Tips for progressing your planks

I include planks in every single group fitness class I teach and almost every program I write for clients. Front planks, side planks, feet-elevated planks and walking planks, to name but a few.

This is me, planking in Las Vegas (apparently what happens in the gym in Vegas, doesn’t stay in Vegas…)

I love that you can do them just about anywhere, with or without equipment, and that there are enough variations to keep even the most easily bored exerciser happy for months on end.

The key to continue getting the most bang for your plank-buck? Progress them over time.

Being able to do a 5-minute plank is great, don’t get me wrong, but there are better ways to use those precious minutes in the gym once you’re regularly hitting the 1-minute mark.

Benefits of including planks in your workouts
  • Planks are a whole-body exercise that require simultaneous contraction of the glutes, abdominals, quadriceps, chest, shoulders and back. They are the precursor to performing a push-up and will aid in your quest for a pull-up.
  • They increase your ability to perform activities of daily life (lifting groceries, shovelling snow and carrying children around).
  • They improve your performance in the weight room and during other forms of physical activity (running, cycling, kayaking, golfing, step aerobics) by strengthening your core. A stronger core is key to better movement in all directions.
Mastering the basics: planking 101

Whether performing the plank from knees or toes, from forearms or hands, with hands or feet elevated or with the help of an unstable exercise tool, the following cues will improve your plank and minimize your risk of injury:

  • Maintain a straight line from the back of your head to the back of your heels (or knees, when performing the simplest version of the plank). Bending at the hips reduces the effectiveness of the exercise (we’ve all seen people plank with their butts in the air; FYI a plank is a straight board…).
  • Engage abdominals and gluteal muscles to protect your lower back. Clenching your bum cheeks will reduce the tendency for the hips to drop towards the floor and a curve to appear in your lower back.
  • Pull elbows close to the body and shoulder blades back and down. Doing so will reduce the pressure on your shoulders and increase the contribution of your back muscles to the exercise. Remember, planks are just as much about the back side of the body as they are about your ‘abs’.
  • Keep forearms parallel to one another. When you clasp your hands together in front of you your arms form a triangle with your clavicle. In addition to looking desperate (praying for the exercise to be over), planking in the clasped hands position tends to lead to rounding of the shoulders. By separating the hands we facilitate shoulder retraction and encourage the back to help hold us in the plank.
  • Maintain a neutral neck. That means you don’t want to look down at the floor (this results in rounding of the shoulders; see point above) or crank your head up to look across the room (this will create tension in the neck and likely lead to dropped hips and an exaggerated curve in your lower spine).

Progressing your planks

There are lots of fun and creative ways to progress the basic plank.

Below are some of the techniques I use to progress my clients’ planks, ordered according to (approximately) increasing difficulty. Depending on your upper body strength and your innate sense of balance, some progressions may be more challenging than others.

  • Increase the lever length; if you’ve mastered the knee plank it’s time to lengthen the lever and come to toes. Just like pushing a child on a teeter-totter; the longer the lever, the more challenging the exercise.
  • Change the incline; Not quite ready to go from knees to toes? Try varying the incline to find a middle ground. Place your hands on a bench or box, with hands directly under shoulders and come to toes. Need to make a toe plank more challenging? Reverse the incline so that feet are elevated above the head; perhaps on a bench, or a stability ball when you’re ready to add dynamic stabilization to the mix (see below).
  • Lift a hand or foot; by decreasing the number of points of contact your body makes with the floor, you’re not only forcing the remaining limbs to take on a greater load, you’re also working on balance and anti-rotational core strength.

Start by lifting one foot about 4 inches off the ground (see right panel in the photo above). Aim to keep your hips level and toes turned down. Hold for as long as you can then switch. You might also choose to lift one hand and extend the arm in front of you, parallel to the floor. As you get better with your 3-point plank, try cycling through all four limbs, one at a time, holding each for as long as you can and immediately moving to the next limb when you can’t hold the previous one off the floor for another second.

  • Add instability to the mix; the moving 3-point plank, as described above is the easiest way to introduce a stability (read ‘balance’ ) challenge to your plank. Stability balls, Bosu balance trainers, balance boards and the TRX suspension trainers are all good options too.

Performing the basic plank with hands or feet elevated on any of the above tools will force stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, core and legs to work harder to maintain the static hold. You may need to revert to a shorter lever plank (i.e., a knee plank) when you first introduce instability. Don’t think of this as back-sliding, but re-inforcing the foundation you need to tackle the more challenging exercise.

 

  • Add movement to your plank; when we add movement to an static stabilization exercise like the plank, we’re asking the body to maintain stability in the face of an external force. This is good training for life 🙂 , especially if you’ve noticed your balance getting worse with age. These moving plank variations will require you to continually fight for stability, using many small muscles whose existence you may have been previously unaware of (but will undoubtably feel tomorrow).

Some of my favourite ‘moving planks’? Roll-outs and roll-ins on the ball, TRX suspension trainer ‘plank to knee-ins’, side planks with core rotation and plank rows (to name a few).

I find it helpful to include a variety of plank progressions in every workout. Some simple plank holds to work on form and endurance, an unstable plank or two to focus on balance and unilateral strength and a moving plank to further challenge balance and make my clients have to really think about what they’re doing (exercise is good for the brain, too 🙂 ).

Looking for more information about building a rock-solid core? You might be interested in the following posts:

10 Crunch-free exercises for a stronger core

5 Moves to Master in Midlife – Exercising for Form and Function

Exercises for Re-building Pelvic Floor Strength in Midlife

Core Training – 5 Moves for a Stronger Midsection

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Comments

  1. I do a one minute plank everyday but I definitely need to step up my game and add some variations.

  2. Thanks for the plank tutorial! I had know idea about the variations. It was God to get the ‘why’ behind lowers my head or the praying hands. I will incorporate in my workout more! Thanks again!

  3. I do lots of planks just in exercises I do.. 🙂 I work my core a lot & have since youngin days so thankfully I learned young to work the whole core! 🙂

  4. Nice article. I want to try the 3-point plank and rotate which one limb is off the ground- sounds like fun. There are more variations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL_NJAkCQBg

    P.S. It seems like his advice and your advice about head/neck position are slightly different. Are both okay, as long as my neck is roughly neutral or do you think he is wrong to suggest we look at the ground?

  5. omg. I love planking so much. It really is an exercise for your whole body.
    I feel great afterward.. Of course, the beginning wasn’t so great.. I had pain in my muscles and could stay it that pose for just a few seconds. But after three months of planking (in different poses), I now can do it much longer.
    And I absolutely love plank with dumbbells. It’s like another level. 🙂 Although sometimes it’s pretty hard because my dumbbells are round

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