There’s a simple exercise that’s so powerful, it has its own verb: planking is the act of performing a plank for a duration of time. While there are variations on planks that involve movement, a basic plank exercise itself requires only that you get into the plank position and stay there. To find out more about how an exercise that doesn’t even require movement could be so popular and effective, we asked WeStrive trainers Tommy Hockenjos CPT, CNC, PES, SSN, and Claire Romine, MS, ACSM-CCEP, CPT to fill us in on why planks are a beneficial exercise, how to do perform planks to get the most out of them, and how they can be modified for people with injuries or different abilities.
Meet the Expert
What Is a Plank?
This core exercise is performed by lying prone on the floor, resting on your elbows or wrists and your toes. A plank position looks similar to the beginning of a pushup, but your arms are only used for stability’s sake, and there is no bending of the arms involved. It’s an isometric exercise, which means that you’re isolating specific muscle groups. In this case, those muscles are mostly your core, but planks activate everything from your abs and obliques to your glutes and shoulders. Typically the goal of a plank is to hold the position for as long as you can. When you do this regularly, your muscles strengthen, and you're able to hold the plank position progressively longer. While you only need to stay still to do a plank, there are also numerous variations in the position involving moving your legs, arms, or both while in the plank position.
Benefits of Planks
Much like how they work numerous muscles, the benefits of planks are manifold.
- Core strength: your core is an important, foundational muscle group for everyday life, and planks strengthen it. Hockenjos says, “Our core is much more than just our abdominals; it includes our obliques, spinal stabilizers, shoulder musculature, back musculature, and hip musculature.” He says that “the ability to stabilize the core allows for the increased function of our legs and arms” and that “in order to develop optimal core stability, resistance to forces in all directions must be executed.” He thinks that planks “are one of the best exercises for resisting forces that push us into extension.”
- Improved posture: Romine says that doing planks will help “keep you upright and pain-free while sitting and standing.” A strong core is a key to good posture.
- Effectiveness: Planks help you perform other exercises more effectively. For example, Romine says that “when completing a deadlift, you need a strong core to bring you back up to the starting position. If you don't have a strong core, your lower back will be used, which will result in an injury. This is true for many other exercises as well.”
- No equipment needed: Planks don’t require anything but your body and can be done anywhere, at any time. Hockenjos suggests trying “a set of 30-second planks between your work meetings, before you make yourself lunch, or when you wake up in the morning.”
Proper Plank Form
As with all exercises, proper form is vital to ensuring that you get the most out of the activity and don’t hurt yourself doing it. Keep the following tips in mind so that your planks are as effective and risk-free as possible.
- Your elbows should be directly under your shoulders. Romine suggests starting a plank by beginning “on all fours in a tabletop position, ensuring that the shoulders are directly above the wrists.”
- Keep your back straight and your head neutral.
- Engage your core. Hockenjos says that when you focus on engaging your core, “the upper and lower rectus abdominis muscle activity increases” even before you’ve done much else.
- Squeeze your glutes. Hockenjos says that “squeezing your butt and putting yourself in a slight posterior pelvic tilt will increase muscle activation of the core.”
- Keep tension out of your chest and shoulders, making sure not to squeeze your shoulders toward your ears.
- Use your legs, too. Romine says that despite working mostly your abs, “the thighs also have to be activated to keep yourself up.”
Common Plank Mistakes
Avoid the following so that you don’t risk injury.
- Don’t sink or arch your back; it should be completely straight and flat. Romine says you should be able to balance a book on it. Hockenjos suggests imagining that you’re tucking your glutes underneath your abs.
- It may be instinctive to hold your breath, but you should breathe steadily and continuously throughout the exercise. Romine notes that “holding your breath will further tense up your muscles which will further result in improper form.”
- Make sure not to hang your head; Romine says doing that will “pull on your neck and cause more tension.”
The Best Plank Modifications
A plank exercise involves all of your core, as well as numerous other muscles. If you have an injury or are otherwise differently-abled, a plank done in the standard manner on the floor might be outside your scope. To modify a plank, try one of the following.
- Rather than the floor, try an elevated plank. To do this, Romine instructs you to “start on an elevated surface, with your hands on the elevated surface directly below your shoulders. Step your feet back until you are in a straight line and your core is activated. Start low and go slow. Aim to increase your duration planking every time by adding a few seconds.” You can use a bench for elevation if you want lots of stability, or use a large exercise ball for less stability. If a bench still puts too much weight on your arms, you can go even higher and use something like a table.
- Instead of being on your toes, drop to your knees. That way, you have a much larger weight-bearing surface and are holding less body weight as you do the plank.
- Support your arms on your elbows, not your wrists. Similar to how laying on your knees and shins will be easier than your toes, you’ll have a greater surface area of support if you rest your forearms on the floor.
Planking is a straightforward exercise that doesn’t need to involve any movement, but they are tough to do. You grow with planks by holding the position for progressively longer. Planks increase your core strength, which in turn helps you perform other exercises better, improves your posture, and sets you up for a stronger level of fitness overall. It’s important to perform planks correctly so that you don’t injure yourself and get the most out of the exercise. If you aren’t able to do a plank, there are several modifications you can try. With the tips and tricks, you can be counting up the seconds on your planks soon!
Lee J, Jeong K, Lee H et al. Comparison of Three Different Surface Plank Exercises on Core Muscle Activity. Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Science. 2016;5(1):29-33. doi:10.14474/ptrs.2016.5.1.29