The plank is a highly effective bodyweight exercise primarily targeting the core muscles and many other muscle groups. Adding planks to your strength training routine can assist with overall stability, posture, core strength, injury prevention, and more. Learn how to perform a plank properly and the many benefits for health and fitness, and try some fun variations that will keep your core strong and your workouts challenging.
Plank Exercise Basics: What Muscles Do They Work?
Planks are a type of bodyweight exercise that involves holding a static position similar to the top of a push-up. They target a wide range of muscles, primarily focusing on the abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and the muscles of the lower back. Additionally, planks engage the shoulders, chest, upper back, and even lower body muscles, such as the quadriceps and glutes, making it a comprehensive full-body exercise. Planks have become a very popular exercise worldwide due to their versatility, convenience, safety, and effectiveness.
What are Planks Good For? Top 8 Benefits
Planks offer many benefits that make them a staple in fitness routines. There are also many variations and modifications which make them an easy exercise to start incorporating safely. Whether you're a beginner or an advanced fitness enthusiast, incorporating planks into your exercise routine can deliver many physical benefits for a stronger, more resilient body. Here is a list of just a few of the many benefits of plank exercises.
- Strengthens Your Core: Planks are a great exercise and are renowned for strengthening the entire core, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and lower back muscles. A strong core is crucial for stability, posture, and overall functional fitness.
- Increased Muscle Tone: As you engage all of your muscles during a plank, you’ll notice an increase in your muscle tone and definition in your core, shoulders, and legs over time. This is especially true once you can hold a plank for at least two to three minutes.
- Improved Balance: Many research studies have found a significant correlation between increased core strength and balance, including reducing fall risk in older adults.1
- Can Help With Breathing: The diaphragm is a muscle, and it is supported by the abdominal muscles of the core. Increasing core strength and stability, specifically with plank exercises, has been shown to help improve respiratory function and breathing rates in adults.2
- Increases Metabolic Rate: Engaging multiple muscles in a plank exercise can increase metabolic rate as your muscle mass starts to increase. This aids in more calorie burning, improved metabolism even at rest, and weight management.3
- Reduce Back Pain: Strengthening your core muscles can contribute to a reduced risk of injuries, especially those related to the lower back, as the core muscles are considered the anatomical “brace” of your spine. Strong core muscles also help protect against other muscle strain during exercise and daily activities.4,5
- Improve Flexibility: Although it may seem strange, holding a plank requires increased length of certain muscles, including the hamstrings and the arches of your feet. Depending on the plank variation, you may notice increased flexibility in these areas of your body just by holding the static position.6
- Improve Your Posture: Planks help improve your body's ability to maintain a stable and neutral spine position while using your core muscles appropriately. This can contribute to better posture and reduced risk of back pain.7
How to Do a Plank Correctly
Here is a step-by-step instruction on performing a basic plank exercise (also known as a high plank) correctly and safely.
- Starting Position: Begin by positioning yourself face down on the floor. Place your palms flat on the ground, directly beneath your shoulders. Your toes should be tucked under, and your body should be in a straight line from head to heels. This is similar to a starting push-up position.
- Initiate the movement: Make sure to start by engaging your core muscles. Gently contract your lower abdominals as if you are bracing your core (think about someone trying to punch your stomach) while at the same time lifting your pelvic floor muscles. This helps stabilize your spine and pelvis throughout the exercise. Then, use your upper body and core to push yourself into the full plank position on your hands and toes.
- Proper Alignment: To help maintain a neutral spine, engage your glutes and quads while avoiding arching or sagging in the hips and lower back. Your legs should be active with the muscles engaged but not overly tense. Keep your neck in a neutral position, aligned with your spine. Avoid looking up or letting your head hang down.
- Breathing: Breathe naturally while holding the plank so you avoid holding your breath. Focus on maintaining a steady and controlled breathing pattern while keeping your core muscles engaged.
- Hold the Position: Hold the plank position for a set time. Beginners might start with shorter durations, such as 10 to 30 seconds, while more experienced individuals can aim for longer holds. The current world record for holding a forearm plank is 9.5 hours!
- Exiting the Plank: When you're ready to finish, gently lower your knees to the ground first, then release your body from the plank position.
Remember that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to planks. It's better to hold a proper plank position for a shorter time than to compromise your form for longer. As you become more comfortable with the exercise, you can work on increasing the planks' time and difficulty to challenge your muscles continually.
Tips and Precautions to Reap the Benefits of Planks
Keep these tips and precautions in mind to reap the maximum benefits of doing planks while avoiding injuries.
- Always maintain proper form when doing plank exercises, especially as you become tired. This includes any fatigue or pains in your neck, shoulders, upper back, lower back, or lower legs.
- Start small and build gradually with the length of time you hold planks. You will be surprised how tiring planks are when you start since they are a full-body workout.
- Always warm up before doing planks or any form of physical activity to ensure your muscles and joints are lubricated for movement.
