- Adaeze Merenini, CFSC, assistant fitness manager at Crunch Fitness
- John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, professional trainer and performance coach for the Villanova University men’s basketball program
- Kristina Ewing, CPT, personal trainer and fitness instructor at Rumble Boxing
- Matthew Harling, CPT, CSC, CES, master trainer at Crunch Fitness
When you’re brand-new to planking, holding it for even 10 seconds might seem like a feat of strength and will. With practice, however, the move—and its many interactions—will become easier over time. Below, trainers explain how to do a plank, which mistakes to avoid, and plank variations to try out. Before you know it, you’ll manage a 3-minute plank with no sweat.
What muscles do planks work?
Planks are a full-body workout that recruits multiple muscles at once, including your arms, shoulders, upper back, hamstrings, glutes, and, of course, your core. Strengthening your core isn’t just useful for holding longer planks but also for better posture and improved protection against lower back pain and injuries.
Planks also help you build functional movement patterns over time. Meaning: Everyday tasks, like walking, carrying groceries, and sprinting down the subway stairs to catch your train, will be easier, too.
Better yet, you can perform planks just about anywhere and without equipment. The only thing that it calls for is the proper form.
How to do a plank: step-by-step instructions for beginners
- Lie face down on a mat.
- Push upon your elbows and extend your legs, making sure your back is straight and your hips are level.
- Look directly at the ground in front of you so your neck stays in line with your spine.
- Drive your elbows forward and your feet back, and engage your core and glutes.
- Hold this position for as long as you can.
For beginners who aren’t ready to commit to the full plank position, they can opt for alternatives to work up to the move first. Adaeze Merenini, CFSC, assistant fitness manager at Crunch Fitness, recommends doing a plank with your hands against an elevated incline like a bench or chair.
“Increasing the angle of your body towards the ground would allow you to feel as though it’s slightly less challenging until you become stronger,” she says. “When you're standing in front of the bench, you would like for your feet to be extended behind you, and you’d want a straight line in regards to your shoulders, your hips, and your heels. ”
Common planking mistakes
If you’ve already committed to adding planks to your workout (or a 30-day plank challenge), you want to make sure you’re doing them properly. Otherwise, you won’t make the most of the move and, ultimately, waste your time. Here are a few common mistakes that trainers have witnessed when people do planks and tips on how to fix them.
1. You’re sinking your hips
Whether you’re a beginner or have learned how to plank for longer than a minute, you might be tempted to let your hips sink to the ground to give your core a break. But, according to Harling, this can mitigate the benefits of the movement and potentially cause some back pain.
How to fix it: Harling recommends pushing your elbows forward and your feet in the opposition direction while you’re in the plank position. This can help you maintain a flat back and prevent your hips from sinking towards the ground. You can also check your form in a mirror, he says, and usually, it’ll be easy to tell whether your hips are sinking.
2. Your elbows are in the wrong position
According to Harling, another common mistake is positioning your elbows (or hands) too far above your shoulders. When done this way, it can make it hard to drive your elbows forward to maintain a flat back for planking.
How to fix it: Ideally, “your arms should be a little farther out so your elbows can dig into the mat,” says Harling. “I can’t say everyone should have their arms right here or elbows there. It’s one of those things that should feel natural when you’re trying to squeeze your core.”
3. You’re forgetting to breathe
As with any exercise, you’ll want to make sure you’re breathing while you plank rather than waiting for it to end with bated breath. As John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, performance coach for the Villanova University men’s basketball program, told Well+Good: “It is key to make sure you are breathing deep through your nose and out your mouth while doing the plank exercise.”
How to fix it: Shackleton recommends inhaling for 3 to 4 seconds, then exhaling for the same length of time for the duration of your plank hold. “By breathing in a controlled manner, you will be able to stay calm and also properly contract all of your muscles, which will help you work them properly and advance in your planks,” he said.
How long should you hold a plank?
According to Kristina Ewing, CPT, a trainer at Rumble Boxing, there is no correct amount of time to hold a plank. The key is building up your stamina over time by increasing the length of time as you get stronger—and yes, you can expect your whole body to shake during a plank in the beginning. You might want to start by holding your plank for five seconds, for instance, then progress to 10 seconds, and so on. As you work your way up, you’ll double the length of your hold, progressively getting stronger along the way.
