Plank Exercise Variations to Activate Your Core

Tapping into the power of plank exercise variations is one of the best ways to strengthen your core and work towards more defined abs. While the plank might be a relatively simple exercise to describe — it’s basically a static push-up — this doesn’t mean that holding planks (or “planking”) is easy to execute. And it doesn’t take long to realize that the longer you plank, the tougher this exercise quickly becomes.

That being said, increasing the amount of time you can hold a plank, or the amount of plank repetitions you complete within a given time, is key if you want to build real strength in your core.

Can you already hold a plank for a minute or two? Then it’s time to introduce some plank exercise variations into your routine to increase the challenge and target different parts of your core. But before moving on to plank exercise variations, make sure you’ve built up a little core strength and know how to do a plank with proper form.


What Is a Plank? And When Did It Become Popular?

The definition of a plank is as an isometric bodyweight exercise that involves maintaining a flat back in a position similar to a push-up in order to strengthen the core. The goal is to hold a plank with proper form for the maximum possible time, which challenges multiple muscles in the core, including the rectus abdominis (better known as the “abs”), in addition to muscles in the arms, butt and legs.

How do planks help create a flat stomach? The great thing about doing plank exercises is that they use your own body weight for resistance. This means you don’t need weights, bands or any other equipment to do them (although some plank exercise variations use things like a wall, Boso ball or incline bench t0 challenge different muscles).

Amazingly, the current world record for planking is 8 hours, 1 minute and 1 second, set in May 2016 by a Chinese policeman. (1)

There’s different theories as to when people started first performing planks. There’s also some controversy over who actually “inventing” the planking exercise. Some credit Joseph Pilates, the man behind the Pilates school of training that emerged in the 1920s. Dr. Stuart McGill, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, published extensive work focusing on lower and general back pain exercises. He is also considered another “influential voice” involved in making the plank popular. (2)

What Muscles Do Planks Work?

Planks are most well-known for building core strength, but they actually target other muscles too. Planks engage muscles including: (34, 5)

  • Transversus abdominis (considered the deep foundation of your abs)
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Lumbar erector spinae
  • Obliques (internal and external)
  • Serratus anterior (the top part of your core that connects to the shoulders)
  • Muscles in your shoulders, arms and chest including the trapezius (or traps), the rhomboids, rotator cuff, pectorals (pecs) and the anterior, medial and posterior deltoid muscles (delts)
  • Muscles in your butt and legs including the gluteus maximus (glutes), quadriceps (quads), gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles (abductors)
  • The adductor muscles of the hip

Regular Plank vs. Side Plank:

While in a “front plank,” your hands are placed directly under your shoulders with the legs straight out behind you. The back is flat and belly drawn in. This type of plank is also sometimes called a front hold or abdominal bridge (or kumbhakasana in yoga) . Your body remains perpendicular to the ground, with your head and stomach facing down, but your torso remains elevated off of the ground.

There are also other slightly different plank variations, including forearm planks, side planks, one-legged planks and others that are described more below.

In a side plank, you keep only one hand or elbow on the ground while facing your whole body to the side, rather than pointing your belly button down at the ground. Side planks target your obliques (side core muscles). Your oblique muscles help you to bend sideways and twist your waist. They also help draw in your waist and stomach like a corset.


4 Plank Exercise Benefits

What are the benefits of doing planks? Below are some of the top reasons to add plank exercises to your workout routine:

1. Builds Deep Core Strength

Plank exercises are some of the best for building core stability and strength. They target more than the superficial “ab muscles.” While crunches and sit-ups are effective for targeting certain ab muscles, plank variations can also build strength in the “deep core” muscles, including the obliques, transverse abdominis and so on. Core strength is protective against strains, overuse injuries tied to muscle compensations, poor posture, instability and more. (6)

2. Help with Balance and Posture

A strong core helps with coordination, balance, daily functioning and general athletic/physical performance. And if you work on moving through different plank variations in a sequence, you’ll also be improving your range of motion.

Building core strength is also crucial for your posture. The core muscles work with the pelvic, glute and hip muscles to stabilize the body and hold you upright with good posture, preventing back pain and other aches.

3. Protect Your Lower Back & Help Prevent Injuries

Not only will planks help to get rid of back fat, they will also reduce the risk of back pain. Experts agree that a weak, unstable core contributes to injuries like low back pain, sciatica, poor balance, running injuries and more. This is why core exercises, including plank variations, are often used among athletes as a means of enhancing performance and reducing risk for injury. (7)

4. Help With Focus and Breathing

When you’re holding plank position it’s important to keep breathing, even while engaging your core. This helps you to keep going and allows you to push through burning or fatigued muscles.


Plank Exercise Workouts

The Best Plank Exercises:

  • Front Planks (best for beginners) — First work on nailing front planks before moving on to to other plank exercise variations. Hold your abs in tight and lift your hips high enough so that your back is flat like a tabletop. Avoid letting your hips droop down or stick too far up. A basic plank variation of the front plank is a “low plank,” in which you place your forearms on the ground under your shoulders rather than holding yourself up on your hands.
  • Plank with Leg Lifts — Start in low plank position, resting on your forearms. Raise your right leg while keeping it straight and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Drop your right foot to the ground and switch sides, lifting your left leg and holding. When you lift your leg, make sure that your lower back doesn’t arch. Another option is to move more quickly between sides, alternating legs for a total of one minute while you hold.

