How to Perform a Proper Plank for Strong Arms and Core Muscles

how to perform a plank

Tone It Up/Design by Cristina Cianci 

Love them or hate them, there’s a reason fitness experts laud the merits of a simple plank. It's one of the best exercises to not only strengthen your core, but your entire body, according to Tone It Up trainer, Chyna Bardarson, NASM, CPT. "Personally, I love planks," she says. "They work nearly your entire body. As long as you are using proper form and engaging your core, you will get a great shoulder burn and leg burn and help strengthen your spine."

On that note, as for how long to hold your plank, you'll need to make sure you nail the form first—that way, you can stay injury-free while you get stronger and (eventually) hold your plank for longer. Here’s a look at how to perform a proper plank, its benefits, plus tips for how to level-up with various plank variations when you're ready.

Key Things to Keep in Mind

In order for a plank to be effective, Bardarson says it’s important to make sure you:

  • Engage your core (think of pulling your belly button into your spine)
  • Keep your elbows directly under your shoulders
  • Keep your forearms parallel to one another
  • Keep your eyes gazing toward the ground slightly in front of you

Traditional Plank Exercise

1. Begin on all fours, placing your hands on the ground directly beneath your shoulders.

2. Next, step your feet behind you, grounding down into your toes to form a straight line from head to toe.

3. Engage your legs, glutes, and core as you maintain a neutral neck and spine.

4. Hold for 20-60 seconds (depending on your level of fitness) with good form.

proper plank
 Tone It Up

How Long Should You Hold a Plank?

The duration of your plank depends on your fitness level. Beginners should start with proper form for 20 seconds, Bardarson recommends. "[After that,] you can work your way up to 60 seconds, or even two minutes, but I wouldn’t recommend going beyond that," she says.

Common Plank Mistakes

Some of the most common mistakes Bardarson sees with planks include lifting the neck too high, collapsing the lower back, or lifting your hips to the sky instead of keeping them level. If you’re guilty of doing any of these, you may experience a stiff neck or lower back or hip pain the next day. "Collapsing the lower back is why people may feel lower back pain after holding a plank if they aren’t engaging their core,” she says. “I also see women lifting their hips to the sky almost more like a downward dog, which won’t target your abdominals as effectively. Keeping your eyes gazing toward the ground slightly in front of you will help you from lifting your neck up too high.”

Should Anyone Avoid Planks?

Planks are generally a safe exercise for most people. If you’re a beginner or experiencing some discomfort in your plank, you can start on your knees or hold your plank for a shorter period of time, Bardarson recommends. “If you feel lower back pain or shoulder pain, I would avoid a full plank position and try out a modified plank in which you allow your knees to drop to the ground. This will take the pressure off of your lower back especially,” she says. You might also experience minor wrist pain while doing planks, so be sure to properly stretch your wrists beforehand.

If you’re pregnant, always consult with your doctor first. Then practice modified planks that are safe for you. “One pregnancy modification is placing your hands on an elevated surface, such as a sturdy bench or wall,” Bardarson adds. You can then step out and position your legs at a diagonal so that you're feeling the resistance.

How to Level Up Planks for More of a Challenge

Once you’ve mastered the traditional plank, there are endless plank variations to try. "Side planks are great to work the obliques and single arm or single leg planks are great if you're looking for a challenge," Bardarson says. Try some of her favorite variations below for a challenge.

01 of 03

Side Plank and Dips

Tone It Up/Design by Cristina Cianci

1. Begin laying on your right side with your right forearm planted on the ground and your left hand on your left hip.

2. Engaging your entire core, lift your hips off the ground until your body forms a straight line from head to toe. (For extra stability, you can stagger your feet, placing your top foot just in front of the bottom.)

3.  Lift your hips two inches up, then back up down.

4.  Repeat for 15 reps on each side.

02 of 03

Plank Shoulder Taps

Tone It Up/Design by Cristina Cianci 

1.  Start in a high plank position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists, core engaged, and body in a straight line from head to toe.

2.  Without swaying your hips, slowly lift your right hand to touch your left shoulder, then return it back down to the ground.

3.  Next, lift your left hand to touch your right shoulder, and return it back down.

4.  Repeat for 10-15 reps, alternating sides.

03 of 03

Plank Kick-Through

 Tone It Up/Design by Cristina Cianci

1.  Begin in a high plank position, shoulders over wrists, creating a straight line from head to heels.

2.  Kick your right foot underneath your body and reach your left arm straight up toward the ceiling. Your hips and shoulders should stack as your body faces the left side. Step the leg back to plank and place your left hand back down.

3.  Now kick your left foot underneath your body and reach your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, stacking shoulders and hips. Then return to plank.

4.  Continue alternating sides for 10-15 reps.  

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