If you've ever taken a fitness class, it's likely that you have been asked to hold a plank at some point. Not only does a plank strengthen the abdominals, flatten the belly and tone the sides of the mid-section, but it also challenges shoulders, spine and pelvic stability, targeting muscles on the front and all the way down the back of the body, too. It's a full-body exercise for sure, and it's a great one to add to the beginning, middle or end of your workout.
Here's the catch: all of these great benefits are lost when planking is done incorrectly. For a proper plank, follow this 5-step program – we promise you'll see and feel the difference.
1. Set up.
This crucial first step will ensure your body is in the ideal position for correct muscle engagement.
Begin on all fours with the wrists under the shoulders and all ten fingers spread out. Imagine that you are pulling apart the surface beneath the hands to engage the muscles behind and between the shoulder blades.
The knees should be under the pelvis, with the feet and toes in a flexed position. The spine should be in neutral, meaning its natural curves (a small curve at the neck and one at the low back) are visible.
Your gaze should be about a foot in front of you, but be sure to keep your chin down.
2. Find deep core engagement.
Traditional ab work, such as any crunch-type move, ignores the most important muscle group of the body – the deep core. When you strengthen the deep core, you are targeting muscles that not only tone the front of the body, but also provide stability and support for the spine and pelvis. When the deep core is strong, your whole body is more powerful.
Here's a deep core engagement exercise to do on all fours, targeting a deep core muscle called the Transverse Abdmonius (TVA):
Inhale through your nose and allow the stomach muscles to relax. Exhale out your mouth and imagine pulling your belly button in and up toward your spine. You should feel a wrapping sensation of the TVA around your mid-section, cinching and lengthening at the same time, similar to a pair of Spanx or a corset.
Nothing else in the body should change with this exercise – but you should feel the spine and pelvis are more supported with the activation of the TVA.
3. Build strength with knee hovers.
This is a great exercise to build TVA strength and prepare your body for the perfect plank:
Inhale through your nose and allow the stomach muscles to relax. Exhale out your mouth and first imagine pulling your belly button in and up toward your spine, feeling the wrap of the TVA like a seat belt tightening around your waist to stabilize your spine; then, hover the knees an inch off the mat. Make sure nothing else in the body changes.
Do not sink between the shoulders – keep pushing down in the hands. Imagine there is someone shoving hot pokers up into your armpits. Also, do not shift the body weight forward. This will take the exercise out of your deep core and into the muscles of the shoulders and neck.
Inhale again through your nose, but keep the belly button pulling all the way into your spine and lower the knees back to the start position. Do 8 reps.
For an extra challenge, hold the position for 4 breaths. Make sure you continue to breathe, but do not lose abdominal connection – keep the belly button pulling in all the way to the spine. Do 2 reps.
Okay, let's do this. You have the right set-up – you know how to engage the deep core muscle, the TVA, and it feels strong from your knee hover prep.
From the all-fours set-up position, inhale through your nose and step one foot back, flex it and reach energy out your heel. Exhale out your mouth, and feel the wrap of your TVA stabilize your spine as you reach the other leg out behind you.
Your pelvis will lower. Your glutes/butt should engage. Nothing else should change.
Imagine you're zipping up a pair of jeans from your pubic bone all the way to your sternum.
You are now in the perfect plank position. You should feel your abs are engaged. The muscles behind and between the shoulder blades are working to keep you from shifting forward or sinking in the upper body. Your deep core activation is stabilizing the spine and pelvis, and you may feel the muscles around the spine tighten all the way down your back – this is a good thing, as you are strengthening important back extensor muscles. Your butt muscles are engaged to help lift and stabilize the pelvis. This is a full-body exercise – globally toning, strengthening and lengthening.
Now hold it for 8 breaths!
5. Challenge your plank.
Now that you're able to do the perfect plank, it’s time to challenge it. There are loads of ways to do this, but there is one hard and fast rule – your TVA must be activated at all times, feeling your belly button connected to your spine. If you are unable to keep good form in the challenge, stop the exercise, take a step back and continue to strengthen before trying the move again.
Here are three different moves to try:
Single leg plank: First, find your plank, and then lift and lengthen one leg at a time. Hold the leg in a hover position and breath before switching legs.
Single knee drops: Find your plank, and then drop one knee down toward the mat, then switch.
Hip dips: Find your plank, and then twist the pelvis to drop one side down toward the mat, and then switch to drop the other side. Be sure to keep the upper body strong and stable as the pelvis rotates.
p.s. Got back pain? Here's how to heal with a few pilates moves.