Planks For Your Core: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Want stronger abs and a more defined stomach? Here are 5 ways to do planks for your core to keep you strong and toned.
Decline Plank

It may look like an easy exercise, but the plank can be a beast. That beast is touted as one of the most basic and effective core exercises. However, there’s more to know about this core exercise.

Yes, it recruits multiple muscle groups — abdominals, hips, lower back, and shoulders. Yes, it can be done in many variations for many fitness levels. And yes, it is a stabilization exercise that works the core in the way you use it all day.

However, how long you can hold it is not the source of bragging rights you might think. Long-holding planks may encourage poor posture. In prior interviews with Dr. Stuart McGill, world-renowned back pain and core expert, misconceptions that occur about core exercise often contribute to injury. At the least, they have missed opportunities for better results for those of us putting in time and energy where it isn’t beneficial.

Less is More

The truth about planks and other core exercises is that less is more. Learning to turn on the muscles is often more important than holding for a long period of time. In your daily activity of living, you resist your St. Bernard pulling you or lifting that heavy bag from your trunk. You need those muscles to fire now. Whether they’re still doing so in a minute is much less important.

That means you can ignore the 9-hour+ plank record held on YouTube. It’s not your goal, and a minute may even be overkill. Try 10-second “repeats.” That is, do 10 seconds, then come down and allow the muscles to release. Then repeat for 3 or more sets. Getting the muscles to activate in the first place is far more beneficial than holding them for a minute.

How to Plan Your Plank Exercise Strategy

The upper back, neck, and shoulders are frequent problems for women. If it’s where you hold your tension, you don’t want to fire that area up. Do you ever catch yourself in a mirror, and you’re rounded? That’s called retraction, and the longer you hold a plank, chances are the more you reinforce poor posture.

Wrists and sometimes elbows are problematic for us keyboard-clicking Prime Women. During menopause, the frequency of carpal tunnel increases. That needn’t stop you from doing planks that are just as effective on your forearms.

Definitely include planks in your exercise regime. Just don’t go overboard with more is better thoughts. Follow the instructions below to set up your planks with variety and the right holds for your benefit.

How To Get Started with Plank Exercises

Come to your hands and knees and place your forearms on the ground, elbows bent 90 degrees, so your shoulders are stacked directly over your elbows. Extend your legs straight out behind you, come onto your toes, and, using your core, push through your forearms and toes to raise your legs and core off the ground. You want to try to create a straight line from your head to your feet, so pull your belly button into your spine, squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your back, and tighten your glutes as you push your heels back, explains Maggiacomo. Attempt to hold for 30 seconds. Over time, increase that to 45 or even 60 seconds. But don’t be surprised if it’s difficult at first.

Once you hit the 60- or 90-second mark, Kelvin suggests adding arm or leg movements or a dynamic component, such as sliding your feet on a towel or glider, to make your plank more challenging. Below are more plank variations to try once you’re comfortable with the basic elbow plank. Add these into your daily fitness routine — or you can even try holding a few while you’re watching television at night.

Our 5-Minute Barre series on YouTube can also help! Watch below and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more fitness videos.

Plank Exercise Variations

1. Extended Plank

plank exercise

Place your hands on the floor with your shoulders stacked directly over your hands. Extend your feet out behind you and come onto your toes. Activate your abs and glutes, and then pull your shoulders back and down and push through your feet and hands to raise your core and legs off the ground. Be sure you’re in a straight line from head to toe (or head to knees). Hold 10-second “repeats” or 30 to 60 seconds.

Modification 1: Perform this on your forearms to decrease elbow and wrist strain — especially if you have trouble with carpal tunnel syndrome. Your core does not know if it’s 6 inches or 12 off the ground. You’re still working!

Modification 2: Alternately, keep this on your knees, with your hips extended.

2. Side Plank

side plank

Lie on the ground, on either your right or left side. Depending on the side you choose, bend that elbow and place your forearm on the ground in front of you so that it is perpendicular to your upper arm. Be sure you place this elbow underneath you, slightly “too close for comfort.” When you come up, your alignment will be optimal, and you will reduce the risk of shoulder impingement. Use your other (top) arm to support you as you start. That will allow you to safely reposition if needed.

Stack your legs on top of one another. Using your core, glutes, and legs, push your forearm and bottom foot into the ground to raise your body off the ground. The body should be in line from head to toe. Your top hand can rest on your hip, reach upward toward the ceiling, or cross to the opposite shoulder. Hold 10-second repeats or 30 to 60 seconds; repeat on the other side.

Modification 1: If you’re unable to balance with your feet stacked, simply position your feet in a “scissor” position as if you’re on a balance beam.

Modification 2:  Do this on your knees with your lower legs bent at 90 degrees. It still counts!

Modification 3: Ready for more? Add a gesture leg. Do 8-10 knee raises.

3. Decline Plank

decline plank

Come into forearm plank position, but have your feet elevated on a bench or a stair. This one is more difficult for your upper body. Be sure not to let your upper back, neck, or shoulders hi-jack the exercise! This should be a core exercise rather than a shoulder exercise. Hold 10-second “repeats” or 30 to 60 seconds.

4. Extended Plank With Shoulder Taps

Plank with shoulder tap

Come into the extended plank position, hands on the floor, shoulders stacked above wrists, feet extended out behind you, body in a straight line head to toe. You’ll want your feet wider than hip-width apart for this one. Without moving your core, meaning keep your hips very still, shift your weight into your left hand as you lift your right hand off the ground and tap your left shoulder. Return your right hand back to the ground. Shift your weight into your right hand as you lift your left hand off the ground and tap your right shoulder. It’s not about speed. Keep it slow and controlled, and that is the challenge.

Continue alternating for up to 60 seconds, or stop when you lose good form.

5. Long-Lever Plank

Come to an extended plank position. Without moving the rest of your body, walk your hands or forearms forward 4 to 6 inches. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

Bottom line? Planks are good. They are not the “best” or the only thing you should do; they are a part of the complete core strength. For more examples of core exercises and why to do them, listen here. 

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5 Plank Exercises


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