Nail the Perfect Plank Every Time With These Step-by-Step Directions

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Keep your core engaged and your hips level to maintain proper plank form.
Image Credit: Hispanolistic/E+/GettyImages

The plank is a seemingly straightforward and simple balancing pose that's known for strengthening your abs. But there's more to this move than mindlessly hanging out in one position for 30 to 60 seconds.

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Here's your guide to proper plank form as well as what to watch out for as you hold yourself stable.

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  • What is a plank?‌ "A plank is an isometric core exercise held in a horizontal position, similar to a push-up, for the maximum amount of time possible," says certified personal trainer and weightlifter Mariashi Bennett, CPT. An isometric exercise, like planks, tighten or contract a muscle rather than lengthen it.
  • What are planks good for?Planks are good for helping you develop isometric core strength, which can be helpful for many things like improving posture while sitting or standing for long periods of time or giving you stability while holding or carrying heavy loads, Bennett says.
  • What muscles do planks use?‌ Even though planks primarily target your core, they're meant to be a full-body exercise. That means every muscle from head to toe is involved in keeping you hovering above the ground. "Planks are a full-body exercise that can improve stability and strength in your shoulders, core muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis and obliques) upper body (chest, triceps, lats, traps, biceps and rhomboids) and lower body (quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves)," Bennett says. So if you find your mind wandering or your form faltering, check in with your body to make sure everything is active.
  • Who can do a plank?‌ Almost anyone can perform a plank, or a variation of a plank given their fitness level. "However, those who have undergone shoulder, abdominal or hip surgeries should consult their physician before attempting this exercise," Bennett says.
  • How long should you hold a plank?‌ Beginners should start by holding a plank for about 10 to 30 seconds. A considerably fit person should aim to hold a plank for about 2 minutes. An exceptionally fit person may be able to hold a plank for 4 minutes or more, Bennett says.

How to Do a High Plank With Proper Form

Time 30 Sec
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie face down on your belly with your palms on the floor underneath your shoulders and your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
  2. Take a deep breath and press through your palms to lift yourself up into the top of a push-up position. Your body should make a straight line from your heels through your hips to the top of your head.
  3. Draw your navel toward your spine and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Look at the floor directly below your head to keep your neck in a neutral position, and breathe normally.
  5. Hold for at least 10 seconds and lower yourself back to the floor.

Tip

"Stay active when you plank," says Henry Halse, CSCS, CPT a personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist. "Rather than holding one position, start lifting your legs or reaching your arms forward. Adding these little challenges develops more core strength than staying stationary."

How to Do a Forearm Plank With Proper Form

Time 30 Sec
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
  2. Keep your forearms parallel to each other and don't clasp your hands in front of you. Doing so puts your shoulders in a potentially vulnerable position.
  3. Press into your forearms and rise up on your toes so that only your forearms and toes touch the floor. Your body should hover a few inches off the floor in a straight line from shoulders to feet.
  4. Draw your navel toward your spine and tighten your glutes.
  5. Look at the floor to keep your head in a neutral alignment, and breathe normally.
  6. Hold for at least 10 seconds before lowering yourself to the floor.

Tip

If holding a high plank hurts your wrists, try lowering to your forearms. It'll be a little more challenging because your body will be closer to parallel to the floor, but it's easier on your wrists.

How to Do a Side Plank With Proper Form

Time 15 Sec
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie on your right side with your feet stacked and your right elbow under your right shoulder, forearm along the floor.
  2. Press through your right forearm and lift your body up so that you're balancing on your right forearm and foot.
  3. Put your left hand on your hip or extend it toward the ceiling.
  4. Hold for at least 10 seconds before lowering yourself to the floor.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Tip

Once you're stable in the standard plank, you can incorporate side planks into your ab workouts. While they also strengthen your entire core, they emphasize oblique engagement, meaning they target the muscles at the sides of your torso.

Holly Perkins, CSCS, founder of Women's Strength Nation and author of ‌Lift to Get Lean‌, suggests imagining a wall behind you, and your heels, tailbone and upper back all gently touching the wall. This helps keep your body in proper alignment.

"Side planks are a few steps above the front plank in terms of difficulty," Halse says. "So don't be afraid to start with your knees bent on the ground before going to a full side plank! It takes a few tries to get the proper form."

Benefits of Planks

1. They Improve Posture

Planks can help improve your posture by strengthening your core and shoulders, and this gives you the power to sit or stand upright for long periods of time, Bennett says. Not only does having proper posture look good, but it also helps protect you from back pain, per Harvard Health Publishing.

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2. They Lessen Back Pain

If you find your back aching after sitting down at your desk all day, doing planks more often might be able to help with the pain. "Planks can reduce the risk of back pain by improving the core muscle's endurance, allowing them to alleviate stress placed on the spine," Bennett says.

