You also want to make sure your hips stay level. People tend to hike up their hips or stick their butt out, almost like they’re setting out to do a downward dog yoga pose. “It’s usually because they don’t have the core strength yet to control that neutral position,” says Dorworth. (If that’s the case, focus on pulling your belly button up, which can help cue your hips into more of a posterior pelvic tilt.)
And, finally, breathe. People tend to hold their breath when they’re holding an isometric contraction, but you want to make sure you’re taking deep, regular breaths while you’re performing a plank, she says.
How long should you hold a plank?
There’s no one right answer for this, says Dorworth. The amount of time you should hold a plank has more to do with what feels challenging for you.
“For most people, a minute is going to be extremely difficult,” she says.
Start small with the plank. If you’re doing the exercise with proper plank form—with your core, glutes, and quads actively firing—it’s going to feel much harder at a shorter amount of time. You might start with just 10 seconds, gradually increasing by 5 seconds or so each week, until you can hit that minute mark, Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Brookline, MA, told SELF previously.
There is an easy answer to when you should stop the plank, though. When you notice your form is declining—say, your hips are starting to sag, or you feel your shoulders begin to round—that’s a sign that you need to end the set, says Dorworth. Take a break, rest, and try another set after.
So, like most things in the exercise world, quality matters over quantity. You want to hold the plank for as long as you can with good form. Holding it longer, with deteriorating form, is not going to bring you any benefits, and can even end up over-stressing the wrong muscles.
How can you make a plank easier—or harder?
One reason a plank is such a versatile exercise is because there are a number of plank progressions and regressions that can make it harder or easier.
Let’s say a regular forearm plank is too hard to start with. If that’s the case, you can try some easier plank variations first. Simply dropping to your knees when doing a forearm plank can help, since you’re “shortening the lever arm,” and putting less stress on your body, says Dorworth. Another option is the reverse plank. Unlike with a regular plank, where you’ll be facing down, you’ll be facing up for this one. Start by sitting on your mat. Then, lean back, placing your hands and forearms on the ground on either side of your body. Then drive your hips up toward the ceiling so your body forms a straight line from your ankles to shoulders.
There are also plank variations that can make the exercise harder. Performing a plank with your elbows or hands on a BOSU ball can make it more difficult, since your body will have to fight the unstable surface to keep steady, says Dorworth. (If you don’t have one, you can recruit a household member to give your body a few gentle nudges while you’re holding a regular plank, since this will also make your body work harder to stay still.) Moving your feet closer together will also make it harder, too.
If you’re still feeling the need for more challenge, you can take away some points of contact with the ground, which will make your muscles fire more to stay stable. This can mean raising a leg, an arm, or even one of each, says Dorworth. A side plank can also be more challenging, since not only are you taking away two points of contact with the ground, but you’re also emphasizing the muscles on the side of your body, like your obliques, a little more.
How can you use planks in your workouts?
Planks, or plank variations, are great exercises to include in your workouts one to two times a week, though if your goal is to specifically get better at them, you may want to increase that to two to three, says Dorworth.
Pencil in your planks toward the end of your workout, she says. You want to get in your big, compound moves—think squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, or rows—early in your workout, when your muscles are fresh and you’re still feeling energized.
For some extra motivation, check out this 5-minute plank workout, a 5-variation plank workout, or these 11 plank variations that double as cardio moves. And to make sure you’re making the most out of whatever variation you choose, check out this primer on how to make planks more effective.