By now, most people know that planks are good for you.
The one simple position can help you tone and strengthen your abdominal, shoulder, arm, and hip muscles. The name “plank” itself comes from the idea of a plank of wood or wooden board—a hard, solid structure that has no moving parts and can support a heavy load when positioned properly. Our bodies can take on forces from all different directions, and they also need to be able to move, but also stabilize when hit with unexpected force.
What is a Plank, Exactly?
To get technical, the “standard plank” is an exercise in which a person performs a static hold of a prone neutral spine position while supporting themselves using the upper and lower extremities. Traditionally, the forearms or hands and toes are the contact points with the floor, and the body hovers above the ground in this position without letting your guts hang out and spine arch.
Planks are one of the best bodyweight exercises a person can do. They take up very little space, require practically no equipment (maybe just a mat for a standard plank), and targets not just the core abdominal muscles but also the scapular stabilization muscles and everything in between. Weight bearing into the hands or forearms activates the serratus anterior, pecs and triceps as well as muscles of the neck and upper shoulders. Keeping a neutral spine engages the transverse abdominis, multifidi, rectus abdominis and internal and external obliques. Preventing the hips from dropping fires the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
Planks can improve shoulder girdle stability for heavy overhead lifts while also addressing core strength and endurance to improve stability for just about any sport or workout. The isometric (or still) hold also can benefit posture and positioning with everyday activities like sitting, standing and walking.
Modifications to the plank can be made for comfort and skill level, including switching from resting on the hands to the forearms if you are experiencing wrist pain with weightbearing, or switching from supporting oneself on the toes to the knees if proper positioning is hard to maintain or if pain is felt in the feet and toes.
How to Spice Up Your Plank
Okay, we’re clear on the basics—and you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time straining in the pose, hoping for a stronger core.
But holding a plank position for 30 seconds or more can get a little boring. While there are plenty of benefits to a static, isometric hold, adding a dynamic component to your regular old plank can challenge your body even more and help you improve your strength and stability in new ways.
Once you’ve nailed the standard version and can hold a plank for 60 seconds, it’s time to add a new twist. Try jacking up the intensity of your plank and challenging your whole body in new ways with these 6 alternative variations.
Challenging Planks for a Strong Core
For a commando plank, begin in the standard plank position resting on hands and toes with a neutral spine, abs drawn in, neck long. From there, lower down to one forearm at a time and then back up onto your hands. Repeat this movement beginning by lowering the right arm first for 5 reps, then lowering onto the left forearm and back up for 5 so that you practice starting each set of 5 from the opposite arm.
Plank with Hip Extension
Start in the standard plank position. Once you feel stable, lift one foot off the ground while continuing to lengthen it from the hip. Then, slowly lift that leg straight up and back towards the ceiling without losing the neutral spine. Make sure you initiate this movement from the hip, not the back, squeezing the glute prior to lifting. Perform 5 to 10 reps on one leg before switching to the other side.
Plank on BOSU or Balance Board
Perform a standard plank with forearms resting on a BOSU or hands resting on a balance board. Maintain hold without letting unstable surface move underneath you.
Plank with Forearm Circles
Begin in a standard plank with forearms resting on a Physioball/Swiss Ball. While maintaining a neutral spine, abdominals engaged, make 10 small circles with your forearms in one direction, then 10 small circles with your forearm in the opposite direction. Do not let your hips drop, spine arch, or head drop.
Side Plank with Hip Abduction
A side plank is just like a forward plank in the sense that you want to create a stable, neutral spine position that you hold isometrically for 30-plus seconds, but it’s going to feel more challenging. With a side plank, you only support yourself using one side of your body.
To perform, begin lying on your side. Prop yourself up on your forearm or hand (start with forearm, progress to hand when you feel more stable and strong as long as there is no pain in the wrist). Lift the hips up off the ground so you are supporting yourself by resting on on foot with the other foot slightly in front of that one to help stabilize. From this position, without twisting your torso, begin to the lift the top leg up and down without curling your low back to help. You will feel a burn along the side of your abdominals, shoulder area and lower hip as well as the hip of the leg that’s moving.
If it’s too difficult and you find yourself wobbling around, start with your knees bent and lift up into the side plank weight bearing into the forearm and knee before performing the straight leg raise with the top leg. Imagine two panes of glass on either side of your body limiting you from twisting forwards or backwards.
Crawling Trench Plank
Begin in the standard plank position on your forearms. Once stable, slowly walk your arms out away from your body. Hold in each position for at least 10 seconds, then bring your arms back under you and rest. Repeat this exercise several times without letting your hips drop to either side and without letting your low back arch. Feel the burn.
By Dr. Rachel Tavel, PT, DPT, CSCS