Technique Tuesday: how to do a plank correctly

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They look oh so simple but look around any gym floor and you’ll see poor plank form. Here’s how to master the move, once and for all.

Forget fancy gym equipment and tech – sometimes, there’s nothing like a simple bodyweight exercise to really get your body trembling. 

If you get it right, the humble plank is guaranteed to get your core muscles shaking like a leaf. The best thing is, you can do a plank anywhere, any time, wearing almost anything. 

Planks also feature in lots of other body-weight exercises like push-ups, burpees and mountain climbers, so they really are worth nailing. When done correctly, you’ll work your abs, glutes, hamstrings and quads, biceps, triceps, and shoulders – it really is an all-in-one exercise. 

The idea is to stay as still as possible for as long as possible. Outside, you’re an oasis of calm…it doesn’t matter what fresh hell is going on inside after a minute or so.

Mistakes to avoid

It’s really easy during a plank to let your form collapse. Once your core gets tired, the body automatically looks to take some of the weight off your middle and into the arms - moving the position forward into the shoulders and spine. That’s exactly what you don’t want as the whole point of the move is to work your trunk.

Lots of PTs might let you get away with planking badly in classes because it’s hard to keep a tab on a room full of people, but if you’re working on your own at the gym, try to find floor space near a mirror so that you can see what your bum is doing. If you’re at home, concentrate on where you feel your body working.

If your core doesn’t feel like it’s engaged or you’re feeling discomfort in your lower back rather than tension in your bum and thighs, then you know that you’re probably not in the right position. The mind-muscle connection is real so if you concentrate on the places that you want to feel working, it really can help to switch those muscles on.

What are the benefits of planking?

“Planking is such an effective move because as well as being a low-impact way to develop core strength, your entire body is getting stronger as it is working to stabilise you in the plank position,” explains PT Hannah Lewin. 

“Because your upper body is so active in the plank position, they are also a fantastic way of improving your posture.”

Think of it as a full-body workout and a masterclass in posture. 

What muscles do planks work?

The main muscles that we’re trying to target are the abdominal muscles but you can’t switch those on unless your glutes (bum), quads, hamstrings (thigh) and scapular (shoulder) muscles are all engaged. 

No muscles in the body work alone but planking really is the perfect example of a compound pose – i.e. one which works different muscle groups at once.

Muscles worked:

Abdominals (stomach)

Erector spinae (the muscles running down the length of the spine) 

Glutes (bum)

Hamstrings (back thighs)

Quadriceps (front thighs)

Scapular (shoulder)

How to do a proper plank:

1. On a flat surface, lie with your stomach on the ground, hands under your armpits with elbows by your ribs and toes tucked under.

2. Lift yourself onto your hands and feet so that your body is one straight line parallel to the floor.

3. Make sure that your bum isn’t sticking up the air and that you’re not collapsing into your lower back. Hands are directly under shoulders, again in one straight line.

4. Imagine that you’ve got a £20 note between your bum cheeks – keep your glutes and thigh muscles engaged to stop it from flying away!

4. Brace your core by sucking your belly button in. That’ll help prevent collapsing into your lower back and will help get those ab muscles working.

5. Choose a spot slightly ahead of you to concentrate on. Your neck should be parallel to the floor.

6. Remember to breathe!

Aim for 3 x 30-second planks. Rest for a minute in between each set and slowly work your way up to 3 x 60 seconds.

Once you’re at the minute mark, why not see if you can push it even further? The new planking world record was set in February by 62-year-old former Marine, George Hood, who held a plank for 8 hours, 15 minutes, and 15 seconds. While that might be a tad excessive for most of us, the sky’s the limit for how long you want to test your staying powers.

But remember: posture is everything. If you can only do a minute plank by compromising on form, try planking for shorter periods of time and adding in more repetitions (e.g. work up to 5 x 30 seconds).

Planking for beginners

Never done a plank before? No worries – there’s one very simple way to turn make the above steps more accessible.

1. Go down onto your forearms rather than your hands

2. Remember to keep your shoulders retracted and away from your ears as it’s all too easy to collapse – which again, moves the tension away from the core which is what we’re primarily looking to exercise.

3. Lift your bum and legs up so that they’re in that crucial straight line and keep your hands and forearms flat on the floor (imagine you’re a sphynx!).

Plank variations

Not finding it challenging enough? There are any number of modifications you can make to increase or decrease the intensity.

To increase the impact:

Side plank

Lie on your right side with your right forearm flat on the floor, elbow under your shoulder and legs extended in a straight line. You can either have your left foot on the floor behind your right, or have it balancing on top – it depends on how good your balance is!

Lift your hips off the floor and hold for 30 seconds. Then switch to your left, and repeat on each side three times.

As you get stronger, you could have a go at hip dips: raising your hips up from the floor and back down while keeping your core engaged, shoulders back and legs in line.

Leg raise 

In your forearm plank position, take it in turns to raise one leg a few inches off the ground. Be sure to keep your core really engaged so that nothing else is moving apart from the lifting leg – your hips shouldn’t be twisting as you switch legs. Keep your feet flexed to switch on your leg muscles too.

Go for a minute, take a 60-second breather then go again for two more sets. It’s not about smashing out as many as possible but smooth, controlled movements.

Shoulder taps 

In your hand plank position, tap alternate shoulders while keeping the rest of your body completely still. Again, the key here is to stop the hips from rotating so you’ll need to lock those core muscles, tighten your glutes and switch on the hamstrings.

Go for a minute, take a 60-second breather then go again for two more sets.

(Pictures: Getty/Instagram)

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