Planks are one of those exercises that make their way into almost any core workout. And when done the right way, they have some major benefits. Plank exercises not only fire up your core, but the muscles in your shoulders and legs, too, which can help you improve your running form. Plus, planks can help you build strength and endurance—important for logging miles injury-free.
With that said, there is some room for error. When it comes to getting the biggest bang for your buck you need to know exactly how to do a plank—improper form and timing (including holding a plank too long) can mess with its benefits.
And, if done incorrectly, you risk low back injury.
Improper form includes:
- arching your back and not keeping a tight core
- allowing hips (butt) to drop of keeping core and back engaged
- looking up
So how do you actually do a proper plank—and how long should you hold one? We tapped Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., owner of TS Fitness in New York City and Stuart McGill, Ph.D., author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, to find out.
How to Do a Proper Plank
According to Tamir, the forearm plank creates the most tension in your muscles. Here, it is demonstrated by Jess Movold, certified trainer and Runners World+ Coach.
How to do it: Get into forearm plank position. Ensure your elbows on the ground directly underneath your shoulders with your feet hip-width apart. Make sure your back is flat and your head and neck are in a neutral position. Drive your elbows into the floor, and squeeze your quads, glutes, and core. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth—don’t hold your breath.
How Long Should You Hold a Plank?
You’ve probably heard different things from different people—30 seconds, two minutes, as long as you possibly can? George Hood from Chicago broke the world record for the longest plank held by a male—8:15:15. And Dana Glowacka of Montreal, Canada, holds the world record for longest plank held by a female—4:19:55. But don’t worry, you don’t need to hold a plank anywhere near that long to reap the benefits. In fact, the ideal amount of time is shorter than you might think.
“Research shows that for most people, holding a plank for one minute at a time creates a resilient torso,” McGill says. “But if you have a history of back pain, hold for 10 second increments to reduce your risk of back pain triggers.”
Tamir agrees that it’s not necessary to hold a plank for a long period of time. If you’re truly bracing all of your muscles, it can be hard for someone to hold a plank for longer than 20 seconds—and a minute at most. He recommends bursts of 20 seconds at a time.
“Long planks do more damage than good. With a four-hour plank, you’re not creating tension and strengthening your muscles—you’re just holding the position,” Tamir says. “Fitness should be about functional, real-life movements. Holding a plank for a long time isn’t functional.”
What are the benefits of plank exercises?
Both Tamir and McGill agree that adding planks into your regular cross-training routine helps to prevent injury, since they make your muscles stronger.
“Planks recruit your entire body to create tension of the core—when done right, they can be really good for keeping your back healthy and strengthening your core muscles,” Tamir says.
Planks are a core-stabilizing exercise, McGill adds, which helps you become more efficient at running fast.
“The runner is trying to create athleticism in the leg muscles that cross their hip,” McGill says. “Creating stiffness in the trunk helps move your legs.”
Not to mention, planks are a pretty basic exercise that require no extra equipment—so they’re super easy to incorporate into any workout.
What plank variations can you do?
How to do it: Start in a high plank position, with right hand holding the handle of resistance band, which is secured directly in front of you. Keeping a straight back and tight core, pull resistance band to chest or fist to ribs. Your right elbow should stay close to your side. Return to starting position and complete reps. Then repeat on left side.
Alternatively, you can use dumbbells instead of a resistance band: Begin in a high plank position with wrists under shoulders, hands holding the handles of two dumbbells. Keeping a straight back and tight core, draw right dumbbell up to right ribs. Return dumbbell to ground, and repeat on left side. Continue to alternate.
Side Plank on Forearm
Start on your side with your right forearm on the ground, forming a straight line from your head to your feet, feet stacked on top of each other. Always remember to have the elbow or hand directly under the shoulder.
By lifting the hip as high as you can, you get the most recruitment from the core. Keep you neck in neutral, and don’t go into too much extension or flexion. This is the baseline movement. For a challenge, you can stack the feet to make it harder.
For an added challenge, you can perform the move with your bottom hand on the floor rather than your forearm.
Side Plank With Hip Raise
Get into a side plank position on your right side. Make sure your shoulder is stacked above your elbow. Engage your core and slowly dip your hips and tap them on the ground. Return to plank and repeat, keeping your hips stacked the entire time. Repeat on other side.
Side Plank Reach Through
Start in a side plank with your left forearm on the floor, your elbow under your shoulder, your feet stacked, and your hips lifted so your body forms one long, straight line. Stretch your right arm up to the ceiling. This is your starting position. Draw your right hand down and reach it below your left underarm as you curl your upper body forward so your shoulders are parallel to the floor. Return to starting position. Repeat on other side.
Start in high plank position with shoulders over elbows and core engaged. Replace right hand with right elbow, then left hand with left elbow until you’re in a forearm plank position. Reverse to cine back into a high plank position. Continue to repeat, alternating the lead hand each time.