Precision is something seriously missing in most exercise programs these days.
Many exercises are performed without precision in form which in some cases is dangerous. But in other cases it makes the exercise less optimal. Planks are a perfect example. They are a tremendous exercise for many reasons. But there are additional ways to “supercharge” them to activate even more muscle groups and take your core strength to the next level. In this article we’ll explore some of those ways to “supercharge” your planks along with some things to avoid.
2 Plank Variations to Stop
Before we get into the ways to supercharge your planks, I want to point out two common mistakes. Sometimes the best choice of action is not what to add but what to remove. This is especially important because you want to clean up these two problems before moving onto the more advanced plank variations coming up.
I see these two mistakes all the time, not just in gyms but in magazines and popular fitness websites as well. These can make planks less effective and they may lead to problems down the road. So if all you do is stop doing planks in these ways, they will instantly improve the exercise.
Mistake #1: Head up
Mistake #2: Head down
Here’s What Happens When You Do This:
A 2019 study published in PNF and Movement found that Head Up Plank caused higher levels of upper trapezius activation (this is the large muscle that runs from your neck to the top of your shoulders). If you’ve ever had a massage here, you know how tight and stiff this muscle can get. This is not a muscle you want to get tighter – especially because it can lead to neck dysfunction. Plus, this muscle is not supposed to help us stabilize in a plank. On the other hand, in this study the Head Down Plank significantly increased abdominal activity.
So is the Head Down Plank Variation a good option?
Even though it did increase abdominal activity, higher muscle activation does not offset improper alignment. Most people live in a forward head posture because of all the sitting they do. So if your head is down during a plank, you are in essence reinforcing this faulty neck position which can lead to some serious problems down the road. Overall, sticking to a neutral neck position for planks (and most exercises) seems to be the safest and it reinforces proper neck position.
Correct Form: Slightly tuck your chin with your back in a straight line. Allow slight curvature at the lower back and hold this position.
7 Powerful Plank Variations
Now that we’ve taken care of those common problems, let’s jump to some ways to supercharge your planks. These are easy ways to enhance this exercise and I’ll include some of the research on these variations.
Legs Wide Plank
When people do planks, sometimes you’ll see their feet in a narrow stance. Other times, you’ll see them with a wider base. Here’s what happens when you spread your legs out during a plank.
Legs Wide Plank:
Years ago, I would have thought legs wide would activate fewer muscle groups than the regular plank position. But that’s not what the research has found. Studies have found the Legs Wide Plank had significantly higher abdominal and internal oblique activation compared to the neutral leg position. This gives you a glimpse into how subtle modifications in form can made a big difference.
Long Lever and Pelvic Tilt Planks
Besides bringing the legs out, you can also adjust your body position. With regular planks, usually your arms are underneath you. But what happens when you change this? Or when you adjust your pelvis during the plank? I’ll warn you these are much more difficult than the previous variation.
In the first variation known as Long Lever Plank you hold the plank with your arms out even further in front of you creating a “longer lever”.
In the second variation, Long Lever, Posterior Tilt you combine the “longer lever” position while also tilting your pelvis backward (think: squeezing the glutes).
Research: A 2014 study published in Sports Biomechanics found that compared to regular planks, the Long Lever Plank had significantly higher activation of the upper abdominals and lower abdominals. However, the Long Lever, Posterior Tilt was superior. It had significantly higher activation of the upper abdominals, lower abdominals, and external obliques!
Contract Your Inner Thighs
These next two plank variations fire things up even more. Because it’s one thing to hold a plank and it’s a totally different animal to hold a plank while also contracting certain muscles at the same time.
In the first variation, you squeeze both legs together at the same time (called bilateral hip adduction.)
In the second, you squeeze just one leg against the other (called unilateral hip adduction).
Research: A 2016 study in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology found that regular planks had the lowest abdominal activity compared to these other two variations. However, it was the single leg squeeze that activated the internal oblique, external oblique, and abdominals significantly more compared to squeezing both legs together at the same time.
Flex Your Calves & Shins
If the other variations weren’t good enough, here’s my favorite of the bunch. At first glance, the next two seem the same. But they require you to contract drastically different muscle groups in the lower leg. Try these out and feel the difference for yourself. The first variation is called Plank with Plantarflexion where you hold a plank and think about contracting your calves or pushing your toes away from you (like going on your tippy toes).
The second plank variation is called Plank with Dorsiflexion where you hold a plank and think about pulling your toes towards your knees. You should feel the front of your shins (called tibialis anterior) contract when you do this.
Research: A 2019 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found Plank with Dorsiflexion was superior for activating the core. It had significantly higher activation in the abdominals, external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominis (this deep core muscle is extremely important for stabilizing the lower back. Studies show dysfunction in this muscle is linked to lower back pain.) Why? Several studies have found that the muscles involved with lifting the foot up (dorsiflexion) are connected to the core muscles. When you contract these shin muscles, your inner core muscles (including the transverse abdominis) light up.
So Which Plank Variation is The Best?
Looking back at all of these, you may think that the one that activates the most muscle groups is the best. But the truth is each one of these planks has a time and place.
Some people have been doing excessive amounts of sit-ups and crunches all their life. They usually have overdeveloped abdominals which can literally pull their ribcage down. They also tend to have dominant internal obliques and weaker external obliques. This dominance of the abdominals and internal obliques can interfere with how their core stabilizes (and protects) the spine. For them focusing on plank variations that target the external obliques are going to be the most appropriate.
Another example would be if someone has tight hip adductors (inner thigh muscles). If this is the case, they may need to stay away from the plank variations that involve squeezing the legs together because these muscles are already overactive.
Each is a tool. And a case can be made for using each one of these for different situations. The important thing is figuring out which ones are most appropriate for you and progressing from there.
The Notorious Hard Plank Variation
Years ago, at a functional movement clinic I was introduced to a variation of plank that puts almost all the other ones to shame. It’s called the hard plank. The other plank variations are a great start. In fact, you’ll find pieces of them in this exercise. But once you have a handle on them, this will be another high-powered plank variation to put to the test. Don’t be surprised if within 10-15 seconds you’re struggling to hold this plank.
How to do the hard plank Hold a normal plank but this time you will progressively contract more… and more muscle groups during the exercise. This will intensify the exercise immediately and fire up the core much much more. The challenge is to hold all of these muscles at the same time.
Step 1: Hold a normal plank
Step 2: Squeeze your glutes (butt muscles)
Step 3: Squeeze your quads (by straightening your legs)