Ahh, planks. Most people hate them (and skip them during their workouts), but it’s an exercise that is a necessity for anyone who is active. They seem simple, but like with most exercises, proper form is key for them to be effective.
Planks are the single most effective exercise for your core, and can prevent many muscle imbalances, as well as prevent back pain and poor posture. Today, we will go over how to properly perform the basic plank and take a look at different plank variations to take your workout to the next level.
How to Do the Basic Plank
- Start by laying on your stomach on the ground or on an exercise mat. Position your elbows so that they are directly under your shoulder, and bent at a 90 degree angle. Place your palms flat on the floor and keep your forearms parallel to each other.
- Curl your toes under so that you place the weight on the balls of your feet.
- Engage your abdominals to lift your hips off the ground, keeping a straight line from the crown of your head to your knees. You should be in a modified plank on your knees (pictured below).
- Engage your glutes, quadriceps and abs even more to lift your knees off the ground so that you are now in a straight line from head to feet.
- Hold this position for 20 seconds. As you get more comfortable and stronger, hold this position for as long as possible without compromising form. Remember to breathe naturally.
Plank Tips from Head to Toe
- Keep your neck neutral and focus on a point that is about 12 inches in front of you. Be sure not to look too far in front and crank your neck forward. That being said, also make sure that your head does not “hang” down. You should not be looking at your stomach or belly button. The crown of your head should be reaching forward, and your neck should be lengthened.
- Keep your shoulders away from your ears, but make sure they are engaged. Feel as if you’re drawing your shoulders down your back, creating space between your ears and your shoulders. Don’t allow the shoulders to “wing” out, but instead, feel as if there is a flat space between your shoulders, You should be able to hold a glass of water between your shoulders.
- Engage your chest, pressing your palms and your forearms into the floor, as if you were trying to press it away from you. This will help engage your biceps and triceps as well.
- Scoop your pubic bone towards your belly button, then lengthen your lower back and engage your abs, and especially your lower abs. This should create a lengthening feeling in your lower back and prevent injury and stress to your lower back.
- Squeeze your glutes together, and tighten your quadriceps (the front of your legs). Your legs should be fully engaged (similar to how you should feel at the top of a squat position). Make sure your hips don’t drop or sag towards the floor. Keeping your legs properly engaged will also help prevent discomfort in your lower back.
- Keep your toes grounded and your weight in the balls of your feet. Your feet should be flexed with your toes reaching towards your head. You should not feel as if you are in a “tip-toe” position. Reach your heels award from you as if you were reaching the crown of your head and your heels in opposite directions.
- As soon as you begin to feel your form is suffering, lower out of the plank. You’re going for quality not quantity.
10 Different Plank Variations for a Stronger Core
Once you begin to feel comfortable with the basic plank and can hold it for at least a full 60 seconds with good form, try adding in different variation for added strength.
1. Modified Plank – This is a great modification for beginners. If you are still building strength, stay on your knees. This will help strengthen your abdominals and shoulder girdle to make sure your stabilizing muscles are strong enough to hold you once you lift your knees off the ground. You can hold this position, or you can always lower to this position once you start to become tired in a basic plank. Still make sure your entire body is engaged and your legs are active.
2. Basic Plank – This is the basic plank that you must perfect before moving on to the following variations. Aim to hold this position for at least 60 to 90 seconds before progressing. (See the tips and instructions above for perfecting this move.)
3. Full Plank – This plank may actually seem easier for some people who have stronger upper bodies than cores. This plank will build even more shoulder stability than the basic plank. When performing this plank, do not lock out your elbows. Keep your middle finger pointing straight forward with your fingers spread apart and press into your knuckles (to prevent discomfort in your wrists). Rotate the inside of your elbows forward to engage your biceps.
4. Rocking Plank – This plank is much harder than it looks. For this plank, you will start in a basic plank position and then, without lowering your hips, shift your shoulders forward, in front your your elbows, and then back, behind your shoulders. Think of pointing and flexing through your feet to move you. It’s a small move, but it will make your core burn! (In a good way!)
5. Side Plank – Lay on your RIGHT side, stacking your hips and feet. Position your bottom RIGHT elbow directly under your RIGHT shoulder. Lift your bottom hip off the ground to create a straight line in a plank. Your should be lifting from your bottom oblique and feel a slight pinch in the waistline. Reach your top hand towards the ceiling or place it on your top hip. Be sure to complete the side plank on both sides, you may notice one side is stronger than the other, and that’s normal, but we want to fix that as much as possible. (To modify this exercise, keep your bottom knee on the ground.)
(Related: 10 Ways to Get Six Pack Abs)
6. Side Plank with Abduction – Only once you perfect the side plank for 60 seconds should you move onto this exercise. Lift to a side plank position, and keeping steady, lift your top leg a few inches off the ground, and then, with control, lower back to your bottom leg. Complete 10 abductions, and then switch sides.
7. Full Plank with Leg Lift – Starting in a full plank position on your hands, keep your hips steady and abs engaged as you lift one leg up, squeezing your glutes on that side. Hold for a second, and then switch to lift the other leg. The legs don’t have to lift very high, instead think about reaching them back and further away from you. Alternate for 10 repetitions on each side.
8. Military or Dynamic Plank – Starting in a basic plank position on your elbows, you will be pressing yourself up to a full plank. Place your RIGHT hand directly where your RIGHT elbow was to lift up, and as you do so place the LEFT hand where the LEFT elbow was. You should now be in a full plank. To lower back down, bend the RIGHT elbow and place it on the floor where the RIGHT hand was and repeat with the LEFT. Aim to complete 10 repetitions with the RIGHT arm leading the movement, then repeat starting with the LEFT arm leading.
9. Knee Tucks or Mountain Climbers – These can be performed slowly or quickly. Make sure you have the proper form before speeding up too much. In a full plank position, engage your abdominals and pull your RIGHT knee in towards your chest, using the lower abdominals. Place the RIGHT foot back in the plank position and repeat with the LEFT knee. Continue alternating knees for a total of 20-30 repetitions.
10. Alternating Shoulder Tap Planks – Starting in a full plank position, keep your hips as steady as possible as you reach your RIGHT hand to tap your LEFT shoulder. Place the RIGHT hand back into its starting position, and then tap the LEFT hand to the RIGHT shoulder. Continue alternating for 20-30 repetitions total.
Hopefully these variations will up your plank game and strengthen your core. Remember, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to planks — and always remember to breathe.
(Related: Why Dynamic Stretching is the Best Warm-up)