There is perhaps no exercise that provides more benefits with less movement than the classic plank. Maximum returns for minimum movement is the plank’s business, and business is good.
All you have to do is hold the plank for as long as you can and you’ll strengthen all kinds of muscles, with the abs in particular feeling the burn.
It sounds simple enough, but once you adopt the position you’ll quickly realise that staying there for anything longer than 20 seconds is an arm-shaking, core-quaking ordeal.
Benefits Of The Plank
Master the plank and you’ll have a core so tough even Jules Verne wouldn’t contemplate travelling to the centre of it. The plank strengthens and tones an array of muscles found all over your body, including your shoulders, arms, lower back and rump, but the primary target is the abs, which really feel the squeeze.
There’s even a free mental workout chucked in too, because your willpower is tested by the challenge of staying perfectly still for as long as possible.
How To Do A Perfect Plank
The plank is all about posture. Your weight should be on the balls of your feet and your elbows, with your hands locked together in front. Keep your back and hips aligned so you form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Brace your abdominals, and don’t raise or lower those hips. That’s cheating. Struggling? If even adopting the position proves impossible, start with your knees on the ground. Once you can hold this bent-knee plank for two minutes, get back on those toes.
How Long Should You Hold A Plank?
This question is the topic of more debate than you would have thought, with many people suggesting that holding a plank for as long as possible is pointless. These people include Stuart McGill, emeritus professor of spine biometrics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who suggests three short bursts of ten-second planks is best if you must do them at all (he recommends the bird dog, side plank and sit-up as better exercises).
Other criticisms include the suggestion that most people aren’t engaging the core properly or holding the correct position when they shoot for time goals. This is definitely something to consider when you check out our rough guide to plank times below, because if you can only make a minute by letting your hips drop or raising them too high, then it’s not worth holding it that long. Do it right and judge when to stop by how you feel, not an arbitrary time goal.
Speaking of arbitrary time goals, here are some great ones for the plank, plus a couple of truly ridiculous plank holds from record holders.
- 30sec – novice
- 1min – average
- 1min 30sec – good
- 2min – very good
- 3min – excellent
- 5min – plank master
- 8hr 1min – the official Guinness World Record for the plank, set by Chinese policeman Mao Weidong in May 2016. He went head to head with past record holder and US Marine veteran George Hood, who called it quits at 7hr 40min. Imagine holding a plank for that long only to finish second – you’d either never want to plank again, or be absolutely determined to go and reclaim that record. We wonder which one George Hood opted for?
- 10hr 10min – He opted to break the record by over two hours. It’s not on the Guinness World Record website yet, but 60-year-old Hood held the plank for this absurd length of time at a YMCA in Downers Grove, Illinois, in June 2018 to raise money for a Chicago charity that helps kids exposed to violence, so we felt this feat deserved a mention.
18 Killer Plank Variations
The plank is a fine move, but for the experienced trainee it swiftly reaches the point of diminishing returns. It’s like any other move – you might start with a humble 20kg on the bench press, but once that becomes easy you’d ramp up the weight rather than just increasing the reps. Your rule of thumb? Once you can hold a strict plank for two minutes, it’s time to upgrade to something tougher.
1. Super plank
First, make sure your basic plank’s up to scratch: abs tight, glutes tensed, body perfectly straight… then make it harder. “Bring your elbows out in front a little, then as you brace everything, drive your elbows into the floor,” says Joe Lightfoot, founder of Results Inc gym. “Feel your lats and abs engage. Quality, not quantity, should be your focus.”
2. Sandbag drag
Get into a normal plank with a sandbag slightly ahead of you and to one side. Then use one arm to drag it across your body. Switch arms and drag it back. “You can also use a small stack of plates,” says Lightfoot. “Transfer them all to one side, then move them back.”
3. Side plank
The side plank has a different training effect from the standard plank: it places significant stress on a portion of the posterior abdominals known as the quadratus lumborum. Don’t be put off by the Latin – stimulating this small, neglected muscle prevents a lot of lower back pain. To perform the move, lie on your side with one forearm directly below your shoulder, then raise your hips until your body is in a straight line from head to feet.
