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Fact checked by Tyler DiGiovanni, BSBMFACT CHECKED
November 16, 2022
Fitness professionals universally consider the plank to be the ultimate core exercise. Sit ups used 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!
What's more, the plank is highly versatile. There are countless variations of planks to make them easier or harder. Not only does this help you to 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 (weight lifting included), not just for core workouts.
In this post, we are going to tell you everything you need to know about planks, which includes:
Let’s get into it…
It probably safe to say that everyone knows what a plank is, nevertheless, let’s start here as there might be more to it than you think…
A standard plank, which is also known as an abdominal bridge or front hold, is an isometric core strength exercise that entails maintaining a strict push-up like position for an allotted time.
However, there are actually many types of planks. One thing they all have in common is they are core isometric exercises, which means you hold a position that challenges your core strength.
To start, we are going to cover the standard front plank (high and low) and side plank position, and then we will get into all the other variations.
Although there are many variations of the front plank (and planks in general), there are two main types: The forearm plank position (on your forearms - as seen above) and the full plank position (on your hands with arms extended - as seen below). These are also called a low plank and a high plank position, respectively. The standard version of both will require you to be on the balls of your feet, with your knees off the ground, hips elevated, and your legs to spine aligned.
While the high plank and low plank positions are very similar and both work the core effectively, there are some differences to note.
The high plank involves the shoulders and triceps more, as well as the glutes and hip flexors as you need to hold them higher. Conversely, the low plank is more core-focused as your torso is more parallel with the floor. Because of this, most people find the low plank to be harder on the core, and the high plank easier on the core but harder as a whole.
We recommend incorporating both plank exercise variations into your workout routine. Each has its advantage and are worth doing for overall core and total body strength.
If you have the correct plank form, you will pretty much be working your entire body in an isometric fashion (isometric = muscle contraction without movement).
Be that as it may, it is still primarily a core exercise. As such, the primary muscles being worked during planks are your core muscles, which includes your rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, hip flexors, and erector spinae.
Then, you have secondary muscles being worked, which are considered stabilizers for the plank. These include your traps, rhomboids, deltoids, rotator cuff, pecs, triceps, serratus anterior, glutes, and quads.
Let’s not forget about the side plank. We've all done this one in gym class!
Where the regular plank works the front and back side of your core, the side plank (as the name suggest) is for the sides of your core. So, by doing the front plank and side plank, you'll be covering your core strength from all angles.
Like the forward-facing plank, the side plank has two main variations - on your hand with arm extended and on your forearm. The extended side plank is more difficult on the upper body, whereas the forearm side plank is more targeted to the obliques.
When comparing side planks and front planks, the side plank is harder. However, it should not be overlooked as a beginner, as there is no better exercise for the obliques. Moreover, there are easier variations of the side plank for beginners, which we will teach you further below.
Side planks main target are the external and internal obliques, but they also target your transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, hip abductors, and glutes. 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 planks and front planks. The other planks are great, but these are the essentials.
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 extremely versatile, which is why there are so many types of planks. You can modify planks in many ways. You can make planks easier or harder by doing different plank variations or changing your starting position. Moreover, planks can be done anywhere at anytime. After all, you just need your own body weight!
A lot of people don’t do planks correctly, especially when aiming for a max hold. It's very common for people to sacrifice form just to get more time. The most common form mistakes with planks are a lack of muscle engagement (especially not bracing the core), rounding of the back, and not keeping the hips lifted in a neutral position.
When you plank, you should be keeping your whole body tight, contracting all of the muscles, and your body should make a straight line from neck to spine to legs.
By using good plank form, you will not only make the exercise more difficult, but it will make it more effective and efficient too. So, when doing your plank workouts, don’t worry about how long someone else is holding or what your friend told you his/her max hold time is. Worry about fully keeping your core engaged and stop when you can no long maintain proper form.
P.S. It's likely that your mind will give up before your body - push yourself!
P.P.S. If you are testing a maximum plank hold time, then it's ok if your form gets a little sloppy just to keep going. However, when it comes to actual workouts, this is simply not effective for core training. The goal is to get the best core activation, not the longest time.
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.
Front Plank Test: Get into a forearm plank position and time yourself. That’s it! See how long you can hold it with proper plank form. As soon as you drop out of position, record your time.
Here is a general assessment:
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.
The plank is a versatile exercise with many variations that are great for beginners, intermediates, and advanced trainees. You can make planks easier or harder, or simply just different (as to target different muscles or fitness goals).
Even if your plank test result 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 and less effective, but it will also become stale. So, switch up your core workouts as necessary by doing different plank variations.
Our goal here is to help you keep your core and ab workouts fresh and fun. We want you to challenge yourself in new ways. This is how you progressively strengthen your core and keep your body guessing.
That said, don’t forget about standard planks and side planks. Keep them in the mix too!
Ok, now that we’ve attempted to make our point about why you should be doing different types of planks, it’s time to check out some of our favorite ones!
Here are all of the same variations above in picture format...
A good core plank workout for beginners could look like this:
Note: 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 forearm plank on your knees rather than with your legs straight).
Feel free to mix other core exercises into your plank ab workout if you’d like too.
As for more advanced trainees, you can try a harder plank variation workout like this:
Feel free to adjust the exercises for your difficulty level.
To wrap this up, let's cover some common questions about planks...
Yes, planks are more effective than sit ups for a few reasons. First of all, planks target more muscles. They will hit the front, sides, and back of your core (not to mention all the other muscles like your shoulders, glutes, and quads), 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 over time, which can potentially lead to disc herniation and back pain.
Conversely, the neutral spine position of the plank is perfectly safe. Of course, there are more advanced variations of plank exercises that may flex the spine (like the plank crunch), 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 more of a total body exercise, and they are safer and more effective for core strength and stability. Just make sure you have good form so you are actually targeting your core properly.
Related: Planks vs Crunches
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.
Over time, your core muscles (and your mind) will get used to planks and you won’t become sore like you used to, which means you can do them more often or even every day if you wanted. However, we recommend that you do more advanced plank variations if and when you reach this point.
So, to sum it up, you can do planks whenever you are fully 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.
It depends on your fitness level. If you are truly bracing your muscles as you should, 30-60 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 contracting your muscles, it won’t be as effective. It’s much better to do a proper 20 second plank than a loose and floppy 1 minute plank.
For beginners, aim to do 3-6 sets of the traditional plank 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.
Also, be sure to do side planks too! You can do 2-3 sets of front planks and 2 sets of side planks (3 sets each side). The other variations can be employed as you see necessary.
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.
Traditional planks are not a very high calorie burning exercise. On average you'll burn 2-5 calories per minute. For reference, burpees burn around 8-15 calories per minute, running around 10-20 calories per minute, and squats around 8 calories per minute.
Of course, calorie burn will depend on your age, gender, weight, and the intensity of the exercise. If you are doing a hard plank variation, then you'll burn more than the average.
At first, plank exercises 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 a new way, so you won’t have to hold the plank position for minutes on end just to get an effective core workout in.
Once you can do 1 minute proper plank holds for sets, it's time to increase the difficulty. You can also do regular planks for longer or max holds, but a plank workout with harder plank variations would be ideal for progressive overload and workout efficiency.
There are many difficult plank variations. It will depend on the individual. What's hard for you might not be as hard for someone else. That said, some of the hardest plank moves are:
Remember, the difficulty of a plank will be determined by how effectively you are bracing and engaging your muscles. If you are loose, it will be easier. Make sure to fully engage and keep tension and all of these exercises will be effective!
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