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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

Learning to Process Difficult Emotions Through Planking

One of the things gym aficionados struggle to explain to fitness neophytes is that frequent physical activity can develop a wide variety of life skills, some of which are barely related to lifting weights. I want to describe my own experience with how planking – a nifty little exercise that involves holding the trunk part of your body in a straight line off the ground – taught me how to process difficult emotions. I have been doing planks for well over a decade but only recently did I discover how beneficial it can be for boosting my mental skills. Much of it has to do with the fact that I started exploring meditation several years back as well. Linking insights from meditation and cognitive behavioral research with a popular endurance exercise provided the perfect learning opportunity. What follows is my own testimony but I suspect it might be useful to people looking for personal growth both inside and outside the gym. As a necessary disclaimer, I am not offering any advice on how to structure your workout here, be sure to check with your doctor before trying anything in the gym. I also understand that people are different and what works for me might sound crazy to others. This is just my own experience, take it for whatever it is worth.

First off, I should describe the way I used to plank about a decade ago when I first started. Holding your body in a planking position, as you can see in the picture below, is all about endurance. You get your body in the right position (I do not have a strong opinion on how wide the distance between your feet should be, as some plank ideologues do) and you just hold it. When you first start, your thighs start shaking after ten seconds, you sweat profusely, and then you collapse on the floor. As you get better at it, you obviously last longer but the basic routine repeats – you stubbornly refuse to obey the laws of gravity until you give up. Often you fixate your eyesight on the nearest wall, learning all its peculiarities and smudges. I still remember the shape of the electrical outlet that decorated the wall in my old gym. I used to hypnotize it with my stare while planking. It can get even worse. Say you are planking with some weight on your back – oh yes, you got that good at it – approaching a minute or so and your thighs are now shaking in a manner possibly detectable by the Richter scale. Then you spot someone nonchalantly setting up shop right in front of your mat. They are on their phone audibly watching a funny video, laughing so infuriatingly comfortably. They might start planking too, eventually, but they will keep it short and sweet. I think I started hating the outlet after a while.

The author planking back in 2018.

The point I am trying to make is that I used to see endurance as a form of resistance. There is something pushing down on you and so you reject it, resist it, fight it, until it wins. It turns out that this is not the best way to deal with unyielding pressure. The key cognitive behavioral insight I started to learn after several years of planking is this: if you resist discomfort, it drags you along with it. If you accept it, you transform it. So instead of trying to improve my ability to mentally resist the pressure I felt when planking, I moved towards accepting it. I reminded myself that the weight on my back (or the weight of my body for that matter) is not pulling me down because the two of us are in some kind of existential struggle where one of us has to lose and the other one triumph. The weight is pulling you down because that is all it knows how to do given the laws of gravity. Realizing this, I began to look for a way to coexist with the weight for a minute or two, to leave it as undisturbed as possible: “I will just do my little plank here and you keep being you,” I would imaginarily tell the weight.

You see, there are two things going on when you do a plank. One, there is the physical aspect of exertion. The weight you hold up forces your muscles to tense up and persevere. They need energy as well as various chemical substances that circulate in your body to do this. After a certain period of time, you run out of these necessities and the very physical nature of your body will mean that your body will no longer be able to plank. It will collapse regardless of what your mind does. Two, your mind is aware of what is happening, perceiving all the ongoing discomfort and deciding whether or not it wants to continue for another second. The longer you plank, the bigger the dilemma of whether or not to stop now seems to be. For most people, it is this second aspect that decides when they give up. The mind, not the body. Do you really think it was impossible for you to plank for another second? Your body was with all likelihood physically capable of it but your mind decided it had enough. Assuming that you have strengthened your muscles (especially your core) through frequent exercise, the key to success here is to make sure your mind does not pull the trigger way before the physical body runs out of steam. The physical processes going on in our body are of course real and undeniable but they really only gain their overwhelming power when our mind attaches an emotion to them. Planking only becomes truly unbearable when our mind labels the physical processes going on in our body as “awful, awful, something that needs to end now.” This happens automatically of course but being aware of the process allows us to be a little more involved in the decision to give up, saying something like: “Ok, I hear you, but I am going to keep doing this for a second or two longer.”

What does this have to do with processing difficult emotion beyond the gym? In my experience, some of the most intense emotions such as fear, anger, or outrage (the so-called social media are giving us a taste of this regularly) like to employ the same mechanism. They like to shock us, screaming: “THIS, RIGHT HERE, NEEDS A REACTION!” The truth is, however, that IT, whatever it is, does not need any rash reaction right now, and possibly not at all. Most intense emotions also have a substantial physical component to them. It is not just that we get angry or scared, it is also that we hyperventilate, our blood pressure goes up, and so on. So next time you feel that emotion trying to demand you do (or at least think) something about IT, tell it, “You know what, I think I can keep planking here for a little longer.”

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