Fitness professionals universally considered the plank to be the ultimate core exercise. Sit ups use to get all the hype, but people now know the Plank is KING. It is a core exercise for strength and stability, but it also works many other muscles like your shoulders, back, chest, arms, legs and glutes! The plank is highly versatile. There are countless plank variations to make them easier or harder. Not only does this help you continue improving core strength and stability, but it also keeps things fresh. You can get a total body workout in with just planks thanks to all the variations. And to top it all off, you can do planks anywhere. All you need is your body and a floor! Overall, the plank is easily one of the best exercises you can do, and we are talking about in all of fitness, not just for core workouts.
In this post, we are going to tell you everything you need to know about planks, which includes how to do them, the muscles worked, benefits, how to test your core strength with planks, how often you should do planks, and why you should switch things up with different plank variations. After all that, we are going to show you 29 of our favorite plank variations, all of which have a simple difficulty rating of easy, medium, and hard.
Let’s get into it…
It probably safe to say that everyone knows what a plank is, nevertheless, let’s start there as there might be more to it than you think…
A plank, which is also known as an abdominal bridge or front hold, is an isometric core strength exercise that entails maintaining a strict stomach down, perpendicular position (similar to a push-up position) for an allotted time.
Although there are many variations of front planks, there are two main types, the forearm plank (on your forearms) and the standard plank (on your hands with arms extended). These are also called a low plank and a high plank, respectively.
How to do a Plank:
Get into a push-up position with your back straight and your hips, neck, and head in a neutral position. Keep your core, glutes, and legs tight and hold the position. For the standard plank, your palms will be to the floor directly under your shoulder with your arms extended. For the forearm plank, your elbows will be aligned with your shoulders, at shoulder-width, and your forearms resting on the floor pointing forward.
What plank position is hardest?
Between the standard extended plank and the forearm plank, the standard plank is harder. However, the forearm plank targets your core better. In any case, you should be doing both. Not to mention, other plank variations that we will be discussing further below.
A lot of people don’t do planks correctly. When you plank, you should be keeping your entire body tight, engaging all of the muscles. This will not only make the exercise more difficult, but it will make it more effective too. So, if you are doing a plank with correct form, you will pretty much be working your entire body in an isometric fashion, which is great for strength.
But, since that is kind of a cop out answer, let’s get specific...
Of course, this is primarily a core exercise, so the primary muscles being worked during planks are your core muscles, which include your erector spinae, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis.
Then, you have secondary muscles being worked, which are considered stabilizers for the plank. These include your traps, rhomboids, deltoids, rotator cuff, pecs, serratus anterior, glutes, and quads.
When thinking of a plank, you likely imagine the forearm (front) plank first. But, let’s not forget the side plank, which, like the front plank, virtually everyone on the planet knows what it is. The regular plank is for your front and back side of your core and the side plank, as the name suggest, is for the sides of your core.
Like the regular, forward-facing plank, the side plank have two main variations - on the hands with arms extended and on the forearm. The extended side plank is more difficult.
How to do a side plank?
Get on your side. Stack your feet together, with the working side’s foot on the bottom. Place your working side’s forearm directly under your shoulder and then raise your hips up until your body makes a straight line from your neck to your legs. Your hips should be in a neutral position, as should your neck and head. Hold the position and be sure to keep everything tight.
Note: This is the standard side plank. There are other variations, some easier, some harder.
The side plank is generally more difficult than regular planks. However, it should not be overlooked when working on planks, even as a beginner, as there is no better exercise for the obliques.
What muscles do side planks work?
Side planks work your external and internal obliques mainly, but they also target your transverse abdominis and your side glutes (gluteus medius and minimus). It will also be challenging for your shoulders as you will be using just one arm to hold yourself up comparing to the regular plank which uses both arms. The other stabilizer muscles are your gluteus maximus, quads, and hamstrings.
All in all, if you want to build well-rounded core strength, you need to do both side and front planks. The other plank variations are great, but these are the essentials.
Then why do we need more plank variations?
Plank variations are great for both beginners and advanced trainees.
For beginners, there are plank variations that are easier than the front plank and side plank. These are called plank regressions.