4. Star side plank
This is a tougher variation of the side plank that enhances its benefits in strengthening the quadratus lumborum. From an elevated plank position with hands positioned under your shoulders and arms extended, twist your body to raise one arm until it’s pointing at the ceiling, then lift your upper leg as well. At this point all four limbs will be extended so you form a star shape. Star-shape-ish, at any rate. You can also do the star side plank while supporting yourself on your forearm like you do with the regular side plank for a slightly easier variation of the exercise.
Flip your standard plank over so you’re looking at the ceiling and you’ll help to strengthen your back. When your form’s spot on, the hamstrings, glutes and abdominals will feel the benefit too. The key is in keeping your body straight at all times.
This one adds instability and co-ordination to the mix. “Start in a regular plank position and move from being on your elbows to your hands,” says trainer Adam Wakefield. “Moving one arm at a time, try to place your hand where your elbow was, then reverse the process.” For extra triceps work, add in a press-up between reps.
7. Plank jack
The plank jack combines two age-old favourites, mashing up the plank and the jumping jack. Adding this to your routine will carve a tremendously strong core, plus it can be useful to chuck into a cardio circuit because it’ll keep your heart rate high.
8. Body saw
You’ll need sliders or a pair of towels and a hard, slightly slippy surface to pull off the minimal side-to-side movement required for this tricky variation that provides extra stimulation of the abs. The movement may be slight, but boy will you feel it.
The superman plank is a staple move in strength and conditioning programmes because it teaches mobility and co-ordination. It gives your abs a right kicking, too. When you lift one arm, you should raise the alternate leg, holding for a moment, then repeat on the opposing sides.
10. RKC plank
The Russian Kettlebell Challenge plank doesn’t use a kettlebell. No, we don’t know why either, but we do know it’s double hard. In the typical plank position, retract your shoulder blades to engage the upper traps; all the while, your glutes should be slightly elevated and squeezed. This one’s all about maintaining tension – and keeping your muscles from shaking too violently.
11. Russian press-up
This one strengthens your triceps – and if you’re working on muscle-ups, it’ll improve the transition from pull-up to dip. “Do a press-up, but at the bottom of the rep, lower yourself onto your forearms – then drive back up,” says Wakefield. “You’ll get some of the movement from pressing forwards with your toes, but try to minimise it.”
12. Renegade plank
If you’ve tried a renegade row, you know that the demand on your abs is highest when the dumbbell leaves the floor. Enhance the effect with a pair of benches: set up with your forearms on one and feet on another, then pick a dumbbell up from the floor with one hand and hold for time. Your obliques will thank you later.
13. Stir the pot
You’ll need a gym ball for this one. “Get into a plank position with your forearms on the ball, then move the ball in a circular motion while keeping your hips as still as possible,” says Wakefield. “Do five to ten reps in one direction, then switch directions. The slower you go, the better.” Your abs will be worked from unexpected angles.
14. Rope wave
Battle ropes aren’t just for all-out smashing – they’ll add core control to your plank too. “Assume the position, then grab a rope with one hand,” says W10 Performance trainer Olli Foxley. “Slam the rope up and down while keeping the rest of your body as still as possible.” Try three sets of ten seconds.
15. The Hand Walkout
As well as being a core-wrecker and a hamstring-tester, the hand walkout is the baby sibling of the barbell roll-out – one of the gym’s finest showoff moves. Start from standing: put your hands on the ground close to your toes and walk out past the press-up position until you’re as stretched as possible. Walk back in. That’s one rep – aim for three sets of five.
16. Add weight
This couldn’t be simpler. A weight plate will work, but without a training partner it’s impractical – instead, wear a weighted vest or wrap some chains (your gym has those, right?) around yourself.
17. Alternating shoulder tap plank
Assume a regular plank position. Keeping your hips square to the floor, tap your left shoulder with your right hand, then return it to the start position and repeat on the opposite side with your left hand. Aim to complete 15-20 reps on each side.
18. Plank to downward-facing dog toe taps
Start in an elevated plank position with hands positioned under your shoulders and arms extended. Push through your hands to move your torso backwards while raising your hips so you end up in an inverted V position. Then tap your right foot with your left hand and return to the plank position. Repeat the movement but this time tap your left foot with your right hand. The twisting motion of the exercise helps to work the abs from different angles, and by moving into the downward-facing dog position you get a free bonus in the form of stretching the muscles on the backs of your legs, especially your calves.