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More Training Info > Plank Variations
By C.W. Schurman, MS, CSCS
The Plank is an effective exercise you can do to stabilize the entire core region and strengthen the obliques, abdominals and lower back, along with muscles in the torso and legs, but it is important that you learn to do it and its variations properly, both to keep your lower back safe, and to get the most out of the exercise. For form tips on how to get it right, and for plenty of advanced options to add to your repertoire, read more about the 10 plank variations below.
Nearly all the exercises described below can be performed on your knees at first, then progressed to toes as your core strength and endurance increases.
- Elbow/Knee Planks: Start face down on a mat with body weight evenly distributed between your elbows and knees. Keep your abdominals held tight to support the lower back, and keep your head aligned with the spine by looking directly down at your clasped hands without dropping head forward. Build up to being able to hold this static position for 30 seconds before attempting version 2. Complete 3 holds of 30 seconds with 1 minute rest or stretching (i.e. child�s pose is a good option) in between sets.
- Elbow/Toe Planks: Start face down on a mat with weight evenly distributed between your elbows and toes. Keep your abdominals held tight to support the lower back, and hold your body in a straight line from the shoulders down to the toes. You can pike your hips up just slightly to take any pressure off the lower back, but do not allow the hips to sag which would cause hyperextension in the back. Keep head neutral, looking directly at your clasped hands. Build up to being able to hold this static position for 30 seconds before moving to version 3. Complete 3 holds of 30 seconds with 1 minute rest or stretching in between sets.
- Hand/Knee Planks: Start face down on a mat with weight evenly distributed between your hands and knees, in what is commonly referred to as a modified pushup position. If you experienced any discomfort in the shoulders in version 1 you may actually find this to be a more natural and comfortable position, especially if you have any shoulder issues, in which case simply start with this version. Focus your eyes on a spot midway between your hands and slightly forward to keep spine in neutral alignment. Hold abdominals tight so the back remains supported, and keep your body in a straight line from head to knees. Build up to being able to hold this static position for 30 seconds before moving to version 4. Build up to 3 holds of 30 seconds with 1 minute rest or stretching between sets.
- Hand/Toe Planks: Start face down on a mat with weight evenly distributed between your hands and toes, in what is commonly known as the end or starting position of a pushup. Keep head in alignment with the spine and keep a straight line from heels through shoulders and head. Extend out and upward from the shoulders so the entire core is engaged without any sagging into the shoulder joints, and when you need to take a break you can slowly lower to your knees or pike your hips up into the yoga position known as Downward Dog, with your chest pressing back toward thighs, heels pressing down to the floor, and hips up toward ceiling. Build up to being able to hold this static pushup position for 30 seconds before moving to version 5. Build up to 3 holds of 30 seconds with 1 minute rest or stretching between sets.
- Hand/Shins on Ball Planks: This option is excellent for the smaller stabilizer muscles in the abdominals, obliques and lower back, as your legs are resting on top of the wobbly surface of a stability ball. Get into position with knees, shins or toes on the ball. The farther away the ball is from your core, the more challenging this exercise becomes; you may find it easier to start with the ball at thighs or knees and gradually move the ball outward toward toes. Keep your abdominals tight, pelvis tucked, and hips slightly elevated to protect the lower back. Since the feet are elevated, more of the working load is placed on triceps, chest and shoulders, so it helps condition upper body muscles as well. Build up to being able to hold this static position for 20-30 seconds or more before moving to version 6. Build up to 2-3 holds of 30-45 seconds with 1 minute rest or stretching between sets. You can also try bringing your knees into the chest (called pushup ball roll-ins) as another exercise variation.
- Elbow Circles on Ball / Toe Planks: Here is another good option that incorporates obliques as well as abdominals and lower back. Begin by placing forearms on top of the ball while you remain on your knees. Take a deep breath, contract the abdominals firmly, and come up on your toes, arms held together tightly on the ball. Make 4-6 small, slow circles in each direction with your elbows, feeling the obliques fire as you rotate your arms. Be sure not to make too large a circle or you will be turning the exercise into an upper body strengthener instead. Aim for 3 sets of 6-8 circles in each direction with 45 seconds of stretching / rest between sets.
One tip for each of the following 4 exercises: in order to get a good grip with your feet, either perform them barefoot on a yoga mat or in athletic shoes on rubber mats. Socks on hardwood floors will be next to impossible for anyone but the most balanced athlete!
- Walking Planks: On hands and knees, keeping abdominals tight to support lower back, fix either the hands or the feet in place, fairly close together. Shift so that you are on hands and toes. Alternately walk one hand out 2-3 inches and then the other, then march them back in together and hold (out, out, in, in, hold); continue in this manner, challenging obliques, abdominals, triceps, chest, shoulders and lower back muscles simultaneously. If you fix your hands in place, position them fairly close together to increase stability. Raise one leg up in the air a few inches (this engages hamstrings and glutes) and slowly replace it to the floor, then the other; or, as in hand marching, walk feet a few inches apart, then back together again. Build to marching hands or feet for 3 sets of a minute each. You can also do this in round-the-world fashion, alternating hand marching with feet marching to a count of 8.
- Side Planks: Begin as for #4, but instead of holding a still position, rotate your whole torso and raise one arm up toward the ceiling, keeping hips high and coming onto one hand and both feet, either stacking one leg on top of the other or placing the top leg foot slightly forward of the other leg for better balance. Hold that position for 1-2 seconds, then slowly and controlled rotate back down to starting position and raise the other arm to rotate to the opposite side. Complete 8 rotations to each side and build to 3 sets with a minute of rest in between.
- Around the World Planks: Start as in #4 but making sure shoulders are directly over hands and toes are about 18 inches apart. Brace yourself by making sure abdominals are tight. One limb at a time, lift first arm, second arm, second leg, and first leg, traveling �around the world.� Be sure to keep strict form throughout, and do not allow body to shift over to one shoulder or hip as you remove the fourth point of contact from the floor. This exercise is difficult to master, but it is also great for concentration and integration of many muscles working simultaneously. Build up to 4-5 cycles all the way around (16-20 movements) and 3 sets with a minute rest between. As a training aid, try to balance a tennis ball or orange on your lower back without it shifting side to side as you move arms or legs.
- Reverse Planks: This is the only plank variation in this article that has you facing upward. Start from a seated position, legs extended in front of you, hands slightly behind and outside your hips. With straight arms, slowly lift your hips until your body is in a straight line from heels to shoulders, head and body in alignment. If you experience any shoulder discomfort, stop the exercise. To add difficulty, bend one leg slightly and lift the other leg, giving the hamstrings, lower back and glutes an added challenge. Hold 5-8 seconds, then repeat with other leg. Complete 3-5 repetitions as a set, then rest 1 minute before performing another set.
With these examples in mind, you can probably add countless variations to your own plank routine to get the most out of your core workouts. By putting hands or feet up on an aerobic step or ball, you can increase the intensity for both core and upper body; by adding a light workout vest or ankle weights to your legs, you can also increase the challenge to core and to glutes and hamstrings as well. Add one or two to each strength workout and rotate through them every three weeks or so as you master one and need increasing challenge. Happy training!