Planks. A staple of both yoga and Pilates and one of the best ab exercises you can do. But planks are so much more than an ab exercise. They’re an awesome move that will fire up your entire core and can reap major results.
Whether you want a summer six-pack or simply want to strengthen your core to improve posture, this non-moving move is a smart all-round choice. As core and ab exercises go, the plank and its variations are amongst the most functional (it helps you move better in everyday activities) and most foundational exercises you can do, and a great way to level up your workout.
Which Muscles do Planks Work?
Far from just working your core (the muscles surrounding your spine and pelvis), planks hit all your major body parts, including your chest, back, shoulders, glutes, and thighs.
The big hitters used when you perform planks:
- Rectus abdominus
- Obliques (internal and external)
- Erector spinae
- Transverse abdominus
The secondary muscles muscles targeted by planks:
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus minimus
Some of the muscles are more active than others depending on the plank variation you are performing.
Benefits of Planks
Planks are an isometric exercise, which means that although your muscles are generating force, you do not create any movement.
Many people focus on dynamic exercises that involve lots of movement, such as crunches, when doing core or abs workouts. And while this is totally fine, the core muscles tend to be more involved in preventing movement of the spine.
Picking up a heavy weight? Your core locks down and prevents (hopefully!) your spine from rounding. Pushing or pulling a heavy load? Your core is the central link that passes the energy, effort, and force between your lower and upper body, allowing movement to ripple up or down through the body.
In other words, your core plays a role in nearly every move you make and helps you perform exercises with proper form.12 So whether you’re into running, tennis, swimming, or just walking, a strong core is key. Indeed, increasing core strength and stability may even improve athletic performance, though more research is needed.3
Planks help build a strong core, which is also important for supporting and stabilizing your spine during movement, and can help reduce back pain and may prevent injury.45 You can even use planks to test your core strength.
How to Do a Plank
There are lots of ways to get your plank on but the basic forearm plank, sometimes called an abdominal bridge, prone bridge or front bridge, is the best place to start. The basic forearm plank features techniques that you need to master before moving onto more advanced variations.
How to Do a Perfect Plank
- Kneel down and place your forearms on the floor with your hands flat. Your upper arms should be vertical and your elbows shoulder-width apart for comfort and to provide maximum stability. You should sort of look like an Egyptian sphinx!
- Extend your legs behind you and point your toes down to the floor,
- Lift your hips up, off the floor so your weight is supported on your forearms and feet only – keep your legs locked straight.
- Hold this position for the desired duration.
- On completion, lower your hips back the floor and rest .
To perform a plank you need to have sufficient core strength to keep your spine properly aligned to prevent injury. If you can’t maintain the proper spinal arch then revert to a less demanding version of the plank.
Who should not do planks? Isometric exercises can cause your blood pressure to climb. This is not an issue for most people, but if you are hypertensive you want to avoid elevating your blood pressure any further. For that reason, if you have been diagnosed as being hypertensive only perform planks with your doctor’s okay.6
How to Make Planks Easier
If full planks are too demanding right now don’t worry; start with a knee plank (also called three-quarter plank or tabletop plank).
Beginner plank: Get into the plank position, but instead of extending your legs straight behind you, bend your legs and rest on your knees for an easier workout. As you get stronger, straighten your legs.
For such a simple exercise, there are a surprising number of ways you can completely mess it up! Get the most from this exercise, avoid making some common mistakes, and nail it every time by following these tips.
- Keep your chin tucked in and your neck long – think “perfect posture”. Try to keep your neck, shoulders, and jaw relaxed.
- Do not lift or lower your hips – keep your body straight and level. Your shoulders, hips, knees and feet should form a straight line at all times.
- Brace your abs as though you are expecting to get gut-punched.
- Breathe steadily throughout the exercise – never hold your breath as this will significantly elevate your blood pressure.
Rest your elbows on a folded exercise mat for comfort. Make sure your watch is in plain view so you know exactly how long you’re planking or have left to go.
22 Plank Variations
Yes planks are static. But that doesn’t means they’re boring. First of all, your core will be firing on all cylinders and you’ll be really feeling it. Secondly, you can make this exercise dynamic and inject some action into proceedings.
Only progress to more advanced versions of the plank when you can hold the basic plank with good form for 60 seconds or more.
There are beginner, intermediate and advanced level variations of this exercise. Just choose the level that suits to your goals and current level of fitness.
1 High plank
The high plank (also called pushup plank) is performed with your arms straight so it looks like the top position of a pushup. This develops shoulder as well as core stability.
