Boarding the Planking Bandwagon

how to do planks
Image credits: PixaHive

Front planks. Side planks. Hover exercises. No, planks are not related to wood beam flooring that share the same. However, they CAN help you develop a rock-hard core. They are similar to pushups as they can help tighten the abdominal muscles. The added benefit is there are several ways to do them if you want to increase your stability and strength. With countless variations, you can keep it fresh and do them indoors and outdoors or with and without equipment.

Let’s take a look at this core abdominal workout and look at different plank examples and variations (beginner to hard). And, you’ll soon see what everyone is planking about!

What Is a Plank?

If you’ve heard of planks at the gym or on TV, they’re an isometric abdominal bridge exercise that tightens your core muscles. Resembling a pushup where your body is parallel with the floor (and stiff as a board but don’t get bored), you start out prostrate on your forearms or hands and knees or toes. However, from there, a plank can take on different forms that might include a high, side or low plank.

Let’s now look at different types of planks. As you read through the instructions, click on the links below for video examples. And, don’t worry. There are easy planks for you newbies!

The Plank Forearm (Front Plank) Exercise

To get into position:

  • Lie on a towel or mat and get into a pushup position on your hands or forearms.
  • Keep your back, hips and legs as straight as possible by engaging your core, while your head stays down. It’s almost like standing up tall but you’re on the floor. Hence, don’t let your hips sag toward the ground (like a cow). You also don’t want to arch your back or bend your hips.
  • If you do it on your palms, your hands should be in alignment with your shoulders in a standard plank position.
  • If you’re doing a forearm plank, your shoulders should line up with your elbows, while your forearms rest on the ground. Keep your head down and relaxed as you look at the ground.
  • Push your shoulders down so they’re not up by your ears. Keep your heels aligned directly over the balls of your feet.
  • Hold this for 10-20 seconds and then return to the original position. As you practice over time, try to work up to 30-seconds and then 1-2 minutes.

Mistakes to Avoid…

A little sag here. An arched back there. If you’re unsure how to do it correctly, common plank mistakes might lead to an ineffective workout. However, a few tips can help you stay injury-free with a rock-solid core.

How To Do a Proper Plank

  • Don’t arch your neck, tilt it up or turn it sideways. Keep it down facing the floor and relaxed to avoid muscle strain.
  • Don’t let your hips sag or sink. To avoid this, spread your feet out a bit wider. Focus on engaging your core.
  • Don’t arch or flex your back as this won’t engage your core ab muscles correctly.
  • Keep your shoulders wide and down, not up like if you were shrugging.

Best Plank Exercise: What’s the Hardest Plank?

“Are you planking kidding me?” is what some novice plankers might say. While the standard plank is hard even for most beginners, the forearm version will exercise targeted stomach muscles for an ideal exercise routine. Try both and work on mastering other variations which we’ll explore below.

What Muscles Do These Exercises Strengthen?

Aside from your core abdominal muscles, planks will work out and engage your whole body. These are not like doing pushups on your knees where the bulk of the weight is on your upper body. With these, you’re working to maintain the correct form. Hence, your body is isometric and will increase your strength.

The targeted muscle groups include:

  • In the upper body: Your deltoids, traps, rhomboids, rotator cuffs, pecs
  • In your mid to lower body (stabilizer or secondary muscles): Your erector spinae, transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis
  • In your lower body (stabilizer or secondary muscles): Your quads, glutes and serratus anterior

How to Do a Side Plank

Side planks are similar to a standard forearm one, however, you are leaning on one side. Side planks help strengthen the sides of your abdominals, while regular planks engage your core, front and glutes. You can do side planks on your left or right hand or on a forearm. Hence, it’s more difficult and will increase your balance and coordination.

To do a standard side plank:

  • Lie on your side with your feet together. Align your forearm so that it’s right beneath your shoulder and lift up on your hand until your arm is fully extended.
  • Lift your hips up so they are in alignment with your upper body (head, neck).
  • With your hand bent on the floor for support, the rest of your body should be in the shape of a “T” or cross. Use a mirror to ensure you have the correct posture.
  • Stay as stiff/rigid as possible and extend the other arm straight up toward the ceiling.

Note: This is one of the hardest versions of planks as it works your oblique muscles, so practice getting into position and use the video examples in the links below for help. If you feel shaking, it’s likely not an earthquake but your core abdominal muscles nervous about the new routine! Keep practicing…You’ve got this!