They are also important for when the standard and side plank become easy. At first, these exercise are very difficult, and you can work your way up to longer holds, but at some points they will get much easier (even when you are fully bracing your muscles). This is great because that means your core got stronger. However, you will likely want to continue advancing your core strength, and it’s not ideal to spend so much time holding a plank. Let’s be efficient with our training, right? That’s where more advanced plank variations come into play. When you do a plank progression, you will be challenging your core in new ways and you won’t have to hold a front or side plank for minutes on end just to get an effective core workout in.
The obvious benefit of planks is that you will build core strength and stability. However, we can dig deeper into the benefits, as we think you will be motivated by how much you can gain for both sports/fitness and daily life by performing planks on a regular basis. This is a type of exercise with many benefits…
Besides the benefits that planks will give you physically, planks are great because they are easily modifiable, so you can make them easier or harder by doing different variations, and, planks can be done anywhere at anytime. After all, you just need your body!
Are planks better than sit ups?
Yes, planks are more effective than sit ups for a few reasons. First of all, planks target more muscles. They will hit your front, sides, and back of your core, whereas sit ups really just target your abs. Second, the repeated flexing motion of the spine that occurs with sit ups squeezes the discs of the spine, which can potentially lead to disc herniation and back pain. With planks, your spine is in a perfectly safe position. Of course, there are more advanced variations of the plank that may flex the spine, but its not the same as sit ups where you do so many on end just to get a decent ab workout in.
All in all, planks are safer and more effective for core strength, stability and even definition. Just make sure you have good form so you are actually targeting your core properly. It’s not difficult to have good form, just keep tight and make sure you feel the muscles burning!
Planks are one of those exercises that you can do every day. However, if you are sore, you need to let your body recover. Essentially, you should be training your core, with planks and other exercises, when the muscles are fully recovered. That may be every other day or every two days. It really depends on how frequently you train your core with planks. Overtime, your core (and your mind) will get used to planks and you won’t become sore like you use to, which means you can do them everyday if you wanted. That said, we recommend that you do more advanced plank variations if and when you reach this point.
So, to sum it up, do planks whenever you are full recovered (you will know because your core is not sore anymore). And if your core workouts are becoming too easy, make things more difficult with plank progression exercises.
How many minutes should you plank a day?
It depends on your fitness level. For beginners, aim to do 6 sets of planks for 30-45 seconds each. This is a good starting point. You may not be able to hold the plank for that long, but work towards it. If you can’t, do several sets of 20 seconds. Once your form starts breaking down, call it a day.
Note: Be sure to do side planks too! You can do 3 sets of front planks and 3 sets of side planks (3 sets each side).
A good core plank workout for beginners could look like this:
3 sets of forearm plank (30 seconds each)
3 sets of side planks (30 seconds each side)
Doesn’t sounds like a long time does it? Well, if you are truly bracing your muscles as you should, 30 seconds is going to feel like a very long time. Remember, it’s not about how long you hold, it’s about how much your muscles are engaged. If you are holding the position but not engaging your muscles it won’t be effective. It’s much better to do a proper 20 second plank than a loose 1 minute plank.****
Feel free to mix in other core exercises if you’d like.
Now, if you lack the strength to do a regular plank (high or low) for at least 20 seconds, then do an easier plank variation (i.e. do the plank on your knees rather than your toes). Below we have 29 plank variations, some of which are regression exercises from the front and side plank for those who can’t perform them properly. Make note of the difficulty level when we run through them.
For those who have a high core strength level, mix in harder plank variations and test your core strength in new ways. You have been doing core long enough that we don’t need to tell you how many minutes or sets you should be doing per day. This is all based on your individual strength level.
Overall, you will know when your core has had enough. Do a session of planks/core until your form is no longer what it should be. Once you reach that point, it’s time to stop. That may be 5 minutes for some and 20 minutes for others.
Be sure not to overtrain, but also push yourself and feel the burn. After you finish a core session, you will know if it was a good one or not, as your core will feel hot, pumped and well worked.
The plank is an easy way to test your core strength. It is very straightforward to see where you measure up with others.