2 Rocking plank
Ready to rock? Start in the forearm plank position. With control rock your body forward, allowing your shoulders to move past your elbows. Rock back into the starting position. Keep your core engaged throughout.
3 Bird dog
This oddly-named exercise is a moving plank which also works your lower back and glutes.
Kneel on all fours. While keeping your core tightly braced, lift your left arm and right leg and stretch them out, away from you. Lower them back to the floor and repeat the same move with the opposite limbs. Keep your core engages, and hips and lower back locked in place.
4 Side Plank
Targeting your obliques, the side plank can be performed on your feet or on your knees. And like the regular plank can be performed with your supporting arm straight or bent.
For the standard side plank, lie on your side and rest on your elbow. With your feet, hips and shoulders square; lift your hips off the floor so your body is straight.
Hold this position for the desired duration and then roll over and repeat on the other side.
5 Side lying hip raises
Similar to the side plank except you lower your hips to the floor and then left them back up again. Increase the range of motion by resting your arm on a weight bench.
6 Side plank and leg lift
From the side plank position, raise your uppermost leg up and out to approximately 45 degrees and then lower it back down. Taking away one of your supporting legs makes this exercise much more demanding.
To make it easier start in a side knee plank position (as illustrated above). Alternatively, crank up the intensity by extending your supporting arm and resting on your hand instead of your elbow.
7 Plank with leg raise
From the normal front plank position, lift one leg up and off the floor so you are balancing on your two arms and one leg only. Do not allow your hips to twist. Change legs set by set.
8 Plank with arm raise
From the normal front plank position, lift one arm up and off the floor so you are balancing on your two legs and one arm only. Do not allow your shoulders to twist. Change legs set by set.
9 Plank Shoulder Taps
In the pushup plank position, alternately reach up and touch your shoulder so your arms resemble (sort of!) a Cossack dancer’s leg action. Do not let your shoulders or hips twist.
10 Renegade Row
Start in a high-plank position with your hands gripping a pair of dumbbells and feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Bend one arm and raise the dumbbell to the side of your chest. Keep your core engaged and do not let your hips and shoulders rotate. Lower the dumbbell to the ground, and repeat on the other side. That’s one rep.
11 Plank step-ups
In the pushup plank position, do “arm step ups” on and off a low platform in front of your hands. This side to side, forward and backward motion will destabilize your core and makes the exercise much more demanding. It’s also a good triceps workout.
12 Wall plank
Perform planks as normal but instead of resting your feet on the floor, push the soles of your feet against a flat wall. You’ll have to push really hard to keep them in place and maintain your plank position.
13 Plank walkout (Inchworm)
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bending from your hips, place your hands on the ground in front of your feet. Shift your weight onto your hands and slowly walk your hands forward until you’re in the a high plank position. Slowly walk your hands back to the standing position.
14 Alternating knee to elbow plank
Assume a high plank position. With control bring right knee toward inside of left elbow. Try to get as close as you can without compromising form. Repeat on the other side.
15 Spiderman plank
Starting in the high plank position, bend one leg at a time and draw your knee up and into your arm. Alternate legs for the duration of your set. This move is kinda supposed to look like Spiderman crawling up a wall.
16 Plank to push-up
From an elbow plank position, push yourself up from the floor one arm at a time into a push-up position, while keeping your core engaged and body in a straight line. Return to the elbow plank position the same manner, one arm at a time. Repeat, starting with the other side.
17 Forearm plank with hip dips
Start in the elbow plank position. Slowly dip your hips to the right, lowering your hips as far as you can without touching the floor. Return to the plank position and repeat on the left side.
18 Stability ball plank
Rest your elbows on a stability ball to make planks even harder. The ball will wobble beneath you and you’ll need to work extra hard to maintain proper spinal alignment.
19 Pot stirrers
Perform stability ball planks but make small circles with your elbows to destabilize your core and increase the difficulty of the exercise.
20 Two point plank
From the pushup plank position, raise your left arm and right leg off the floor. Work hard to keep your shoulders and hips level.
21 Plank with knee tuck
Start in a high plank position with both feet on gliders or paper plates. Engage your core and draw the gliders toward your elbows until you’re in a crouched position. Push the gliders back and return to your starting position.
Alternatively, bring in one leg, return to starting position, then draw in other leg and return to plank starting position.
22 Plank to pike
With feet on gliders (or paper plates) and hip-distance apart, assume a high plank position. Engage your core exhale and lift your hips up, while keeping your legs straight and eyes focused on your toes. Inhale and with control return to the plank position.