‘I’m a Trainer, and This Is Why You Aren’t Getting Better at Planks’

Photo: Getty Images/ Martin-DM
Planks are a true full-body workout, and because they work multiple muscles at once (there’s a reason why your whole body is shaking during a plank when you do them right), it will take time to master the technique—and then figure out how to hold a plank without compromising your form.

Experts In This Article

What is a plank?

Understanding what a plank is and which muscles it recruits is essential to learning how to hold a plank for longer and, more importantly, perfecting your technique. According to Amy Schemper, CPT, personal trainer and BowFlex advisor, in a previous interview with Well+Good: “A plank is an isometric exercise … that works the entire core unit, as well as engaging the upper and lower body.” (To note, isometric or static exercises involve putting your muscles under tension without moving your joints.)

As mentioned, planks fire up multiple muscles at once. You’re not only strengthening your core with planks, you’re also working your arms, chest, legs, and glutes, which goes some way to explain why the movement is so hard, regardless of your fitness level.

Why are planks so hard?

“Planks are difficult because they are a total body exercise which requires you to utilize a multitude of different muscles, from your abdominals, shoulders, lower back, hips, and legs,” says John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, performance coach for the Villanova University men’s basketball program. “Holding yourself in the plank position for an extended period of time takes a lot of mental strength as well, and I think a lot of people struggle with that aspect of it, too.”

Plank benefits

Despite its difficulty, the movement is worth incorporating into your workout routine. Planks offer myriad benefits. As an isometric exercise, planks can build strength while putting less stress on the joints, making it an ideal low-impact movement, including among those recovering from injuries. What’s more, in a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, isometric exercises have been proven to lower blood pressure more effectively than HIIT, dynamic strength training, and cardio.

Planks themselves have benefits as well. For one, you will strengthen your core by performing planks, and developing a strong core will make everyday tasks easier, too. Think: sitting, standing, or bending down to lace your shoes. Additionally, planks improve your posture and help to prevent back pain and injuries.

Plus, planks are ideal for beginners as they are for intermediates—by trying one of the many plank variations, folks can adjust the intensity and the impact of the movement. As if that all weren’t enough, planks require nothing other than a cushioned surface.

How to do a plank

Like any movement, the proper form is essential when performing a plank. While there are many iterations of the exercise, if your main goal is to hold a plank for a long time, you may want to consider trying a traditional straight-arm plank. According to Kate Ligler, CPT, CES, personal trainer and endurance coach, straight-arm planks are typically easier on the core compared to forearm planks.

Below, see step-by-step instructions for a traditional straight-arm plank, as taken from the instructional video led by Meg Takacs, CPT, personal trainer and founder of workout app Movement & Miles.

  1. Assume a push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulder and feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your back and body straight, and pull your belly button in toward your spine.
  3. Slightly tuck in your tailbone and push your shoulders away from your ears.
  4. Fix your gaze on the floor to keep your back and body straight.

4 common plank mistakes

If you’ve been practicing your planks for years and still can’t perform a plank hold the right way, it’s worth revisiting your technique. Your form is one of, if not the most important component, in improving your form and achieving your plank fitness goals. Below, Shackleton lists four common plank mistakes and tips for how to fix them. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to holding a 3-minute plank.

1. You’re hurting your elbows

“A lot of people struggle with planks because of the stress it can put on your elbows and other body parts,” says Shackleton, which typically occurs when you’re doing a plank on a hard surface, which provides insufficient support for your body.

The fix: To remedy this, perform your planks on a mat or cushioned surface. “This will lessen that tension and allow you to focus on good form,” he says.

2. You aren’t breathing properly

You might be focused on the burning in your muscles while you plank, but please don’t forget to breathe. “It’s key to make sure you’re breathing deeply through your nose and out through your mouth while doing the plank exercise,” Shackleton says. “By breathing in a controlled manner, you will be able to stay calm and properly contract all of your muscles, which will help you work them properly and advance in your planks.”

The fix: Inhale for three to four seconds and exhale for three to four seconds, per his recommendation.

3. You’re sinking your hips

“A lot of people will let their hips sink when they’re fatigued, but this is not good form as you will be putting additional strain on your lower back,” says Shackleton, who adds that in the worst-case scenario, it can potentially lead to injury.

The fix: To fix this, perform a plank with your feet shoulder-width apart and focus on engaging the core, the glutes, and the legs to keep the body straight and stable.

