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How to Do a Plank: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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A strong core is essential for overall fitness and stability. One of the most effective exercises to build core strength is the plank. In this article, we will cover the proper form for a plank, introduce several variations, and highlight common mistakes to help you maximize the benefits of this versatile exercise.

Proper Plank Form: The Foundation

Before diving into variations, it is crucial to master the basic plank form. Follow these steps to ensure correct alignment and engagement of your core muscles:

  1. Position your hands: Start by placing your hands directly under your shoulders, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be flat on the ground, and your fingers spread for additional stability.
  2. Engage your core: Tuck your pelvis slightly and brace your abdominal muscles. This will help maintain a neutral spine and prevent your lower back from sagging.
  3. Straighten your legs: Extend your legs behind you with your feet hip-width apart. Press your toes into the ground, ensuring that your heels, hips, and head are aligned in a straight line.
  4. Focus on your form: Keep your head and neck neutral, gazing at the floor just in front of your hands. Remember to breathe steadily throughout the exercise.
  5. Hold the position: Maintain this position for the desired duration, working up to longer holds as you build strength.

Variations to Keep Things Interesting

Once you have mastered the basic plank, consider incorporating these variations to challenge your core muscles and prevent boredom:

Forearm Plank

This variation reduces the strain on your wrists and shoulders. Instead of supporting yourself on your hands, rest on your forearms with your elbows directly under your shoulders.

  1. Getting Started: Start on all fours with your forearms and toes on the ground. Your elbows should be directly under your shoulders, and your forearms should be parallel to each other.
  2. Straighten your legs: Straighten your legs behind you and lift your body off the ground, balancing on your forearms and toes.
  3. Engage your core: Pull your belly in towards your spine, and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Maintain your form: Keep your neck in a neutral position, looking down at the ground between your forearms.
  5. Hold the position: Aim for 30 seconds to 1 minute or longer if you can. Remember to breathe deeply and evenly.
  6. Finish: To release the plank, gently lower your knees to the ground and rest in Child's Pose or a seated position for a few breaths.

Side Plank

The side plank is an excellent exercise for targeting your obliques, the muscles on the sides of your abdomen.

  1. Start in a basic plank position: Begin as you would for a standard plank, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your body in a straight line.
  2. Shift your weight to one side: Slowly rotate your body to one side, balancing on one hand and the side of one foot. Your top foot can either rest on your bottom foot or be placed slightly in front for added stability.
  3. Raise your opposite arm: Extend your free arm towards the sky, keeping your shoulders and hips stacked. Hold this position for the desired duration before switching to the other side.

Repeat the side plank on the other side for several sets, with breaks in between as needed. With regular practice, you'll build strength in your oblique muscles and be able to hold the pose for longer periods of time. To make the side plank more challenging, you can lift your top leg or arm, or perform hip dips or rotations.

Reverse Plank

The reverse plank, also known as the tabletop pose, is an exercise that targets your core, glutes, and upper body muscles. Here are the steps to do a reverse plank:

  1. Sit on the ground with your legs extended in front of you.
  2. Place your hands behind your hips with your fingers pointing towards your feet.
  3. Press your palms and feet into the ground, and lift your hips off the ground, coming into a reverse tabletop position. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels.
  4. Engage your core muscles by pulling your belly button towards your spine, and squeeze your glutes.
  5. Keep your neck in a neutral position, looking forward or slightly up.
  6. Hold the position for as long as you can, aiming for 30 seconds to 1 minute or longer if you can. Remember to breathe deeply and evenly.
  7. To release the pose, gently lower your hips back down to the ground.

Single-Leg Plank

The single leg plank is a challenging variation of the traditional plank exercise that targets the core muscles while also engaging the stabilizers in the hips and lower body. To perform this exercise, assume the standard plank position with your elbows bent and forearms resting on the ground, body aligned in a straight line from head to heels. Then, slowly lift one leg off the ground, maintaining a straight line and keeping the foot flexed. Hold this position for the desired amount of time before lowering the leg and repeating on the opposite side. This advanced plank variation not only strengthens the core muscles but also helps improve balance, stability, and coordination.

The Benefits of Shorter Plank Sets in Exercise Routines

Incorporating planks into exercise routines is a widely acknowledged method for improving core strength and stability. While many people opt for a single 30-second or longer plank, recent studies suggest that performing shorter planks in multiple sets can be equally beneficial. In this article, we will explore the advantages of these shorter plank sets and discuss safety precautions and frequently asked questions related to this exercise.

Shorter Plank Sets for Enhanced Core Strength

Performing 10- to 15-second planks, followed by a 30-second rest, and completing three to five sets can offer significant benefits for overall core strength. This approach ensures that the total time spent in a plank position during an exercise session does not exceed 60 seconds. By breaking the exercise into shorter intervals, individuals can maintain proper form and reduce the risk of muscle strain or injury. Additionally, these shorter sets can help maximize the benefits of the exercise by focusing on quality over quantity.

Safety and Precautions for Plank Exercises

As with any exercise, it is essential to be aware of the potential risks and ensure proper precautions are taken. Planks should not be performed by individuals with shoulder injuries, as this exercise places significant stress on the shoulder joints. If shoulder pain is experienced during the plank, the exercise should be stopped immediately.

Pregnant individuals should consult their doctor or physical therapist before performing planks, as there may be concerns about placing stress on the abdominal wall. Modifications such as side planks or incline planks might be recommended in these cases.

Frequently Asked Questions About Plank Exercises

  1. What muscles do planks target?

Plank exercises primarily target the entire core, with a particular focus on the rectus abdominis. Additionally, planks engage the abdominal muscles that extend from the pelvis along the spine and up to the shoulder girdle.

  1. How many calories are burned during plank exercises?

The number of calories burned during planking depends on factors such as an individual's weight and the duration of the plank. On average, a 150-pound person can expect to burn approximately 3 to 4 calories per minute while holding a plank.

  1. What are the benefits of incorporating planks into an exercise routine?

Planks are an excellent way to build core strength and stability, which in turn can improve balance and coordination in daily activities. A strong core not only supports other athletic and physical activities but can also help protect the lower back from injury.

Final Thoughts

Planks are a fantastic exercise for numerous reasons, offering a myriad of benefits to individuals of all fitness levels. As a compound movement, planks engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including the core, glutes, shoulders, and back, which promotes functional strength, flexibility, and stability. By consistently practicing planks, individuals can expect improved posture, reduced risk of injury, and enhanced athletic performance. Furthermore, planks are highly adaptable and can be easily modified to suit varying abilities, making them an inclusive and accessible exercise. Finally, their simplicity and lack of equipment requirements allow planks to be performed virtually anywhere, making them an ideal addition to any workout routine including home fitness.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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