Plank exercises are universally loved by tons of trainers. However, the downside to the popularity of the simple plank is that you can see it on almost every workout you try. And that can get a little boring.
The thing is, a regular old board is far from the only exercise of its kind. There are a seemingly endless number of variations on the plank, all of which have similar benefits but hit your core and shoulder muscles a little differently – a welcome change for your brain and your body.
“Trainers love planks because they are efficient, effective, and a necessary requirement for many other exercises,” Jenna Langhans, CPT, a NASM-certified personal trainer and group fitness trainer in New York City, told SELF. “I like to call them ‘home base’.” That means you may be doing posable plank exercises that you don’t even notice, such as pushups and climbers. “If you can’t do a proper plank, it becomes very difficult to try more complex or advanced movements,” says Langhans.
Yes, the first step is to master a regular board (for your information, here’s how to do it like a pro) but once you’ve done it there are so many great ways to mix it up. Here’s what planks really are, and why you should add plank exercises – of all kinds – to your exercise program.
What is a plank?
A plank is an isometric exercise where you tense your muscles and hold them in one position, Renee Peel, an NSCA-certified personal trainer, kettlebell specialist, and founder of PeelFit Training, told SELF. You don’t flex joints, and your muscles don’t lengthen or shorten. Compare that to a movement like a squat or biceps curl that involves both shortening (concentric) and lengthening (eccentric).
“I also like to refer to planks as ‘having a position,’” Peel adds. Although some plank variants add movement, in their simplest form, planks require tensing your body in one position and holding it still. Even if you add a crunch or move your feet to mess things up, you’re maintaining that isometric hold.
The two most common planks are a tall plank on the hands and a forearm plank on the forearms, Langhans says. While the plank is primarily a core exercise, it really targets many muscles at once – remember that your core includes more than just your abs. You should feel this movement primarily in your abs (the muscles that run vertically across the front of your abdomen) and transverse abdomen (the deep muscles in your abdominal wall), but also in your quads, glutes, shoulders, T-spine (upper back ) and feet, she says.
If you’re just starting out with your workout, planks will help you build strength. But at some point, their main function is to build and maintain stability in your core and shoulders. They do this by challenging the stabilizing muscles that may not get as much attention on larger lifting exercises. Stabilizer muscles are all the small muscles that keep muscles and joints stable when you perform certain movements. For example, when you’re exercising with kettlebells or a barbell and lifting weights above your head, it’s really important to be able to lock your body out and be able to stabilize under the weight, says Peel.
Stabilization muscles in your shoulders are important in keeping your arm safely in this overhead position, while the larger muscles do the brunt of the heavy lifting work. Stabilizers in your torso help keep your torso in place – and resist twisting, leaning to the side, or bending – when you do everything from lifting to running to simply bending over to your side or sitting upright with the correct posture.
What are the benefits of planks?
“Ultimately, planks are important because they’re amazing for your torso, and a strong torso means a strong body,” says Langhans.
A strong core can also reduce your risk of back pain. “Your core stabilizes your spine. So when your core is weak, your spine has to hit harder to perform tasks, ”says Langhans. “If the core is not working enough and your back is working too much over time, you may develop back problems or pain.” Therefore, if you have back pain, your trainer will likely add some core strengthening and stabilization exercises to your workout.
Similarly, planks teach you proper upright posture, which is especially important when lifting weights (or even a child or a heavy suitcase). “When you think about it, a right plank on the floor is the right upright position,” says Langhans. “Big chest, chest lowered, torso tense, shoulders relaxed away from ears, natural curvature of the spine (no excessive extension of the lower back).” It’s great to sit and stand with good posture, but it’s especially important to be able to stand in a supported position during physical activity to protect the spine, says Langhans. “A real plank trains that.”
Core stability is also the foundation of many athletic movements, Peel says, and the core stability you can gain from planks is essentially a requirement for all other types of more complex movements. So if you want to make progress in your fitness routine and want to try harder and heavier things, Planks can help you with that.
Which plank variations can you try?
All of these plank variations work similar muscles – mainly those in your core and shoulders – but in slightly different ways. For example, side planks hit your obliques more than your straight stomach. You’re still working on the core, but just from a different angle. The next time you want to add more excitement to your floorboards, try using one of these for a much-needed change.
The steps below show Erica Gibbons (GIF 1), a California-based personal trainer and graduate student who is licensed as a marriage and family therapist; Crystal Williams (GIFs 2-3, 9-10, 12), a group fitness instructor and trainer who teaches at home and commercial gyms across New York City; Cookie Janee, a background investigator and security specialist for the Air Force Reserve (GIF 4); Shauna Harrison (GIF 5), a Bay Area-based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 6), trainer at Queer Gym in Oakland, California; Kira Stokes (GIF 7), a prominent trainer; Morit Summers (GIF 8), a Brooklyn-based trainer and owner of the body-positive gym Form Fitness Brooklyn; and Amanda Wheeler (GIF 11), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength.