Ask a bunch of trainers to give a short list of their favorite exercises, and the plank will likely top many of them. And for good reason: While you probably pencil the plank into your routine to work your abs, those aren’t the only muscles that it’s activating.
“A plank is a really good exercise because it’s not just an abs exercise—it’s definitely a core exercise,” Heather Milton, M.S., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, tells SELF. That means along with challenging your rectus abdominis— the muscles that run along the front of your body from breastbone to pubic bone (what you probably think of as your “abs muscles”)—they also work your smaller abdominal muscles, the muscles that support your spine, and the muscles around your pelvis, like your hips and glutes.
The good news is, the plank is an equipment-free move you can do anywhere to build the functional core strength that can help you do everything from run faster to lift heavier—whether we’re talking weights at the gym or those grocery bags begging for just one trip from the car. The not-as-good news? There’s more to an effective plank than it may seem.
The forearm plank is deceptively simple. Get on your toes, prop yourself up on your forearms, and get ready to count down the time…right? Kind of, but also not exactly.
“If you are just passively hanging out on the floor on your elbows and toes, that’s technically a plank, but there is no tension involved,” Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Brookline, MA. “To lift heavy shit, you need tension, and the plank is a wonderful way of introducing that to people.”
And now for the best news: With just a few tweaks to the exercise, you can make the most of the move and get the greatest benefit from your workout—while spending less time doing it, too. Here’s what you need to know to make your forearm plank more effective.
1. Master these two moves before the plank.
You’ve likely seen planks (or variations of them) in nearly every workout class you’ve taken, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are appropriate for every fitness level, especially if you are just getting started exercising or haven’t spent much time on core work. And if you take it on before you are ready, it can up your odds of injury, says Milton. You want to build a solid core foundation before you take on the plank.
So give yourself an honest assessment: When doing a plank, do you start to feel discomfort—especially in your lower back—within 10 seconds?
“If you start to feel discomfort in less than 10 seconds, it’s probably time to backtrack from a plank and think of other exercises with some back support that are more appropriate until you are physically able to hold a plank for at least 10 seconds,” Milton explains.
One great example is the dead bug, where you lie faceup on the ground with your arms up and legs in tabletop position, before extending out your one leg and its opposite arm overhead.
“Your back gets feedback from the ground the whole time,” she says. “It’s a little more dynamic in terms of your limbs moving, but your core is staying stable.”
Once you’ve mastered the dead bug, you can move on the Pallof press, a standing, anti-rotational exercise (meaning, you’re not twisting or bending your torso) performed with a band or cable positioned to your side at roughly shoulder height. Step away from a resistance band secured to an anchor point and press it in front of you. You’ll be resisting the pull of the band, which boosts core stability.
2. Use this breathing exercise to make sure you’re actually engaging your core.
Before you take to the mat, you want to make sure you know how to breathe correctly. Sounds silly—you’ve mastered it well enough to stay alive this far, right?—but deep abdominal activation through breathing exercises is actually a huge part of maintaining an active core in moves like planks, says Milton.
Gentilcore uses this drill with his clients: Lie on your back, hands just below your rib cage, and exhale deeply. If you’re like many of his clients, your first attempt will just be a shallow exhale. No worries: Inhale through your nose, and then focus on a deep, extended, 5-10 second exhale through pursed lips. Your breath should almost end up sputtering at the end, and you should be able to feel your deep core muscles fire with your hands. Do it 10 times—you’ll feel like your core has been put to work.
“This focuses on getting their ribs down, all the air out, and they will feel the abdominals turn on,” Gentilcore says. Bonus: This is your optimal abs “brace” for any exercise: Not only are your abs firing, but in doing so, it’s creating a more stable base for you when you move into your actual exercises. You should maintain that brace during your sets.
3. Make sure you’re feeling the tension throughout your whole body.
The plank is an entire core exercise, but you have to make sure you are consciously firing up the muscles you want it to work.
“All the muscles that support the spine and the hip complexes should be active, meaning the glutes should be active, the abdominal muscles should be active, your pelvic floor should be active, even your quads are active during it,” Milton says. “So altogether, you are training multiple muscles for endurance, stability, and strength.
So how do you do it? First, make sure your form is on target: With your forearms on the ground, keep your elbows stacked directly beneath your shoulders. Your back should be flat, your toes digging into the ground, and your head and neck in a neutral position—you should be looking just between your thumbs, says Milton.
Then, work on creating that tension throughout your entire body. Resist the urge to shrug, which can make your upper body feel the fatigue before your core does, says Gentilcore. To make sure your shoulders and back muscles are down and back, think of “putting your shoulder blades in your back pocket,” he says.
Engage your core muscles by maintaining the brace created by a powerful exhale (make sure you continue to breathe in and out throughout the exercise), and think of bringing your belt buckle to your chin to make them fire even harder, Gentilcore says. Then imagine that you are bringing your toes and your elbows closer together to really feel the burn.
4. Remember: If you’re not firing up your glutes, you’re doing it wrong.
Think of cracking a walnut between your cheeks, Gentilcore says. This combination—active core, active glutes—will help your pelvis move into a more neutral position, alleviating the excessive anterior pelvic tilt (which looks like sticking your butt out) that can often show up in planks and lead to lower back pain.
To make sure your glutes don’t shirk their duty, you should warm them up before you plank. As a simple drill, Milton recommends lying faceup on a mat, squeezing one butt cheek and then the other independently so you are able to mimic that feeling when in a plank. You can also warm up with a couple sets of glute bridges or band walks, too, Gentilcore says.
5. Measure your plank in seconds, not minutes.
We’ve all heard about people who can hold their plank for minutes on end—or sometimes even hours. In fact, the Guinness World Record for the longest plank held by a woman stands (er, planks?) at 4 hours, 19 minutes, and 55 seconds.
If you’re firing up every part of your body—that full-body tension, remember?—you won’t be able to hold it for nearly that long, says Gentilcore. And that’s OK: “It isn’t about doing it for time; it is about doing it correctly,” he says.
When you focus too much on time, your form will inevitably start to break down.
“As the abdominals and hip muscles start to lose control and stability, the gravitational pull is pulling your torso toward the ground, and if you can’t maintain the strength in the muscles, then the joints are going to take on that force or that stress,” Milton explains. As a result, you can be left with low back pain after your planks.
So focus on starting small with the plank. When you’re talking full-body tension with the planks, even 10 seconds feels hard.
“The idea is, we are going to add time each week, says Gentilcore. “We will do 15 seconds next week, 20 seconds the week after, 25 seconds the week after that, maybe working up to a minute.”
6. When it’s time for a greater challenge, add variations, not time.
Once you can reach that minute mark with the plank, you’ll likely get a better core workout by training with variations of the exercise rather than holding the basic plank for a longer amount of time.
“If you can hold a plank for a minute, you’re good, let’s move on,” Gentilcore says. Milton agrees—if you can hold a plank for 60 seconds with good form, it shows that you have solid core stability and can start looking forward to plank variations to build on it even more.
This can be done by introducing more instability to the move, which challenges your core to work even harder. You can try raising one arm or one leg at first, progressing to contralateral arm and leg lifts at the same time, she says.
After that, you can add locomotion to the mix, says Genticore. Moves like bear crawls or lateral bear crawl are like planks that move, while still requiring you to maintain a rigid torso.