The Plank has dethroned traditional sit-ups and crunches as the new king of core exercise. If one of your goals is a stronger core, there’s no better move than a Plank. The core is more than just your 6 pack abs, it’s all of the muscles that make up the center of the body, including the shoulders and glutes. If done correctly, the plank creates tension throughout the whole body, strengthening the major muscle groups just by stabilizing and holding the position.
Be the Plank
It’s called a plank because that’s the goal: to form a straight line from head to heels, as if you were standing upright with your arms out in front of you. While that sounds simple, it’s surprisingly tough to keep each and every part of the body engaged in its specific role. Watch the video or read through for my take on the right way to do a plank, from hand to head to toe.
In a traditional high plank, your contact points to the ground are the hands and feet, as opposed to a low plank where the forearms and feet are on the ground. Either one works, but I usually recommend practicing the high plank which makes it a bit easier to add on progressions and eventually move on to the pushup.
Some people tend to shift away from the high plank because of pain or discomfort in the wrists or shoulders. If this pain continues or gets worse, it may be caused by underlying issues which should be checked out by a medical professional. However, it can be just a result of putting the hands out too far in front of the shoulders which puts a lot of stress on the wrists. Try bringing the hands right under the shoulders, or even a little bit further back, making everything a bit more steady, stable, and hopefully pain free.
Everything in the body, including the hands, should be active as you plank. Extend your fingers forward, evenly spreading the pressure across the length of each finger and the fingertips. The fingertips should turn white if you’re doing it right.
In a high plank, it’s important to keep the arms straight without locking out the elbows. Keeping the elbows soft and the muscles in the arms engaged prevents the arms from hyperextending backwards, which can put unwanted pressure on the joints. Mobility is good, but hypermobility can lead to injury over time. Keeping the elbows slightly bent forces the arms to do the work, rather than settling into the joint.
Once your arms are set up, locking into the shoulders ties things together with the rest of the body. We shouldn’t feel any pain or discomfort in the shoulders if we’ve set up the hands and arms correctly. The next step here is to try to sink into the shoulder blades, bringing them flat against the back rather than winging and sticking up at the sides. This can be a tricky move and it’s a great thing to practice sitting or standing up, reaching forward and pulling back from the scapula.
Keeping the spine in line is key to keeping pressure and pain off of the neck. Rather than looking up from the base of the head, or looking way down at the feet, try tucking the chin and looking up from the chest. Think of giving yourself a double chin, super attractive, and then puffing up the chest through the arms just a little bit.
The hips are what really brings all of this together, and is the section that most of my newer clients have the hardest time mastering. For those who don’t know the glutes are the muscles that form the butt, and are some of the main muscles responsible for keeping us upright. As a result, they should be some of the strongest muscles in the body but because most of our days are spent sitting down, the hip flexors tighten up and the glutes weaken. This makes it harder to stay upright with our hips forward, and harder to really activate the glutes.
If you keep your hips bent in the plank, you don’t get the desired effect of pressure spreading evenly across the body and strengthening the core. Try not to stick your butt up and back; you don’t want to be like Kim Kardashian here … although I’m sure she’s actually a really good person. Just remember, it’s a workout not a twerkout.
To make the plank work the way it’s supposed to, you have to open up your hips and really push them forward, while still engaging the abs and keeping the back nice and straight. Tilting the hips backwards is the secret to any ab workout, including the plank. You can do this by squeezing the glutes as if you have a $100 bill between your butt cheeks that you really don’t want to let go of. Keep crunching down on your abs bringing your hip bones and your rib bones closer together. If you did it right, you’ll instantly feel all of that strength in your abs and butt.
Continuing down the kinetic chain from the hips, engaging the entirety of the legs is key to reinforce core strength. Straightening out the legs but still keeping the knees soft and not locked out, sets you up in the perfect plank. By further squeezing all of the muscles in the front and back of the legs, that terrific tension is maintained throughout the body. Your glutes, quads, and hamstrings should be screaming at this point!
The feet are often neglected in a plank, but we know better than that. Work to push off through the toes, bringing your heels directly over the toes, pushing the whole body forward. This charges up the muscles of the legs even more, forcing the calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes to engage just a little bit more.
Yes, this is a lot to think about, and none of this is easy. Many people have to work to improve at least one of these areas, and some need to build strength across all of them. But don’t get discouraged, this is why you’re here: to build strength and endurance, and better yourself in any way you can.
Keep practicing in front of a mirror, use your phone to take a photo or video of yourself doing it, or sign up for a session with an awesome Fitness Trainer to really nail down this core move. Hold it for as long as you can while keeping up as good form as you can. Start with 5 seconds and work to go for longer each time, and keep setting longer goals. Keep working, keep improving, and keep having fun!