Properly Mastering the Plank Will Give You a Full-Body Workout in Just One Move

Getty Images/Richard Drury
Whether you’re a Pilates addict, a HIIT class devotee, or you happen to have tried the hardcore workout of Supreme Court Justice/fitness hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you’ve undoubtedly found yourself holding planks. There's a reason why the move is a trainer favorite, regardless of the type of workout at hand: Planks are effective, can be done anywhere, and require nothing more than your own muscles (and willpower) to perfect. Based on the inevitable quaking in your abs that the poses induce, it's clear that they get the job done, too.

Aside from working your “rectus abdonimus” and “transverse abdominis" (or, as we like to call them...your abs), planks happen to offer more of a full-body workout than you probably realize. "The other muscles you will work during planks are in your back, hips, legs, shoulders, and chest,” explains Jo Gomez, director of training for solidcore.  Side planks have their own array of benefits, and work your external and internal obliques along with the secondary planking muscles in your shoulders, hips, legs, and back. So yes: Planks are a full body workout, no equipment required.

Runner back pain tip: Try planks
Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma

What are the benefits of planking?

In addition to giving you arms, abs, and buns of steel, Gomez points out that there are plenty of other reasons why you might want to drop down into the muscle-making move on a regular basis. "Supporting your weight in planks will allow you to have a balanced body, since weight is equally distributed in both side of your body and through your core. Imbalance in your muscles is a leading cause of injury," says Gomez, pointing out that, in general, the stronger your core is, the more balanced you'll be.

If you're feeling slouchy after days hunched over at your desk, planking can help with that, too. "Given that the transverse abdominis, erector spinae, and glutes provide support for your spine, your posture will improve," Gomez tells me. "People who have weak abdominals, erectors, and glutes likely have an anterior pelvic tilt. This commonly causes pain in the lower back, hip and knee pain, as well as poor posture."

Aside from the physical strength that planking builds, it can actually help you feel mentally stronger, too. "One of the largest benefits is the mental ability to sustain a difficult isometric hold and resist the mind's urge to move," says Gomez. "Staying still is one of our mind's biggest challenges. Doing so creates discipline and calm."

Some other benefits that make it worth hopping down to your hands and feet (... and holding it until you almost want to cry)? Planking will build muscle to make your body a more effective calorie burner. It will both improve your balance and balance your body, helping to prevent injury. Strengthening muscles that stabilize your spine will improve your posture and also help to prevent injury. Planks will improve your mental capacity to be comfortable in otherwise uncomfortable positions, and the ability to allow yourself to become uncomfortable is where change can happen.

So, how can you master the move?

Aside from their effectiveness, planks also happen to be wildly easy to achieve—at least, technically speaking (holding them for what feels like forever, though, not so much). There are two base positions, known as your “traditional plank” and your “side plank,” and each has a number of variations to help you change up what you’re targeting. "For example, you can do either on your forearms or your hands.  Doing them on your hands will be slightly easier, but allow you to do more movement in the position,” says Gomez.  "You can also do either on your toes or on your knees. Your toes will be more challenging, but going to your knees may allow you to spend more time under tension.”

Before you start getting crazy with your moves, though, it’s worth spending some time on perfecting your form. Not only does it make the workout more effective, but it will also help you avoid getting hurt. "First of all, to do planks correctly you’ll need to stabilize through some of your smaller muscles, and be aware of your alignment,”  says Heather Andersen, founder of New York Pilates. "Before trying any add-on moves, it’s important to focus on your form. A simple plank with perfect form is more effective than a side plank with hip dips when your foundation isn’t right.”

It may feel like the "unicorn" of the fitness world (the perfect metaphor, care of Gomez), but holding the elusive perfect plank is possible. "In a perfect plank, your hips should be in line with your shoulders, belly button sucked into your spine, glutes engaged (squeezing your butt cheeks tight), forearms should be pushing down through the ground creating firm shoulders, neck should be neutral by looking straight down," says Gomez."

All of this should create a long, flat back such that a glass of water could be positioned anywhere without spilling." If you aren't able to get into a neutral spine/flat back situation, start on your hands instead of your forearms. If that won't work, drop to your knees so that the position of your back crates a diagonal line from the top of your head to your tail bone. "In any option your back should be flat such that there is no curve in your spine creating a short of hammock in your lower back," says Gomez.

Yes, you can build up to holding a plank for multiple minutes on end

Even if you aren’t quite ready to drop into a five-minute hold like it ain’t no thang, there are still plenty of ways to make planking a part of your regular routine. "Start by holding a traditional plank, side plank right and side plank left for 30 seconds each and repeat three times. Take any options that allows you to be able to stay in the planks for that period of time,” suggests Gomez.  "The first modification would be to come to your hands. If you still feel lower back strain or cannot stay up for 30, do them on your knees. Every two weeks add 15 seconds to your plank. Once you get to a minute you can start adding in variations to spice it up.”

If your wrists hurt at first, don't take that as a sign to stop—take it as an indication that they need some strengthening, too. “People think that their wrists hurting means they should stop, but it’s just a sign of weak wrists and you need to work them to make them stronger, just like the rest of your muscles,” says trainer Claudia Zakrzewski.

While rumor has it that planks are only effective if you hold them for more than a minute, the pros have confirmed that that actually isn't the case. “Everyone is at a different level, right? If holding 20 seconds is hard for you, then holding a perfect 20-second plank will be effective,” says Amanda Kloots, creator of The Rope Workout. “If you’re advanced, you may need to hold a plank for two minutes before you start feeling it in your core.” Her suggestion? Focus on perfect form first and then keep adding more time as you get stronger.

Upgrade your workout with these planking variations

Andersen echoes these sentiments that the most effective workout isn't one that will earn you an award for holding planks the longest, but rather one that integrates a number of different plank-based moves in short bursts. "Instead of holding a plank for a long time, I recommend adding in variations and movement to support more blood flow and engagement,” she suggests. "This will make the exercise more effective (and fun) because you’ll work all different muscles, and will stay engaged with your workout.”

Treat yourself to a full-body workout, exclusively using different plank poses. It requires no equipment and minimal space, which means you really can drop down and do it anywhere. Crunched for time? This five-minute planking workout (yup—you read that right. It's only five minutes!) has got you covered. Or, you can combine these variations to reap max plank benefits.

  1. Plank jacks: Start on your hands and toes with your legs together, and jump feet in and out—as if you were doing a jumping jack, but on the ground.
  2. Mountain climbers: With both hands on the floor and your back straight, draw your knees to your chest as if you're running in place.
  3. High plank to low plank: Move from your forearm plank to your straight-arm plank with an "up-up, down-down" movement, transitioning from a high to low plank.
  4. Thread the needle in side plank: In a side plank, hold yourself up with your forearm while placing one arm above your head. Rotate it under your body through the "needle" hole created between your floor arm and side body.
  5. Spider touches: In a straight-arm plank with your core engaged, touch opposite feet to opposite hands at the center of your body.
  6. Hip dips: In a forearm plank, twist your body to one side so that your hip touches the ground, alternating from the left to the right.
  7. Stability play: Grab a partner, and have them lightly tap your sides (one at a time) to make you stabilize your hold.

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