To test yourself, your core must be fresh, so don’t do this after a core workout.
Get into a forearm front plank position and time yourself. That’s it! See how long you can hold it with good form. As soon as you drop out of position, record your time.
Here is a general assessment:
Very Poor: < 15 seconds
Poor: 15-30 seconds
Below average: 30-60 seconds
Average: 1-2 minutes
Above average: 2-4 minutes
Very good: 4-6 minutes
Excellent: > 6 minutes
For reference, the longest elbow plank ever is 4 hours and 19 minutes by a woman (May 2019) and for a man 8 hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds (Feb 2020). The man was a 62-year old Marine named George Hood!
Side Plank Test
It’s harder to hold side planks for a long time as you are on one arm. On average, 1 minute holds are good, and anything above 2 minutes is very excellent.
ARE YOU REALLY DOING THE PLANK PROPERLY!?
Here’s the thing about the max holds, people are usually just doing their best to keep in position. However, if you are doing planks correctly, meaning you are truly bracing all of your muscles, even someone who would be in the excellent category, wouldn't be able to hold the position for so long. So, when doing your plank workouts, don’t worry about how long. Worry about fully engaging your core muscles and stop if your form breaks down. It's likely that your mind will give up before your body though!
While it is good to see what your max hold is, you should always be training in the most effective way. That means very good form, which also means less hold time. Just like lifting very heavy with squats, don’t let your ego get the best of you. If you are really squeezing your core and the guy or gal to the left of you isn’t, stop before them and remember your set was more effective than theirs!
If you are really in the above average or higher category, a plank workout with variations would be ideal. However, even within that workout, you could finish it off with a standard plank max hold.
SWITCH THINGS UPS!
Even if your plank is not “excellent”, you don’t want to get bored with your core training. Doing the same plank position all the time will not only become easier, but it will become stale as well. Switch up your core workout by doing different plank variations. This will keep things fresh and fun. You will challenge yourself in new ways and you will be targeting your core differently. This is what training is all about. This is how you progressively strengthen your core and how you keep your body guessing.
That said, don’t forget about standard planks and side planks. Always come back to them and throw them in the mix too!
So, now that we’ve attempted to make our point about why you should be doing plank variations, it’s time to check out some of our favorite ones!
Here are all of the same plank variations above, but in picture format...
Knee Plank [Easiest Front Plank]
Knee Plank (Hands) [Easy]
Plank (Elbows) [Medium]
Standard Plank (Hands) [Medium]
Side Plank (Knees & Elbow) [Easiest Side Plank]
Side Plank (Knee & Elbow) [Easy]
Side Plank (Elbow) [Medium]
Standard Side Plank [Medium]
Side Plank w/ Leg Up [Hard]
Side Plank w/ Rotational Reach [Medium]
Knee Taps [Medium]
Alt. Knee Taps [Medium]
Toe Taps [Hard]
Body Saw [Hard]
Step to Quad [Medium]
Jump to Quad [Medium]
Knee to Elbow (Inside) [Medium]
Knee to Elbow (Outside) [Hard]
Mountain Climbers [Medium]
Plank Up Down [Medium]
Plank w/ Reach [Medium/Hard]
Bird Dog [Hard]
Shoulder Taps [Medium]
Quad Shoulder Taps [Medium]
Plank Jacks [Medium]
Quad Plank w/ Adductions [Hard]
Quad Walk [Medium]
Quad Lateral Walk aka The Moving Panther [Medium]
Plank Lateral Walk [Medium]
1. Forearm Plank x 30-45 seconds
2. Side Plank x 30 seconds each side
3. Toe Taps x 8-10 each side
4. Side Plank w/ Rotational Reach x 10 each side
5. Mountain Climbers x 30 seconds
6. Standard Plank x 30-60 seconds
Feel free to adjust the exercises for your difficulty level.
Remember, the difficulty of a plank will be determined by how effectively you are bracing and engaging your muscles. If you are loose, anything will be easier. Make sure to fully engage and keep tension and all of these exercises will be effective!
Have questions about planks? Feel free to contact us.
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