“Mastering the Plank: build an iron core with this simple plank progression plan”
There’s a reason why the most basic exercises are usually the most effective ones for building strength - they are easy to master and they work. What is the first exercise that comes to mind when you think of a leg workout? I’m willing to bet the answer is Squats. And just like the bench press comes to mind when you think of training chest, the first exercise that should stand out when you think of core strength is the Plank. I’ll forgive you this once if you actually thought of crunches instead of the plank, but I guarantee it won’t happen again after I explain to you why Plank variations are the most basic AND effective tool for core training.
First off, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite fitness buzzword - core. What is the core? If you immediately said “abs” or 6-pack”, you would be on the right track, but the answer is much more complex than that. Stand up and hold one hand at your side and the other just below your chest. Basically every muscle contained in that area - front and back - are what comprise the “core”. You have the big prime movers like the abdominals, spinal erectors, glutes, obliques, etc., but there are also many smaller muscles like the abductors, psoas, and serratus that play an equally important part. The Transverse Abdominis may not show up in any ripped Instagram photos, but if yours is weak or not firing properly with the rest of your core, then your strength and stability will be compromised.
From a weightlifters prospective, the most important role of the core is to provide stability between the upper and lower body and prevent injury during heavy lifting. With this in mind, it doesn’t make much sense to train the muscles of that area individually with crunch movements or side bends. Plank variations are hands down the most effective way to build isometric strength across the entire core, and in the process, getting all of those muscles, big and small, used to working together. Today I’m going to share with you my 5 favorite plank variations, along with advanced versions of each, a variation of each that includes movement, and a progressive workout to improve your strength and endurance.
1. Traditional Plank - Also known as the forearm plank, this is the holy grail of core strength and stability. Assume a “push up position”, and keeping your body perfectly straight, lower your forearms down onto the ground. Keep your head in a neutral position (raising your head to high will strain your neck and cause your hips to drop) and your abdominals flexed. Do not make the mistake of letting your abs stretch and your hips sag, or rocking side to side. If you feel a strain along your spine it means your abs have relaxed and your position is compromised. Once you can no longer keep your body perfectly rigid, the set is done. In addition to working all of the muscles of the core, this basic variation also works the deltoids and the triceps.
Advanced Version: Plate Loaded - same position as the traditional plank, but have a partner load a plate on to your back.
Movement Variation: Band Row - assume a plank position and grab a band or cable that is at least an arms length in front of you. Pull the band to you, drawing your elbow towards your hip. This turns the plank into an “anti-rotational” movement, meaning your core is working to stabilize and resist rotation away from the unsupported side. Make sure to complete a set on each side.
2. Side Plank - Start by laying on one side, and then prop your self up onto your elbow, making sure that your feet are lined up with one on top of the other. Slowly raise your hip off the ground, tightening your obliques until your body is perfectly straight. Avoid letting your shoulders roll or twist (the easiest solution is to point your top arm straight towards the ceiling). In addition to the obliques, the side plank also stresses the abductors, delts, and lats.
Advanced version: Star or “one leg up” - Raise your top leg and hold it and your top arm towards the ceiling. This will put an enormous amount of emphasis on your gluten and hip abductor on the bottom side.
Movement Variation: Rear Delt Fly - Start in a side plank and grab a light dumbbell in your top hand. Slow perform a rear felt fly until the dumbbell is directed towards the ceiling. As the dumbbell moves, your body will have to fight rotation and strive for stability the entire time.
3. Glute Plank - Also known as a glute bridge, this version focuses on the “rear core muscles” - the glutes, low back erectors, etc., as well as the biceps of the posterior chain: the hamstrings. Start by laying sideways having only your shoulders in contact with the bench and your legs bent at 90 degrees. Flex your hamstrings, glutes, and low back, bridging up until your back is parallel to the floor.
Advanced Version: Weighted - hold a med ball or barbell across your hips.
Movement Variation: Single Leg - keep one leg extended as you drop your hips and bridge back up, squeezing and pausing at the top of each rep.
4. Neck Plank - The position on this plank is similar to the Glute Plank, except now only the back of your head is going to be in contact with the bench or a Swiss Ball. Make sure to keep your head in a neutral position and spine straight (do not bridge up onto the top of your head), and keep everything engaged from your neck down through the posterior chain. This one is definitely not for beginners and is most useful for athletes such as wrestlers or football players whose sport requires ample neck strength
Advanced Version: Plate Loaded - hold a plate or med ball on the hips and assume the plank position for no more than 5-10 seconds
Movement Variation: Anti-Rotational Band Resistance - attach a band to a rack off to the side, and once in position stretch it out and hold it above you, creating rotational force towards the band. Stay neutral and resist the band tension as it tries to turn your body. Complete a 10 second hold on each side.
5. Push Up Plank - This is the same position as the traditional version, except you keep your arms extended rather than “resting” on your forearms. This position also allows you to incorporate the pecs in much the same way as you would squeeze at the top of a bench or dumbbell press.
Advanced Version: Single Leg - slowly lift one leg by squeezing the glute on the same side. Do not let your hips raise. This will increase the tension on the hip flexors on your “post leg” and also incorporate an element of cross body instability. Aim for 10 second holds on each leg.
Movement Variation: Stability Alternates - Slowly raise one leg and the opposite side arm. Maintain balance at the top position and then alternate sides. The goal is to keep your body stable and parallel to the floor. This is excellent for building balance, symmetry and cross body stability across the entire core. Do sets of 10 on each side.
Progressive Plank Plan
from beginner to master in 4 weeks. Do the prescribed workout 3 times per week.
Circuit: 3 sets
Traditional Plank - 30-60 seconds
Side Plank - 15 seconds each side
Glute Plank - 30 seconds
- Rest - 1 minute
Circuit: 3 sets
Plank - 60-90 seconds
Side Plank - 30 seconds each side
Glute Plank - 30-60 seconds
- Rest - 1 minute
Push Up Plank Stability Alternates - 10 each side
Plank - 60 seconds
Side Plank - 40 seconds (first 10 seconds with 1 leg up) each side
Neck Plank - 10 seconds
Glute Plank - Plate Loaded, 5 x 5 second holds
Plank - 60 seconds
x 1 set each, rest 30-60 seconds between exercises
Week 4: (complete this routine only twice per week)
Side Plank w/ Rear felt Fly - 3 x 8 reps per side
Front Plank - plate loaded, 30 second hold
Front Plank - band row, 3 x 8 reps each side
-Rest 1 minute
Push Up Plank Stability Alternates - 10 each side w/3 second hold at the top of each rep
Neck Plank - 30 seconds
-Rest 1 minute
Glute Plank - Plate or Barbell Loaded 10 x 3 second holds
-rest 1 minute
Plank - max time