The plank is a perfect exercise for the workout-from-home era: you can do it anywhere, it suits all fitness levels, and it doesn’t require any special equipment.
But it’s clear from looking around any gym, park, or Instagram Story workout: most people don’t know how to plank correctly.
Which is understandable — it’s a hard exercise to nail, especially if you’re a beginner. I first figured out the plank in a Pilates class over a decade ago, when the instructor gently rearranged my hips and suddenly I stopped feeling pain in my lower back and started feeling fire in my core.
So to help everyone fix their planks, I tracked down that same instructor: Sydney exercise physiologist and Pilates instructor Leigh Sherry, who’s worked as a fitness instructor for “twenty-something” years. She says the biggest misconception about the plank is that it’s only good for building a six-pack — in fact, it works your whole core.
“Your core is all the muscles of your torso — front, side and back. It also includes your shoulders and your hips — your glute musculature,” she says.
To clarify, by plank I mean the exercise where you’re lying face down, propped up on your forearms and toes. (This movement is also called a hover or forearm plank.) “Basically you want to set it up with elbows underneath shoulders, and hips in line with shoulders,” says Sherry, but there’s several more cues to get the most out of the exercise:
Brace your abs. “If I punch you in the tummy I want my hand to bounce off,” Sherry says.
Set your elbows directly under your shoulders. Maintain this position — don’t let your body weight drift backwards, which will tilt your hips into the air. “You’re cheating at it if you’re doing that teepee position,” Sherry laughs. If your shoulder muscles are burning: good! Sherry says that’s a normal feeling for endurance exercises like the plank, and a sign you’re building strength.
Push off the floor with your forearms, to prevent your shoulder blades from “chicken wing-ing” — but don’t push so far that you excessively curve your upper spine. “If you’re on the elbows, I’ll often talk in my classes about ‘corkscrewing’ forearms into the floor like you’re trying to separate the floor with your fists,” explains Sherry, a cue intended to protect the shoulder girdle.
Squeeze a credit card between your butt cheeks. OK, never literally do this — but it’s one of Sherry’s favourite cues to elongate and protect the lower spine.
Suck your quads up. Your quads are those big muscles in the front of your thighs. Imagine pulling them right up to the bone as you lock out your knees. Here’s some good news: because your quads will take on some of the load of gravity, squeezing them makes a plank easier. “People think it’s a cheat,” says Sherry. “‘Lazy legs’ is a really common error.”
Imagine a piece of string pulling gently through the top of your head. “Most people forget their neck when they’re in a plank and let their head hang,” Sherry explains. “Instead, gently retract the chin to elongate the back of the neck.” Your eyes should look to your thumbs, not down the length of your body. But don’t look upwards, either. “If your chin is poking out to the floor, think of how gravity will hit [that kink] in the back of your neck,” Sherry adds.
For a simple-looking exercise, all those directions might sound… overwhelming. But you don’t need to get the plank perfect the first try — Sherry suggests starting with the basics, then gradually adding improvements. “When I’m teaching people to do planks, I’ll get them to do it side-on to a mirror to check that the ear, shoulder and hip are parallel to the floor,” she says.
Lower-back pain is a very common plank complaint. To fix it, first check your hips aren’t sagging, and bring them up in line with your shoulders. Then check that (figurative) credit card: squeezing your glutes will help to elongate the curve in your lower back, especially if your lower back is a little curvier than most people’s.
And forget about trying to beat the planking world record: an astonishing eight hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds. You’re better off alternating 30-second planks with other core exercises, and I don’t think there’s much benefit holding a plank beyond two minutes.
Sherry agrees there are more time-efficient methods to increase the plank’s difficulty.
“Add movement,” she suggests: lift a heel inch from the floor, take small alternating steps out to the side, or raise an arm — all while working to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor, and maintaining your natural spine position.