- As you get comfortable with basic planks, experiment with different variations to challenge your muscles from different angles. Side planks, forearm planks, and plank variations with leg lifts or arm reaches can provide variety and continued progress. This will help challenge your muscles in different ways to continue progressing your strength and core stability.
- Don’t forget to breathe! Breathing naturally helps supply oxygen to your muscles and keeps you relaxed.
- Take enough rest between sets, as holding planks can be intense, especially as you progress to longer holds. Short breaks between sets allow your muscles enough time to recover and maintain good form.
As always, it's advisable to consult a fitness professional or healthcare provider before adding planks or any new exercise to your routine, especially if you have any underlying health conditions, injuries, or concerns. Physical therapists, chiropractors, and personal trainers are all knowledgeable professionals in the health and fitness world to teach you proper plank form while reducing or addressing any injuries that arise.
Plank Exercise Variations
Performing basic planks in your workout routine can get boring and easy if you keep it the same. Here is a list of fun and challenging plank variations to try once you feel comfortable doing a basic plank independently.
- Forearm Plank: Instead of being on your hands, lower yourself onto your forearms while maintaining a straight line from head to heels. This variation minimizes stress on the wrists and emphasizes the core and shoulders more.
- Side Planks: Start in a standard plank position, then rotate your body to the side, balancing on one hand or forearm and the side of one foot. Stack your feet on each other and raise your top arm toward the ceiling. This variation strengthens the oblique muscles on the side of your torso.
- Plank with Leg Extensions: In a standard plank position, lift one leg off the ground while maintaining proper alignment. This variation engages the glutes and core while challenging your balance.
- Knee Touches (or Spiderman Planks): In a plank position, bring your knee toward your elbow on the same side of your body. Alternate sides in a controlled manner. This exercise targets the obliques and hip flexors.
- Plank with Hip Dips: Start in a forearm plank and gently rotate your hips to one side, lowering them toward the ground without touching it, then repeat on the other side. This variation targets the obliques and side core muscles.
- Plank with Shoulder Taps: Begin in a standard plank position and lift one hand to tap the opposite shoulder while keeping your hips stable. Alternate sides. This variation adds an element of stability challenge and engages the core and shoulder muscles.
FAQs About Plank Exercises
1. Can you do planks every day?
Incorporating planks into your daily fitness routine is safe as they are not overly taxing on your body and will not cause injuries if performed safely and properly. However, it is important to listen to your body as you may experience increased muscle soreness after doing planks. If this occurs, take a day or two off of doing plank exercises and switch to another form of strength training exercise for a different body part or switch to an aerobic workout for the day.
2. Do planks burn belly fat?
Performing planks helps engage multiple muscles in your body simultaneously, increasing the metabolic rate, or calorie burn, of your workout. You may experience weight loss or fat loss by incorporating planks into your workout; however, it will likely cause a reduction in weight and fat throughout your entire body, not just your midsection.
3. Are planks better than sit-ups for core strength?
Planks and crunches target the core differently. Planks engage multiple core muscles and emphasize stability, while sit-ups primarily work the rectus abdominis. Planks are generally considered safer for the spine and can help improve posture, making them a preferred choice for core strength by many fitness experts.
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Topics discussed in this article:
- Granacher, U., Gollhofer, A., Hortobágyi, T. et al. (2013), The Importance of Trunk Muscle Strength for Balance, Functional Performance, and Fall Prevention in Seniors: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sports Medicine; 43: 627–641. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0041-1.
- Cavaggioni, L., Ongaro, L., Zannin, E., Iaia, F. M., & Alberti, G. (2015). Effects of different core exercises on respiratory parameters and abdominal strength. Journal of physical therapy science, 27(10), 3249–3253. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.27.3249
- Park S-K, Lee K-S, Heo S-J, Jee Y-S. Effects of High Intensity Plank Exercise on Physical Fitness and Immunocyte Function in a Middle-Aged Man: A Case Report. Medicina. 2021; 57(8):845. https://doi.org/10.3390/medicina57080845
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- Choi, Jung-Hoon1,3; Kim, Da-Eun2,3; Cynn, Heon-Seock3. Comparison of Trunk Muscle Activity Between Traditional Plank Exercise and Plank Exercise With Isometric Contraction of Ankle Muscles in Subjects With Chronic Low Back Pain. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 35(9):p 2407-2413, September 2021. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003188
- Sekendiz, Betül, Cuğ, Mutlu, and Korkusuz, Feza. (2010). Effects of Swiss-Ball Core Strength Training on Strength, Endurance, Flexibility, and Balance in Sedentary Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 24(11): 3032-3040. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d82e70
- Koo D-K, Nam S-M, Kwon J-W. (2022). Immediate Effects of the Reverse Plank Exercise on Muscle Thickness and Postural Angle in Individuals with the Forward Shoulder Posture. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology; 7(4):82. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk7040082