In fact stabilization exercises, like planks, were found to help decrease back pain in a January 2017 meta-analysis in ?‌Physical Therapy in Sport.‌?

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3. They Boost Balance and Stability

"Planks improve balance and stability by strengthening the shoulders, back and hips, which makes you less prone to injury," Bennett says.

When your back is in proper alignment — aka you have good posture — your body weight is more evenly distributed, which reduces strain on your muscles, joints, and ligaments, per Harvard Health Publishing.

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Plank Form Tips

"Position yourself next to a mirror so that you can check your own technique," Perkins says. "If you don't have mirrors, set up your phone and record yourself from the side so you can review your own technique."

Make sure to follow these plank tips that help activate all the right muscles:

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  • Hold your head and neck in a neutral alignment — don't look forward or at your feet but rather straight down in front of your face.
  • Actively press through your hands (or forearms if you're in a low plank) and engage your upper-back muscles to press up and out of your shoulders; don't collapse your upper body toward the floor.
  • "Ensure a straight line from your shoulders to your heels, and avoid an overly arched lower back," Perkins says.
  • Draw your obliques in and your bellybutton toward your spine to keep your core stable.
  • "The biggest mistake my clients make during front planks is lowering their hips," Halse says. Lift and tilt your hips forward slightly so that your lower back doesn't arch, and keep your hips squared to the floor.
  • "Focus on truly activating your legs and butt," Perkins says. "Squeeze them with intention so as to provide a solid foundation for the rest of the plank."
  • Engage your quads to keep them lifted off the floor without locking your knees.
  • Keep your feet actively pressing into the floor without rocking back and forth on your toes.

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Side Plank Form Tips

Follow these tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your side planks:

  • Hold your head and neck in a neutral alignment. Gaze straight in front of you — not down or up — and don't let your head drop toward your shoulder.
  • Actively press through your hand (or forearm if you're in a low plank) and press up and out of your bottom shoulder.
  • "Keep your chest lifted and opened to assist in straight body alignment," Perkins says.
  • Draw your bellybutton toward your spine to keep your core stable.
  • Actively engage your obliques and gluteus medius (aka "side butt") to lift your hips so that your body is in proper alignment.
  • Keep your hips squared to the side. If you need to, feel your hips with your free hand to make sure they're not drifting forward or back.
  • "Activate your legs so that your knees are fully lengthened, but not fully locked," Perkins says. Don't bend your knees too much.
  • Keep your feet actively pressing into each other and the floor. If you need to, you can stagger your feet one in front of the other.

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Plank Modifications

1. Modified Plank on Knees

If you can't hold a high plank or forearm plank for at least 10 seconds, this is a great modification for you.

Time 30 Sec
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your forearms parallel to each other and don't clasp your hands in front of you.
  2. Bend your knees so your feet are up in the air, then press into your forearms and rise up on your knees so that only your forearms and knees touch the floor. Your body should hover a few inches off the floor in a straight line from shoulders to knees.
  3. Draw your navel toward your spine and tighten your glutes.
  4. Look at the floor to keep your head in a neutral alignment, and breathe normally.
  5. Hold for at least 10 seconds before lowering yourself to the floor.

2. Modified Side Plank

Again, if you can't hold a side plank for at least 10 seconds, feel free to modify by dropping to your knees.

Time 15 Sec
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core
  1. Lie on your right side with your feet stacked and your right elbow under your right shoulder, forearm along the floor.
  2. Bend your knees so that your feet are behind you.
  3. Press through your right forearm and lift your body up so that you're balancing on your right forearm and knee.
  4. Put your left hand on your hip or extend it toward the ceiling.
  5. Hold for at least 10 seconds before lowering yourself to the floor.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

Safety Precautions to Keep in Mind When Holding a Plank

Performing a plank with poor form can lead to pain and discomfort. Here, Bennett offers a few precautions to keep in mind the next time you're holding a plank.

  • If you're a beginner, start gradually by holding for 10 to 20 seconds, and slowly aim for longer periods of time to avoid any muscle strains.
  • Don't hold your breath while planking! Breathing steadily throughout helps make sure your muscles get an adequate amount of oxygen and helps you avoid lightheadedness.
  • Planks done on your hands (rather than your forearms) can put stress on the wrists. If you're planking on your hands, make sure to slowly warm them up and stretch them out before your exercise, and be sure to spread out your palms and fingers while planking to distribute your body weight evenly.
  • Some people may experience lower back pain while doing a plank — this is due to improper form or muscular fatigue of the core and hip muscles. To avoid lower back pain while planking, keep your body in a straight line from the top of your head through the bottom of your heels, and don't allow your hips to sag down or to pike up. "Listen to your body if you begin to fatigue and start to feel lower back pain. In that case, release your plank, take a rest and start again with proper form," Bennett says.

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