How to Do a Proper Plank That Works All the Right Muscles
Stronger abs without a single crunch? Yes, please. Here's how to do a plank the right way every time.
Meet the sit-up’s smarter, more effective sibling: the plank. Less than 10 minutes of planking (correctly) a few times a week flattens and strengthens the deep abdominals more effectively than a thousand crunches can, says Geralyn Coopersmith, VP of member services at Exos and the former global director of performance and fitness training for Nike.
Doing a proper plank is also a test of muscle control. Once you’re in a plank, you shouldn’t shift an inch (except, don't forget to keep breathing!). Yes, superficially, planks are key for a whittled middle, but inside, they're the key to a strong core, safe spine, and pain-free back. “Strong abs keep your spine supported,” Coopersmith says. “Think of doing planks as midsection multitasking.”
How to Do a Plank
You'll be able to do a plank correctly and safely every time to maximize this multipurpose move. With a solid plank, you'll be training your abdominals, shoulders, and triceps, as well as the glutes and quads.
Getting Into Position
1. Press your palms firmly into the floor and press up from your foundation, widening your shoulder blades until they are as far apart as possible (this engages your upper back). Think of the back of your neck lifting up toward the ceiling, while keeping your neck lengthened forward (read: don't look down). Don't let the shoulders scrunch or shrug up toward your ears.
Your arms should feel engaged, but comfortable—not as if they're about to give out.
2. Doing a plank may target the abs, but your legs should feel a little burn too. If they don't push back through your heels and push the balls of your feet into the floor. Engage your quadriceps (aka quads, aka thighs) and squeeze your glutes (butt muscles) together to activate the muscles in your lower body. Think of muscles in your butt wrapping strongly around the sit bones.
3. Speaking of gluteals, keep your booty nice and low during a plank—not lifted toward the sky. Your body should like a straight line rather than a triangle.
4. Don't forget to breathe. Just because you're challenging your muscles to sustain contraction doesn't mean your lungs should stop moving. Remember to inhale and exhale rhythmically throughout the duration of your plank. In fact, if you're not one to watch the clock—and you are one to forget to breathe—it might be helpful to time your plank by breaths in and out. So, if you're just starting out, try holding a plank for five breaths in and five breaths out before releasing.
5. Want to ensure proper plank alignment? Imagine a glass of water balancing on your lower back or a ball rolling from the nape of your neck to your heels without getting stuck in a sunken valley (meaning your collapsed lower back) along the way. Just starting out? Only hold a plank for as long as you can do it correctly and stay in this position. If that's 10 seconds—that's fine! Work your way up to a minute or more little by little. There's no point doing it if you're not doing it safely.
Photo: Henry Leutwyler
Try This Basic Plank Routine
Press your hands and knees to the floor with your back in a neutral position and wrists aligned directly under your shoulders. Gaze about one foot in front of you. Your nose should point toward the floor and the back of your neck should be parallel to the ceiling.
Extend your right leg back, with toes flexed, then bring your left leg to join it. The weight of your body should now be fully supported by your hands and toes.
Tighten your entire midsection by activating your abs, as if you were bracing for a punch to the gut—or trying to draw your navel up toward the ceiling. Lift the pelvic floor (as if trying to stop the flow of urine) to engage your super-deep ab muscles.
Hold this position for 20 to 60 seconds, remembering to breathe.
Rest. Bring your knees to the floor, then sit back on your heels, keeping your big toes touching and your knees apart. Lower your torso to let it rest on the tops of your thighs, with your forehead lightly touching the ground. Your arms should be stretched out in front of you, straight but comfortable (you may recognize this as the yoga position child's pose).
Repeat the above, doing a total of three planks. As you become stronger and doing a plank becomes easier, try holding it for longer than a minute.