Plank Exercise: Target Muscles, and Benefits

Plank exercise

Perhaps you have heard someone talking about doing a Plank Challenge. You might have questions. Just what is it? Why are people planking? And is this something I should do?

What Is a Plank?

A plank is a simple drill designed to strengthen your core muscles and work your entire body. A stationary plank is considered an isometric exercise. In an isometric exercise, you contract your muscles, but you aren’t moving.

In other words, you hold one particular position for a set time (1). However, there are several variations we will discuss below that do involve movement.

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How to Do the Plank Position

Forearm Plank

The classic forearm plank is relatively easy to do—lay flat on the floor on your stomach. Feet should be about hip-width apart. Place your hands on either side of your shoulders. Engage the muscles around your shoulder blades and press up onto your forearms and up on your toes.

Your forearms, elbows, and toes will be supporting your body’s weight. The difficulty in the plank is not what you are doing, but how long you can hold it.

plank exercise

By holding your body in a straight line with no movement, you’ll develop strength in your core— as well as other muscle groups.

That’s how you do a plank.

Now let’s take things up a notch and learn the standard plank.

Standard Plank

Standard plank

How to Do a Plank

How to perform the standard plank in 3 steps:

  1. Step 1:

    Get down on all fours as you would do a pushup. Keep your palms flat and hands under your shoulders. Wider the shoulder-width apart. 

  2. Step 2:

    Your body should form a straight line from your head to your ankle. Contract your abs to prevent your butt from sticking or dipping. With your abs pulling in toward your spine, hold for 30-60 seconds.

  3. Step 3:

    Your body should form a straight line from your head to your ankle. Contract your abs to prevent your butt from sticking or dipping.  With your abs pulling in toward your spine, hold for 30-60 seconds.

Plank Variations

One of the other benefits to planks is that there are almost endless variations to suit your fitness levels and needs. Here are some ways to do common plank exercises:

Knee Plank – if the classic forearm plank is too challenging for your body right now, you can choose to keep your knees on the floor. Your torso and shoulders will still be building core strength. 

High Plank – The high plank is similar to the forearm position, except that your arms are straight, with your elbows locked, and palms on the floor. Keep your core tight. Think of the top of a push-up, and you have the right idea. 

Side Planks – Side planks target your side abdominals and rectus abdominis, and are great for training these muscle groups (3).

To start, lay on one side. Prop yourself up onto your forearm. Squeeze your butt and lift your hips and pelvis. Your body should be in a straight line, with your top hip towards the ceiling, and elbow in line with your shoulder. The arm on top can lay along your side body or lifted into the air to make it more challenging. You can even raise the top leg in the air to really increase the difficulty and get your obliques burning.

Knee Side Plank – If the side plank is too challenging at first, you can bend your knees and leave them on the ground as additional support. Make sure your legs are stacked, knees on top of each other. Place your hand on your hip and raise it toward the ceiling of the room. Keep tension in your glutes. 

Reverse Plank – You can also reverse this drill, and do it with your chest to the ceiling. Lay on your back on your mat with your arms behind you and push-up to the sky. Instead of being on your toes, your heels will support your weight. This option can relieve some wrist strain and is also fantastic for working those quads. 

Stability Ball – Here’s another way to change things up and strengthen your core. This one is also great for your shoulders. You can perform these variations above using a stability ball either with your forearms or palms of your hands on the ball. 

Adding a Dumbell Row – Want more? Add weight. You can hold a dumbbell in each hand while you are planking, then alternate rows, bringing the weight to your hip. The goal is to keep your hips steady, not swinging back and forth. 

Adding Movement

Another variation is to add movement to your planks. For example, you can move from the forearm to the high plank and back again. Move slowly and deliberately. 

You can also walk your plank. From a high plank, reach your right hand out to the side. Follow it with your right foot. Then, move your left hand, followed by your left foot. Again, keep your spine straight and not sagging—this a slow, controlled movement for balance. To prevent injury, don’t try to speed through this. 

The Mountain Climber is a way to add cardio movement. From the high plank, bring one knee to your elbow, touching your toe to the floor, then move your leg back. Repeat on the other side. You are only moving your feet, so you can do these quickly. And as your fitness increases, you can increase the number of reps. 

Common Plank Mistakes

When you do a plank, your body should be in a straight line, which means don’t let your back, glutes, or head sag towards the floor. Keep your core nice and tight. Allowing your back or neck sag puts you at risk for aches or back pain later on. You don’t want a sore back! Likewise, don’t let your hips get too high or arch your back.

Also, make sure to keep your gaze neutral. Your eyes should focus on a spot just a little way in front of you. People tend to lift their heads to stare at the wall in front of them, pinching their neck. 

Your shoulders should be right above your wrists. If your hands are too far out in front of you, this can cause a lot of strain on the body. 

One more tip – remember to breathe! Many people tend to hold their breath while in position. That is not what you want. Breathe deep into your rib cage. 

How Long Should a Beginner Hold a Plank?

For best results, a beginner should start with a plank hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Once your form starts to deteriorate, stop. As your core strength grows, you can extend that time in 10 to 15-second increments. 

The Final Word

Planks are great for improving balance and core health. And plank challenges can be a lot of fun to do with friends. If you are looking for some simple movements that offer a lot of benefits, give these a try.

  1. Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Trunk Muscle Activity during Different Variations of the Supine Plank Exercise.” Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, Churchill Livingstone, 31 Jan. 2017,
  2. Edward R. Laskowski, M.D. “Are Isometric Exercises Good for Strength Training?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 Mar. 2020,
  3. Kim, Soo-Yong, et al. “Comparison of EMG Activity on Abdominal Muscles during Plank Exercise with Unilateral and Bilateral Additional Isometric Hip Adduction.” Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, Elsevier, 11 May 2016,
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