First there were sit-ups, then crunches, and now we have the plank. The ab exercise du jour is widely recommended by fitness professionals as the best way to strengthen the muscles around your midsection without the same risk of straining your neck you get with the other two exercises. Let’s take a closer look.
Planks belong to a category of exercises called isometric moves. These exercises require holding a steady position rather than the two-part contraction, lengthening and shortening the muscles, that occurs with isotonic moves. A few other examples of isometric exercises include wall sits and holding your arms out to the sides while grasping dumbbells. These holds are great for building strength in a particular area, but they have limitations. Wayne Westcott, an exercise science instructor at Quincy College, told ACE Fitness isometric moves aren’t the most beneficial for overall strength since you don’t get much benefit after holding a position for longer than 90 seconds, and also because you’re not going through the entire range of motion.
We’re not saying anyone should stop doing planks, just suggesting you mix things up. A few variations will help you more effectively strengthen your abs and also target other core muscles you may be neglecting, so give these five plank variations a shot.
1. Uneven plank
Even though moves that isolate one muscle group have their place, it’s always smart to include some exercises that target multiple areas at the same time. It presents a new challenge to your body and will help you speed out of the gym a bit faster. The uneven plank is one of the simplest, and most effective, moves using this approach. Instead of resting on both forearms, you’ll contract one arm to rest your hand on the floor. BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S., told Men’s Health this combines the downward phase of a push-up with a plank to target your core and triceps at the same time. The uneven position also forces your core to work harder to stabilize.
To do this move, get into the plank position with your weight resting on your forearms and your legs fully extended. Keeping your elbow as close to your body as possible, pull one arm toward you until it’s in the push-up position and your weight is resting on that hand and your other forearm. Hold the move as long as you can with good form. If your back starts to sag, it’s time to cut the hold short.
2. Two-point plank
Most have heard of the three-point plank, and the idea is very similar here. Changing to just two points of contact makes the standard plank significantly more challenging because you’ll be fighting rotational forces from two sides. But remember, only progress to this variation if you can hold a three-point plank effectively. You should be able to hold one limb off the ground while maintaining correct form for about 90 seconds before taking the next step.
Start in the standard plank position, your weight resting on your forearms and your legs fully extended. Simultaneously raise one arm and the opposite leg off the ground, extending your arm straight in front of you. Resist the urge to twist and keep your back and shoulders as flat as possible. Check out Competitor.com to get a look at the correct position.
3. Side plank with leg raise
In an effort to carve the perfect six-pack, many people don’t spend enough time strengthening the sides of their core, the obliques. These muscles help with rotational force and keeping you stable in daily life as well as athletics. Another reason to target this area? According to Livestrong, obliques are responsible for the “V” shape in the lower abs most of us are after. Basic planks don’t do a great job of targeting your obliques, though, so you have to turn the move sideways to strengthen these muscles.
If you’re used to strength training, a standard side plank may not provide enough of a challenge. Adding a leg raise makes the move more difficult and also engages your abductor and adductor muscles. Working on this area around your hip will go a long way toward reducing your risk of a groin injury.
To get into a side plank, lie on one side with your forearm resting on the ground, elbow below your shoulder. Stack your feet one on top of the other with your legs fully extended, then raise your hips off the ground, resting your weight on the side of your foot and your forearm. From here, lift your top leg until your foot is even with your hip. Hold the pose for several seconds before lowering your leg. Active recommends two to four sets of five to 15 repetitions on each side.
4. Plate transfer plank
Boredom is toxic for any exercise routine because a wandering mind nearly guarantees you won’t perform the activity as effectively as possible. This is especially true for isometric moves. A plank with great form will do a lot to help strengthen your midsection while one performed improperly will compromise your results and potentially strain your back. Adding a basic movement is one of the simplest ways to keep your mind occupied, so grab a few weights when you hit the mat.
Gather three to five weight plates or dumbbells, each around five pounds. Get into the plank position and stack the weights just to the side of you. Keeping your back flat and your core tight, lift the arm nearest the weights off the ground, pick one up, and transfer it to the other side of your body by crossing your arm in front of you. Repeat until you’ve moved all the weights, then switch arms. Men’s Journal shares a great video demonstrating this technique.
5. Stability ball plank circles
A decent fitness routine doesn’t require a ton of equipment, but a stability ball is one of the smartest investments you can make. They’re inexpensive, easy to store, and incredibly versatile. Using one for planks forces your stabilizing muscles to work harder, and you can intensify the effort even more by adding a stirring motion. Men’s Fitness likes this exercise because it strengthens all of your core muscles while building endurance and balance.
Set yourself up with a stability ball sandwiched between your forearms and the ground, keeping your legs extended as usual. Once you’re balanced, slowly move the ball in a circle using your arms. Keep your legs stable and your back flat as you perform the motion. After about 30 seconds or so, switch directions. Livestrong shares a video demonstrating the correct technique if you need a bit more guidance.