Here's a step-by-step guide for how to do a side plank.
You'll learn the two biggest mistakes people make when doing side planks. Plus, you'll learn three powerful reasons to start doing this core exercise today (including some surprising research into scoliosis).
Before we get into how to do them.
Here's a quick metaphor for understanding why you should even do them in the first place. During the 15th century Japan had dozens of independent states waging war with one another which brought the rise of castles.
At first the castles started small but then they grew into heavily fortified structures with many layers of defense. Usually an outer moat surrounded the castle (sometimes half a mile away) and inside was a smaller moat which could still stretch three miles long. Then there were massive stone walls surrounding the castle. In fact, there was usually an inner wall, secondary wall, and third wall.
Scattered on the walls were guard towers and gates, which opened up to smaller yards which could be defended from every direction. If an army did breach both moats… and all three walls… that brought them to the base of the castle, which was another 2-5 stories to climb. One of these defenses could only do so much, but each layer combined created a strong, formidable defense system.
When you look at the core muscles wrapped around the body, they also form a defense system of sorts.
The “outer wall” consists of larger core muscles such as the abdominals, obliques and lower back (erector spinae). But then there are “inner walls” of core muscles as well. And one of the most important jobs of all these layers is to work together to protect the spine.
In fact the most important roles of the core are:
Protecting the spine from excessive load
Help transfer force from the lower body to upper body (and vice versa)
What are Side Planks? And that’s where side planks come in. They are a unique core exercise that strengthens both “outer wall” core muscles and “inner wall” core muscles, which help stabilize the spine. The vast majority of core exercises work mostly outer core muscles like the abdominals.
Strengthening the Outer and Inner Wall Side planks strengthen the obliques (which run along the side of your torso) and deep core muscles such as the TVA (transverse abdominus) and the QL (quadratus lumborum). The QL runs in your lower back from your lowest rib to the top of your pelvis. This deep core muscle helps hold you upright and stabilizes the spine when you bend to the side.
What’s important is side planks are working all of these core muscles together. According to one of the top spine experts on the planet, Stuart McGill, “It [side plank] is one of the few exercises that works to integrate the QL muscle together with the abdominal wall.”
Lower Back Health When these core muscles are firing properly (and together) they help create stability at the lower back. This stability is going to help protect your lower back when you’re shoveling… lifting a barbell off the ground… or moving furniture. In essence, the more stable your lower back is, the more it is protected from injuries.
In fact, a 2016 study found that lack of core endurance was an large predictor of generalized lower back pain.
Reduces Spinal Curvature Interestingly, research has found that side planks even help with scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine). In a small study published in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 25 subjects were told to hold a side plank for 90 seconds, 3 days per week for 3 months. The result: All subjects reduced the spinal curvature by at least 32%. In some cases, it reduced it by as much as 49.6%!
Strengthens Major Back Muscle When the side plank is done correctly, you can actually strengthen one of the largest back muscles (called the latissimus dorsi). That's because you are contracting this muscle when you keep your shoulder down during the exercise. (we'll cover this later in the article).
How to Do a Side Plank Correctly
The Side Plank Set-Up: In the video below, I’m going to show you how to set-up for the modified side plank and the regular side plank. Notice I’m not just lifting my hips off the ground. I’m pushing my hips forward and up to get into the proper position.
Modified Side Plank: Lay on your side with your elbow underneath your shoulder. Have your knees bent and your hips back. Bring your hips forward as you lift your torso. Hold this position for 10-60 seconds each side. Regular Side Plank: Lay on your side with your elbow underneath your shoulder. Have your legs straight with your top leg in front of the bottom leg. Start with the hips back. Bring your hip forward as you lift the torso. Hold this position for 10-60 seconds each side.
Two Common Side Plank Mistakes:
Mistake #1: Head forward Don’t let your head jut forward. Bring your head back with a slight chin tuck (think make a double-chin)
Mistake #2: Rounding forward Don’t let your body roll sideways. When you raise your arm it should point towards the ceiling.
How to Make Side Planks Easier
Side planks can be difficult at first, start with the modified side plank. If that is still too difficult here’s another variation to make them easier:
Wall Side Plank: Stand in a staggered stance (one foot in front of the other) and lean against the wall. Keep your body in a straight line. Don’t let the hips sag as you do so. Hold this position for 10-60 seconds each side.
Note: Just like the other variations, keep your head in a proper position (not jutting it forward). Also make sure your spine is in a straight line.
(Oh, and make sure the wall is solid. Avoid using bookshelves...dressers... or screen doors ;).)
What If My Shoulder Hurts During Side Planks?
Since you have a lot of your weight on one arm, it’s common to have shoulder discomfort during side planks. If you’ve had previous shoulder pain, be cautious with normal side planks. In fact, if you’ve had a shoulder injury in the past, you may want to avoid side planks altogether and opt for the second option below:
Option 1: Hand on Shoulder Grab the shoulder with an open hand and actively try to pack the shoulder down (opposite of shrugging your shoulders). This can stabilize the shoulder, give you more clearance at the joint, and alleviate the pressure.
Option 2: Side Lying Leg Raise: Lay on your side with one hand in front of you and a pillow underneath your head. Keep your body in a straight line and raise your legs. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat five times each side.
On the other hand, if side planks are a piece of cake and you want to crank up the intensity a few notches - here's an advanced side plank variation that will do the trick.
Advanced: How to Do a Side Plank March
Credit for this brutal variation goes to strength coach Eric Cressey. The side plank with march will challenge your obliques way more than a regular side plank. And it's going to fire up hip muscles (like the glute medius) that are crucial for knee health. Do 10-20 marches per side.
(Psychologically this variation is great too because you are counting reps instead of staring at the clock.)
Regular side plank is usually a good start for most people (if it's too difficult start with the modified or the wall side plank). It's one of the biggest bang for your buck exercises because of how many core muscles it works at once. It is not just working "outer core" muscles but "inner core" muscles as well.
Start incorporating them into your workouts. Throw them into your warm-up, master them and see how much stronger your core becomes.
By the way, side planks are just one of dozens of powerful exercises. To learn more quick workout tips and keep yourself motivated to actually follow through on your workouts - grab a free copy of my Mind-Body Breakthroughs newsletter and prepare for a monthly "coaching session in print" delicious recipes, fitness motivation and much more.