Some of us love them, some of us hate them, but there’s no denying that plank is one of the most effective exercises you can do. Plank is a full body exercise that strengthens the core, back, glutes, legs, shoulders, and arms. This isometric exercise will also improve posture, balance, and flexibility, and can help relieve back pain all while toning just about every muscle in your body.
There are countless variations to modify or increase the intensity of the exercise or to target different muscle groups. We’ll go over a few of those variations here.
But first, and most importantly, we need to learn how to do a plank with proper form.
Proper form is absolutely the most important aspect of every exercise because without it we significantly increase our risk of injury and we don’t get the maximum benefit. Improper form puts extra pressure on the joints and takes away work from the supporting and stabilizing muscles. When you use proper form, you can really engage your muscles and feel the burn!
There are two basic types of plank
— the traditional plank and the forearm plank. The traditional plank is done on your hands whereas the forearm plank is done on your forearms.
In a traditional plank, you are less perpendicular than in a forearm plank making it slightly less challenging for the core. A traditional plank, however, puts greater emphasis on the arms and shoulders than a forearm plank. Traditional plank is the variation recommended for beginners as well as for those looking to perfect their form, strengthen their shoulders, or try out different progressions.
In a forearm plank, your body is more perpendicular and must work harder to fight gravity, putting greater emphasis on your core muscles. It’s typically preferred by those who want a little extra core challenge. Ideally, both versions will be part of your exercise repertoire.
- I like to begin setting up for a traditional plank by starting in a table top position and grabbing elbows with opposite hands. Place your elbows on the floor and extend your hands out in front so they’re in line with your elbows. This will help get your hands shoulder distance apart. Lift up onto your hands and straighten your arms.
- Lift your knees and step your feet back about hip distance apart to come up onto your hands and toes. Your wrists should be directly below your shoulders, and your shoulder to your wrist should be a straight line. If you need to adjust, do so now.
- Ground your toes and engage your glutes and quads for stabilization. Neutralize the spine by engaging your lower abdominal and squeezing it in towards the center of the body. You can tuck your pelvis slightly, but do not lift your hips up. If you feel like your hips are elevated, lower them by lengthening or stepping your feet back some more to create space along your torso.
- Draw your shoulders back away from your ears and squeeze your armpits into your body. Push away from the ground. Neutralize your neck. It may help to look at the ground about a foot in front of you. Your neck should be aligned just as if you are standing up.
- Continue to lengthen through the torso by creating space between your neck and shoulders, your ribs and hips, and your pelvis and lower body. Think about extending long ways both forward and back while maintaining proper alignment.
It’s helpful to practice in front of a mirror. If you don’t have a mirror, you can practice in front of the camera on your phone or tablet. Actually seeing yourself will allow you to make the right adjustments.
Two of the biggest mistakes I see people make have to do with their hip alignment. The most pressing is allowing your hips to sag, which compresses your lower back and puts a lot of undue pressure on your joints. This mistake can lead to back pain, poor alignment, weak core muscles, and even injury to the spinal discs if not corrected.
The second mistake is elevating your hips so you make more of a v-shape than a straight line. Slight elevation from tucking the pelvis is ok, but you want to make sure you keep your spine in alignment. This mistake can also put added pressure on the spine. Both mistakes are caused by a lack of core engagement, and performing a plank like this will not be an effective exercise.
If you are struggling with one of these mistakes, the first thing you should do is tighten your core muscles by squeezing them in towards the center of the body. Second, elongate the body so that you create a straight line from head to toe. If this is too difficult, modify by bringing your knees to the floor, but keeping everything else the same.
Other common mistakes are shown and explained below along with a visual of what to do and what not to do.
The bottom photo shows a plank with hips sagging because I am not engaging my core and glutes. You can also see that my wrists are slightly in front of my shoulders instead of directly beneath them, putting added pressure on my wrists. Sometimes people will have the opposite problem, and they’re shoulders will come over in front of the wrists. The correction is similar. My shoulders are protracted and pushed forward, which increases the risk of injury to my shoulders, upper back, and neck. My head has also dropped forward putting a lot of strain on my neck.
