Body Exercise

How to Plank Like You Mean It

January 19, 2018
© Danil Nevsky / Stocksy United

A plank is a full- body exercise that works important muscle groups of your body.

Yes, there was a brief trend known as planking that swept the online world in 2011. But this is a different—healthier—kind of plank.

Erin Johnson, physical therapist and supervisor at the UW Medicine Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium, says that planking is one of the best exercises there is if done properly. That’s because the plank works the muscles of your core, including abdominal muscles, back muscles and muscles around the pelvis.

What is a plank?

To perform a plank, you support your own body weight on your hands and toes with your entire torso lifted off the ground. If you’re not yet strong enough to perform this classic version of the exercise, then you can support your weight on your knees instead of your toes.

A plank can be performed in many different ways. Its versatility is one of its advantages, says Johnson. “A plank can be performed by pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime, and customized to their ability level,” she says.

How do I plank?

If you are new to planking, it’s best to start out on your knees instead of your toes, says Johnson.

Lie face down on the ground with your legs fully extended, resting the weight of your lower body on your knees (or toes), which should be about hip width apart. Rest the weight of your upper body on your hands, which should be about shoulder width apart.

Make sure that your shoulders are down and back, not raised in a shrug position. This means that your right shoulder blade should tuck down toward your left back pocket and your left shoulder blade should tuck toward your right back pocket. If you drew lines from your shoulder blades to your opposite back pocket, it should create an X, says Johnson.

Your head should be in a neutral position.

“That means, looking straight ahead—neither up nor down—with your neck in alignment with your spine. Think of your neck as an extension of your upper back,” says Johnson.

Push up on your forearms, lifting your entire torso off the ground. Squeeze and hold your glutes tight. Maintain a flat plane from your upper back to your feet—a flat plane that looks like, well, a plank.

Kristen Domonell

What if my stomach hangs down when I plank?

It’s important to remember that the imaginary plank running from your head to your backside is a two-sided plank, says Johnson. Just as your back needs to be straight and firm, so should your belly side be straight and firm, too.

To accomplish a firm stomach, you need to draw your stomach up and in toward the spine. Don’t let your lower back arch or your belly drop out. These are the mistakes commonly made by those just starting out, says Johnson.

Contracting your abdominal muscles is important because doing so works muscles deep within your abdominal wall. These are the same muscles that support your back and maintain good body alignment.

“If you take the position you’re in during a plank, which is horizontal, and turn it vertical, that’s posture. And if you’re doing the plank correctly, it’s the proper posture for standing, walking and running,” says Johnson.

Does planking work my glutes?

Planks give your abdominal muscles a good workout. They do the same for the gluteal muscles, or glutes, says Johnson.

Your glutes are comprised of three muscles: gluteus maximus, one of the biggest and strongest muscles of the body, and gluteus medius and gluteus minimus—two smaller but important muscles. Your glutes are responsible for stabilizing and aligning your hips and lower back. If you lack adequate strength in these muscles, your lower back and hips are left unstable and at risk for injury.

That’s why it’s important to squeeze your gluteus muscles when doing a plank, says Johnson. You want your glutes to activate so that when you’re upright, they’re performing one of the most important jobs they have—supporting your body when you stand, she says.

The more planks you do, the more familiar you’ll become with the gluteus muscle group.

How long should I hold a plank?

Don’t obsess on how long you can hold the plank, says Johnson. “If you’re going to obsess on something, obsess on proper form.” By supporting your entire body off the ground, every single muscle of your body is working at the same time. “It’s harder than it looks,” says Johnson.

For some people, their form may falter after 10 to 15 seconds; others, well one other anyway, was able to hold a plank for eight hours. Your body should make a straight line—from the crown of your head down to your heels. Even if you can only hold the plank for a few seconds to start, it is better to perform a plank properly for a short while than to allow your form to falter, says Johnson.

Your body will naturally recruit other muscles to help out when a muscle becomes fatigued. So it really comes down to knowing your own body and being able to identify when your body starts to cheat, says Johnson.

Your low back may begin to arch or your stomach will drop. If you put your hand on your stomach, you can feel if your stomach is pulled up or if it is dropped out. And that is really the key of knowing if your core is properly engaged.

What if planking hurts?

You should never experience pain when you plank. If you do, you should check with a physical therapist or doctor, who can teach you modifications of the exercise so as to prevent injury.

“If you’re not holding the position correctly, you can actually cause harm instead of good,” says Johnson.

How often should I plank?

How frequently you plank will depend upon your goals. If you’re just looking to improve posture and reduce back pain, once a day will be plenty.

If you’ve got some more ambitious athletic goals, whether it is skiing or weightlifting, then you should do planking in addition to your traditional training for your specific sport. For example, you could do your sport-specific training in the morning and then you could do a core activity at the end of the day to reinforce it, says Johnson.

How long should I plank?

As you get better at planking, your endurance should build so that you can hold the plank position for a longer period of time. Increase the amount of time that you hold a plank in five-second increments but remember to hold the position for only as long as you can maintain proper form, says Johnson.

Once your endurance increases, hold a plank for a couple of minutes at the most. Beyond that, you’re not really getting any additional benefit, says Johnson. Time to make it more challenging!

How can I make a plank more challenging?

Once you master the original plank, there are myriad variations that increase the difficulty of the exercise. You can add weight onto your back (under the guidance of a trainer, coach or physical therapist) or put your feet or your forearms onto an exercise ball to make maintaining your balance more difficult.

You can combine exercises by doing push-ups or leg lifts from a plank position. You can even turn a plank on its side, literally, with a side plank.

You can take a plank anywhere, depending on what you want to isolate and focus on, says Johnson. “There are a million ways to make it work.”