What Muscles Are Strengthened?

Targeting the oblique muscles, side planks can also strengthen the gluteus minimus and gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quads, shoulders and transverse abdominis. Hence, do them on both sides to exercise your muscles evenly. No one wants to be a lean, mean, lopsided machine (not ever!).

Should You Do a Different Exercise?

Yes, a plank exercise can include beginner, intermediate and advanced planks. That means you will have several ways to challenge your body and increase your muscle mass and stability.

Initially, planks will feel hard or look challenging. However, as you do them over time, they become easier – but don’t get board (pun intended).

Mix up your plank variations to help you challenge and engage your core muscle groups. Not only will you become stronger but your body will become leaner as you progress – and not regress, with your plank training.

Given that planks can be done anywhere and don’t require special equipment, that gives you an anytime/anyplace workout you can modify whenever and wherever you want.

Who Should and Should NOT Do a Plank?

If you’re new to plank work, always consult a physician. Never do a plank if you had recent surgery, suffer from back or shoulder pain or have a back or shoulder injury.

Some pregnant women do planks. However, speak to your doctor first as you don’t want to put stress on the abdominal wall.

When Should You Do These Exercises?

When starting with planks, while it’s safe to stretch every day, give your body time to recover if you feel pain or soreness. That might mean only doing some every few days.

As your body becomes accustomed to these exercises, they will become easier to do and you should feel less stiffness and pain. Hence, it might be time to vary your workout and add new versions to your routine.

How Often Should I Do Them?

Generally, hold a plank position for 30-60 seconds and do 5-6 sets of planks at a time if you’re just starting out. If you’re doing side planks, start with 3 for 3 sets on both sides of your body. To mix up your workout, do 3-5 sets of front planks.

Note: That first 30-seconds might feel like forever so give yourself time to build and engage your muscles. Even if you can only hold that position for 10-20 seconds (or less), do it with the correct form. Avoid holding the position longer while you arch your back, sag too much or read the mail (it’s just wrong!).

As you advance, you may want to do several sets and hold it for longer times like 2-3 minutes. When you reach this point, try 3-5 sets of front planks for 3-5 minutes each and 3-5 sets of side planks for 1-2 minutes each, or go for longer if you can! However, if you feel tired, experience pain or can’t maintain the correct form, then stop. That way you can avoid the risk of injuries.

What If You Can’t Hold One?

Beginners might want to try a plank on their knees. This is similar to a pushup on your knees instead of having your full weight on your toes and forearms or hands. Practice this modified plank for 10-20 seconds and as you build endurance over time, then switch to the full version. It’s based on your individual progress. However, don’t do the opposite and overtrain.

If you feel like you’re going to collapse, stop. You should feel a burn, stretch or slight shake with your muscles but don’t push to where you might fall over and injure yourself. Your strength will come in time.

What is a Plank Test?

A plank test is ideal for beginners. It gives you an idea of where you are starting from. It’s essential to do your test before any other workouts. That way you are not tired and can get a true gauge of how long you can hold a plank.

To begin the test, do a forearm plank like the one described further above. Using a stopwatch on your phone, see how long you can hold that position without sagging or arching your back.

Here are the results:

  • If you last less than 15 seconds, it’s okay. You’re new and need work.
  • If you last 15-30 seconds, that’s slightly below average so keep trying.
  • If you last 30-60 seconds, that’s average for a beginner.
  • Above 1 minute is great. Plank-you for being a friend… Planks won’t be difficult for you.
  • Above 2-5 minutes…Well, planks for coming out! You can now pass go and move onto the other plank variations.
  • Above 6 minutes. Show-off! Reward yourself as you’re already ab-fab (or your phone needs charging).

As a side note, the longest record time that a woman held a plank was 4 hours and 19 minutes. That’s about the time it takes to watch “Gettysburg” or “War and Peace.” A retired 62-year-old marine, George Hood, holds the record for men. He held the position for 8 hours and 15 minutes. Marines can also sleep sitting up so maybe he got a good nap in!

Thinking about holding a side plank? Good luck! Most people can only hold side planks for 1-2 minutes. Anything above that is quite an accomplishment!

For more exercise drills on SEEMA.com, check out The Best Back Exercises