4. You’re taking on too much of a challenge at once

If the traditional plank position proves to be too difficult, by all means, adjust it to suit you until you’re ready to take it on in its full expression. “By not overexerting yourself and utilizing a modified plank, you will build the strength and confidence to keep getting better and improving,” says Shackleton. Plus, pushing yourself beyond your physical limits isn’t ideal if you want to avoid injury.

The fix: Modify your plank by placing your knees on the floor. “This will make it easier for you to practice the exercise and build your way up to a true plank position,” he says. Alternatively, you can opt to place your hands or elbows on a bench, Crunch Fitness assistant fitness manager Adaeze Merenini, CFSC, previously told Well+Good. “When you’re standing in front of the bench, extend your feet behind you and keep a straight line from your shoulders to your toes,” she says.

How long should you hold a plank?

According to Schemper, in a previous interview with Well+Good, the answer is anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds. “Beginners can hold [a plank] for five to 10 seconds at a time and work up,” she said. If you’re looking for a challenge, you can opt to increase the duration of your planks beyond 60 seconds, so long as you maintain the proper form.

How often should you do planks?

As for how often to do planks, the answer will vary depending on the individual. If you’re doing a 30-day plank challenge, for instance, you might plank every day for the duration of the challenge, while beginners can reap the benefits of the exercise by performing planks two to three times per week, as Merenini told Well+Good.

According to Crunch Fitness master trainer Matthew Harling, CPT, CSC, CES, you can do planks as part of your regular workout or as a warm-up, cooldown, or both. However, you’ll want to avoid pushing your muscles to their maximum when you’re sore.

In a previous interview with Well+Good about whether you can do ab exercises every day, Nate Feliciano, CFSC, CES, owner and founder of Studio 16 in New York City, mentioned that it can do the body more harm than good in the long run. “Other muscles like your lower back will end up doing most of the work during ab exercises when you’re sore, and that will increase the risk of injury,” he said.

Plank variations

The beauty of planks is that you can adjust the exercise to your fitness level. Whether you’re a beginner working up to a 3-minute plank hold or an intermediate ready for a challenge, there are a wide variety of plank variations to try. Find eight, which are ordered from easiest to hardest, below.

Forearm plank

  1. Place your forearms directly under your shoulders with your forearms in front of you and palms on the floor.
  2. Lift your shoulder blades and press your forearms down into the mat.
  3. Keep your low back in a neutral position.

Learn more about how to do a forearm plank

Side plank

  1. Lie on your side.
  2. Place your left wrist directly underneath your left shoulder with your middle finger pointed forward.
  3. Lift your body by stacking or staggering the feet while keeping your feet flexed.

Modification: Drop the knee of the leg closest to the ground to alleviate the pressure on your upper body.

Learn more about how to do a side plank

Bear plank

  1. Place your hands directly underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips.
  2. Lift your knees a few inches from the floor, remembering to engage your core.
  3. Slowly lower your knees to the floor.

Learn more about how to do a bear plank

Reverse plank

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you.
  2. Place your hands on the floor with your fingers pointed toward your feet.
  3. Lift your hips and drop your shoulder away from your ears, and put a slight bend in your knees.

Learn more about how to do a reverse plank

Plank jack

  1. Assume a plank position.
  2. Jump your feet out as if you were doing a jumping jack.
  3. Jump your feet back together and repeat the movement.

Learn more about how to do a plank jack

Plank walkout

  1. Start in a plank position.
  2. Walk your hands toward your feet.
  3. Slowly rise up and repeat.

Learn more about how to do a plank walkout

Walking plank

  1. Begin in a plank position.
  2. Lower your forearm to the floor, followed by your other forearm.
  3. Push your body back up with one hand and then the other. Repeat.

Learn more about how to do a walking plank

Plank to pike

  1. Assume plank position with your forearms on the floor.
  2. Lift your hips using your core muscles.
  3. Lower back down into plank position and repeat.

Learn more about how to do a plank to pike

Frequently asked questions

What will happen if I perform planks every day?

If you do planks as part of your everyday workout routine, you’re likely to reap the benefits of the exercise. However, it’s important to rest whenever your muscles are sore so as to avoid injury.

Should you plank on your elbows or hands?

For the most part, the choice between planking on your elbows and hands is a matter of preference, though there are differences between the two options. Planking on your hands is easier on your core but harder on the wrists while planking on the elbows is more challenging for the core.

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