On average, a beginner should aim to hold a plank for 15 to 30 seconds, says Ewing. Once you can hold a plank longer than 30 seconds, she says you’ve officially leveled up to intermediate status. But, she says it only counts if you’re holding the plank with correct form and without movement. “[Make] sure the pelvis is tucked to avoid lower back pain, the shoulders are stacked directly over the wrists, and the core is braced,” she says. “You should be one long line from your head to your toes.”
The same goes for advanced planking, which Ewing defines as holding a plank longer than one minute. “You just have to be careful above that minute mark to stay true to form while those muscles begin to fatigue.”
How often should beginners do planks?
“When it comes to planks, you want frequency,” says Merenini, with the caveat: “[Doing planks] daily would be excessive for a beginner.” She says that you can opt to do planks three times a week at most to help you build up your stamina without it being overwhelming.
6 other plank variations for beginners
1. Straight-arm planks
Straight-arm planks are a variation that calls you to be on your hands rather than your elbows or forearms while performing the movement—and while it can be harder on your wrists, it is much easier on the core.
How to do a straight-arm plank:
- Push up on your hands and extend your legs.
- Hold your body in a straight line from your head to your feet.
- Keep your gaze on the floor directly in front of you, making sure to engage your core and glutes.
2. Side planks
Once you’ve nailed planks for beginners and you want to kick the challenge level up a notch, give side planks a try. “Side planks are great for the obliques,” Ewing says.
How to do a side plank:
- Stack your shoulders directly over your elbow.
- “Make sure your hips are directly in line with one another and lift them up off the ground,” says Ewing.
- “Finally, [stack your feet] one on top of the other, or staggered (one in front of the other) for more support,” she says.
3. Reverse planks
For those who have reached the advanced category, Ewing says reverse planks are a great full-body move that works the shoulders, core, and glutes.
How to do a reverse plank:
- Lay down flat on your back.
- Place your hands directly under your hips.
- Push up so your chest is facing up. The goal: “You should be one long line from head to toe by maintaining your hips high and core engaged,” Ewing says.
4. Side-to-side planks
One of Ewing’s personal favorite plank variations is the side-to-side plank, which will push you outside your comfort zone in a good way. “A side-to-side plank, also sometimes called hip dips, is a forearm plank where you tip the hips side to side targeting the obliques,” she explains. “By moving side to side, you are causing increased tension on the obliques and hips in order to stabilize between each movement.”
How to do a side-to-side plank:
- Assume plank position.
- Dip your hips to one side, then use your core to bring you back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side.
5. Plank jacks
Want to add some cardio to the mix? Try plank jacks. They’ll elevate your heart rate real quick. “A plank jack starts in a high plank position, shoulders stacked over wrists, pelvis tilted, core engaged,” Ewing says. “Then you hop your legs in and out, all while maintaining a neutral spine and plank position.”
How to do a plank jack:
- Come into a high plank position, making sure your shoulders are stacked over your wrists.
- With your core engaged, hop your legs in and out.
- Repeat as many reps as you can.
6. Plank push-ups
A plank push-up is essentially a combination of a plank and a push-up, making it great for anyone seeking a challenge. It asks that you move from a straight-arm plank to a forearm plank (and back again), testing your upper body and core strength in the process.
How to do a plank push-up:
- Assume a straight-arm plank position.
- While keeping a flat back and your core engaged, lower onto your right forearm and then your left.
- Push your body back up into the starting position, starting with your right forearm and following with your left.
Benefits of planking
1. Tightens and strengthens core
So why do planks? For one, planks help tighten and strengthen the core, aka your abs, like no other move. Having a strong core is essential for, well, everything. Ewing notes a strong core makes doing physical activities such as weightlifting, boxing, and training in general possible.
2. Helps strengthen your push-ups
Ewing says push-ups are often the exercise most people groan about during a workout because they’re tough. Planks are a good transition exercise to help work your way up to proper push-ups because they help strengthen the chest and shoulders. “Focus on shoulders stacked over wrists, elbows locked in tight to the body, arms fully extended,” she says.
3. Improves posture
If you spend an ungodly amount of time hunched over a computer (same!), you’ll be happy to learn that beginner planks and plank variations help with posture and stretching. “Planks force us to elongate our muscles, and they can be used before and after your workouts to help release any tightness and pain from lactic acid build up in your muscles post workout,” Ewing says.
You heard the experts, people. Get your plank on.
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