good form, the next step is to lift from your knees and come into a full hover for ten seconds, drop down to your knees to rest and then repeat 6-8 times. You will build endurance by gradually increasing the time you spend in full hover position. Working towards holding a full hover, with a neutral spine and knees off the floor, for two minutes is ideal. If you can manage two minutes you’re doing pretty well and obviously have good postural control.
Of course you can always improve! George Hood is a 60-year-old who recently set a new world record for the longest hover – spending a massive 10 hours, 10 minutes and 10 seconds in a hover position.
Increasing the challenge
Increasing the time you hold a hover isn’t the only way to improve your core strength. One of the easiest ways to increase the intensity is to simply focus on pulling your elbows towards your knees or feet while you maintain your hover. This engages the lats (which are the muscles that run down the side of the body) and stimulate our core stabilizers to work even harder.
You can also up the intensity by using your feet and your hands as levers. The objective of these type of exercises is to take away some of the support but keep everything exactly where it was – so the stabilizers have to work really hard.
Arm reach: If you hold hover or plank position but reach your arm out on the diagonal you unload one of your support arms. As a result your obliques have to work harder to keep the trunk square.
Leg extension: Extend your right hip out and lift the right foot, keeping your shoulders and hips square to the floor as you take the foot away. With just one foot to balance on your abdominals have to work really hard to keep your pelvis square.
Keen to learn some more alternatives? Check out The Complete Ab Guide to discover the three most effective ab exercises.
Choose a CXWORX workout and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice your hovers. Planks and hovers also regular feature other BODYPUMP, LES MILLS GRIT and BODYBALANCE/BODYFLOW and many more LES MILLS workouts.