 

  • Knee-In Planks — Start in a front plank with your hands under your shoulders. Keep your core engaged and chest up, your neck neutral, inline with your spine. Bend one leg and bring your knee all the way up towards your chest, then extend your leg back out and switch sides. You can hold each leg in for about 5 to 10 seconds, or alternate sides more quickly for about 1 minute. If you move slowly with control, you’ll actually engage your abs more and feel your core really working. Another option is to bring your knee in, then rotate your knee and hip under you and towards the ground so that you work your oblique muscles.
  • Plank with Hip Kicks — Start on your forearms in a low plank. Lift one arm off the ground and extend it out in front of you, which forces you to engage your core to retain balance. If you’re more advanced, extend one arm out and at the same time lift the opposite leg. Try not to let your hips rock as you focus on keeping them square with the ground. Repeat sides for about one minute.
  • Plank Slides aka Roll-Out Planks — Use a towel or something slippery that you can slide your feet on the floor. Start in a low plank on your forearms. Place your feet on the towel and gently rock back and forth while keeping your elbows/forearms down. Movement should come from your shoulders as you push yourself back, keeping your core engaged, and then slide forward. The further you extend back in this plank, the harder it will be to slide forward. Work toward completing these plank slides for about one minute, or as long as you can while maintaining good form.
  • Side Plank Exercises — Side planks can be performed with either your hand or elbow down, depending on your strength and what feels better for your wrists. You will only have one hand/elbow on the ground at a time placed right under your shoulder. Face towards the side and step your legs out straight so your body is in one line. Either stack your feet, touching heel to heel, or bring one foot in front of the other. Keep your legs straight and your hips lifted high towards the ceiling. Hold for 30 seconds or up to one minute or longer if possible. After completing one side, roll over and do a side plank on the other side. If this feels easy for you, make it more challenging by dropping your hips to hover above the ground, then lifting them back up.

Plank Routines:

How long should you be able to hold a plank? And how many sets of planks should you do a day?

  • This depends on your current fitness level. A good goal to aim for is to work your way up to holding a plank (or completing other plank exercise variations) for a minute, 90 seconds and eventually two minutes.
  • If you’re a beginner, you can start with 20 to 30 second holds/repetitions in a standard front plank or forearm plank.
  • Once you can steadily hold a plank for about one minute, you’re definitely ready to add in some plank exercise variations.
  • If need be, drop your knees to the ground in a plank to take a break and relieve pressure in your hands/wrist.

One of the most effective ways to strengthen your core, while also getting a full-body workout, is to do plank workouts using the Tabata method of exercise. This involves doing 20 seconds of high-intensity work, followed by a 10 second break, then repeating.

Try planking for about 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of taking a break, and then repeat 1 to 3 more times.

Other than planks and side planks, here are additional core exercises to work into your routine:
1.) V-ups — Like crunches performed on your back with your legs lifted off the ground
2.) Bicycles — Like crunches performed on your back while you twist and lift your elbow to your opposite knee
3) Suitcases — Keep your back on the ground and legs extended in front of you. Crunch in as you lift your shoulders off the ground and bend your legs, bringing your knees towards your face using your core muscles

If you want to build strength in not just your core, but also throughout your body, try a routine where you alternate between planking and sets of pushups, squats, sit-ups and burpees. You can complete each exercise for about one minute using a timer, and complete 2 to 3 sets in total. The great thing about plank exercises is that they will improve your ability to do shoulder workoutsbutt workouts and more.

Proper Plank Technique:

In order to safely and effective strengthen your core, it’s important to properly learn how to do a plank. Here’s how to do a plank so that you get the most results:

  • Proper plank form means that your core will remain engaged. Your back should remain straight and even the whole time, like a tabletop.
  • Make sure your elbows are directly under your shoulders and line your wrists up with your elbows as you spread your hands.
  • Keep your chest lifted and hips even with your back. Don’t allow your butt to move too far up so that it forms a peak. And don’t let your lower back sag down as your stomach drops. Focus on squeezing your abs in tight but make sure you’re still breathing. You also want to engage your thighs so your legs are working.
  • It helps to look slightly in front of you while you hold planks so that your shoulder blades slide back slightly and your neck stays long.

Precautions When Doing Planks

Planks are safe for most people to do, assuming they can hold themselves up. However planks during pregnancy are controversial, since some feel that planking puts too much pressure on the abs and may contribute to abdominal separation (called diastasis recti). If planks cause you pain, it’s best to build strength in other ways before attempting them, since planks with bad form might worsen issues like low back pain.


Final Thoughts on Plank Exercise Variations

  • A plank is an isometric (static), core bodyweight exercise that involves maintaining a flat back in a position similar to a push-up. Plank exercise variations include: a front plank, side plank, plank with leg lifts, plank with hip kicks and plank slides.
  • What muscles do planks work? Planks target the whole core, including the “core deep muscles,” but also other muscle groups such as the back, shoulders and glutes.
  • What are the benefits of doing planks? Plank exercise benefits include: building core strength, helping with balance and posture, protecting the back, preventing injuries and helping with focus/deep breathing.
  • Proper plank form involves keeping your core engaged, your back flat, your hips even your back and your hands/elbows under your shoulders. Don’t forget to keep breathing.
  • Aim to complete a plank exercise routine 2 to 4 days per week. You can hold planks for 1 to 2 minutes, or complete planks back to back in a Tabata-style routine. Incorporate a variety of the best plank exercises described above, plus other body weight exercises, to build strength all over.

 

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