How to Correct:
- Engage glutes, activate pelvic floor muscles, and engage lower abdominal to provide support to the lower back and lift the hips so they form a straight line with the legs and back
- Shift forward (or back if your shoulders are in front of your wrists) on hands to bring shoulders directly over the wrists. Flatten the hands and press evenly into the palms. Lift up out of the wrists. Engaging the core will also help with this.
- Pull shoulders back and down. Engage the chest by squeezing the elbows towards each other, and engage the lats by squeezing at the armpits. Elongate the neck to move the shoulders away from the ears.
- Lift head and focus gaze on the ground about a foot in ahead to neutralize neck
In this photo, I’m elevating my hips and losing engagement in my core. Like in the photo above, my shoulders are behind my wrists rather than directly above them, my shoulders are protracted, and my head is dropped.
How to Correct: To correct my elevated hips, I should shift forward slightly so my shoulders come directly over my wrists. I should then engagement my core and focus on elongating my torso.
The instructions for a forearm plank are essentially the same as for the traditional plank above. The only difference is that you will be flat on your forearms rather than up on your hands. Shoulders should be directly above the elbows so that the elbows are at a 90 degree angle. Press evenly into your palms and fingers.
Many of the mistakes commonly made in a forearm plank are the same as those made in a traditional plank. One mistake I see more commonly in forearm plank is lifting the head up, which compresses the vertebra in the neck. Just like compressing the lower back, this can lead to pain and even injury if not corrected. To correct, tuck your chin slightly and elongate the neck. Pressing the shoulders back and down, and engaging the lats will also help.
The photos below show examples of what to do and what not to do in a forearm plank. The corrections will be the same as for the traditional plank.
Once you’ve mastered the correct form, you’ll be ready to progress your plank. There are numerous variations that will challenge your body and spice up your workouts. I’ve included a few of my favorites below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
1. Plank with leg lifted
This can be done in either a traditional or forearm plank, but I prefer it in a traditional plank. In addition to the muscles worked by a traditional plank, this variation will emphasize your obliques, glutes, and hamstrings.
To perform this variation, first get into plank position. Step your feet a little wider than hip distance apart to provide additional stabilization and help you balance. Lift one leg straight up by squeezing the glute and hamstring. Keep that leg completely straight. Hold 10-20 seconds for each side.
There’s a tendency to let your hip on the same side as your lifted leg twist up. Really engage your core to keep your hips level and in line with each other. This will also activate your obliques.
2. Plank with leg and opposite arm lifted
This variation is a progression from the plank with leg lifted variation above. To get into this variation, first do a plank with leg lifted. Then lift the arm opposite of the lifted leg straight up to create a line from finger tips to toes. Stabilize the core so your torso remains flat and aligned, and does not roll to one side or the other.
3. Plank with feet elevated
You will need a box, bench, or other elevated flat surface to perform this variation. Start in a table top position with the elevated surface behind you. Place one foot at a time onto the surface while lifting up on your hands into plank position. Your alignment should be the same as if your feet were on the floor, i.e., your body should be in a straight line from head to feet. The only difference is that you will be more perpendicular to the floor, requiring greater core activation. This variation should be done with the traditional plank as your base.
You can progress this variation by using an exercise ball instead of a flat surface to challenge balance even more.
4. Plank with side leg taps
This variation can be done with either the traditional or forearm plank as your base. In addition to all the muscles you work while doing a plank, this variation will also work the abductors (muscles on the outside of the glutes and thighs) and require more activation of your obliques. This variation is particularly beneficial for runners, who often tend to have weak abductors.
First, get into plank position. Really engage your core and step your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart for balance. Keeping your leg completely straight, step it out to the side and tap your toe to the ground. Try to get your toe as in line with your hip as possible without compromising form and alignment. Return to your starting position. Repeat for the other side. Perform 10-15 taps per side.
5. Spider plank
This variation can be done in either the traditional or forearm plank. (The variation shown above is with a forearm plank base). It specifically targets the oblique muscles. First, come into your plank position. You may want to step your feet slightly farther than hip distance apart for balance. Pull one knee up to the elbow of the arm on the same side of the body and hold for 10 seconds. It’s OK for your torso to round slightly. Repeat on the other side.
Now that you know how to do a proper plank, I encourage you to add one or more variations to your regular workouts. Even adding just one 30 second plank per day can do wonders for your core strength and posture, and can enhance performance of other exercises!
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