The plank appears to be a simple exercise, as you aren’t moving. But there’s more to a plank than meets the eye.
With proper form, you’ll build a solid strength-training foundation that will help you progress both during and after your workout. The plank can be modified and progressed, and it can also be used as a foundation for other popular exercises (like the push-up) in your strength-training routine.
But first, here’s everything you need to know about mastering the traditional plank.
How does a plank work the muscles?
When people say “plank,” they mean the forearm plank, where your elbows and forearms are on the ground rather than your palms (like in the start of a push-up). It’s called a “high plank.”
In either case, the plank is an isometric move, which means it challenges your muscles with a static contraction (i.e., no movement) rather than a lengthening or contracting phase, so it helps build strength as you strive to keep your entire body stable.
And if you do a plank correctly, you’ll be strengthening many different muscles. Because a plank requires a group of muscles to work together. At the core of your body are the rectus abdominis (the muscles that run vertically down the front of your abdomen), transverse abdominis (the deep core muscles that stabilize your spine), hips and glutes, as well as shoulders.
Why do planks work?
Planks are a serious foundational move, says Strong With Sivan owner Sivan Fagan, CPT. Because they’re a “anti-movement” core exercise, your muscles have to work to resist moving rather than move.
The traditional forearm plank works anti-extension because all those muscles mentioned above must fire to keep your lumbar spine from arching or hyperextending, says Fagan.
Anti-movement exercises like planks help you learn to engage your core and keep your spine neutral while exercising. Also, it serves as a great foundation for pretty much any other strength training move you do. When you do an overhead press, consider: As you lift the weights overhead, your core muscles must fire.
Planks also help build endurance because you have to hold the move for a long time. However, holding a plank for longer does not necessarily mean “better.” If you do a plank correctly, even 20 seconds will be difficult. It’s best to build up slowly and stop if your form starts to deteriorate (like if your hips start to sag or your shoulders begin to round).
Finally, planks help improve posture by forcing you to focus on your body’s positioning. Dorworth says proper plank form involves keeping your shoulders down and back.
“Holding your body still in an isometric position” works the mind-muscle connection.
How to do a plank correctly.
To get the most out of the forearm plank, you must first master the plank. Then you won’t overstress other muscles and you’ll be working the muscles you want to work.
Position your elbows directly under your shoulders and your forearms on the ground. Many people keep their hands in fists, while others flatten them on the ground. Then, Dorworth says, pop up on your toes, keeping your body straight from head to toe.
Engage your core (think of pulling your belly button up to the ceiling), glutes and quads, and keep the weight evenly distributed throughout your body.
Once you’re awake, keep in mind these important cues: For starters, keep your eyes on the ground, between your hands. This will keep your neck from craning.
“This means your spine can stay in neutral,” Dorworth says.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together (you want them to adduct, or come together toward the midline of your body, rather than abduct, or pull away). In this way, you will avoid rounding your shoulders or upper back, which is a common plank mistake Dorworth sees. The plank may feel more in your shoulders than throughout your body if you do this.
Also, keep your hips level. In a Downward Dog yoga pose, people tend to hike up their hips or stick their butt out. “It’s usually because they don’t have the core strength yet,” Dorworth explains. This can help cue your hips into a posterior pelvic tilt.
Finally, inhale. People tend to hold their breath when doing an isometric contraction, but when doing a plank, she advises taking deep, regular breaths.
Got it? If so, it should look like this:
Make a plank easier—or harder.
The fact that a plank can be advanced and regressed makes it a versatile exercise.
Suppose a regular forearm plank is too difficult. If so, start with simpler plank variations. A forearm plank with your knees bent can help because you’re “shortening the lever arm” and reducing stress on your body, says Dorworth. You can also do a high plank with your hands elevated on a sturdy box or step—the higher your hands, the easier the move. You can gradually try shorter surfaces until you are ready to do it from the floor.
Plank variations can also be used to increase difficulty. To challenge your obliques (the muscles along the sides of your abdomen) while keeping the isometric factor, try a side plank. Advanced planks incorporate movement, but your core muscles must still fire to keep you stable.
Less contact with the ground makes these plank exercises more difficult. For example, plank jacks (where your torso stays still but your legs move in and out like a jumping jack) and shoulder taps (where you start in a high plank and tap your hand on your opposite shoulder) (you walk your arms and legs out to the side).
How can planks be used in workouts?
Planks or plank variations are great exercises to include one to two times a week, but if you want to get better at them, Dorworth suggests two to three.
Planks should be done near the end of your workout. Compound movements like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and rows should be done early in your workout, while your muscles are still warm and energized.
For more inspiration (and full-body workouts that include planks), try this bodyweight back and core routine, this leg, core, and shoulder circuit, or this Tabata-style routine. To get the most out of your planks, you might want to save this primer on how to make them more effective.