Here's the ultimate beginner's guide to planks. Discover the right way to do them (including a quick way to check your form). And find out the 3 biggest mistakes most people make.
When I was in middle school, I thought I had a strong core.
I could crank out hundreds of sit-ups with ease and felt like I could do them all day long.
But then I did my first plank.
My body was shaking like a frightened Chihuahua after just a few seconds. I fought like crazy to hold my body up. This was a humbling experience that motivated me to fortify this weakness.
But it wasn't until years later that I realized just how beneficial this simple exercise is for the body.
So if you're a beginner with working out - this is a fantastic exercise to start with (and build from). And if you've been hitting the gym for awhile - planks can be a powerful tool for improving your workouts and building a stronger midsection.
In fact, I've known a serious powerlifter who have regretted not taking them more seriously. It took blowing out a disc in his lower back to finally put them in his routine.
Beginners Guide to Planks
Planks are a simple bodyweight exercise where you hold your torso in a static position. It’s similar to holding the top of a push-up (which we’ll get to in a moment).
Here are two BIG reasons to do planks:
#1: Strengthens the Core When most people think of the core, they think of six-pack abdominal muscles. However, this is just one of many muscles that consist of the core.
When you do planks you are strengthening core muscles that run down your back … along the outside of your midsection … and others that attach to pelvis.
When you train all of these core muscles together, it helps stabilize and protect the spine. In fact, many low back issues arise when these core muscles are unable to stabilize the spine.
#2: Stabilize the Spine Think about throwing a punch… kicking a soccer ball… picking up a box (with correct form) or hitting a golf ball. Each one of these motions involves the arms or legs moving while your midsection stays stable.
How hard you blast a soccer ball down the field is dependent on how well your core transfers force, not produces force.
That’s how our core is supposed to function in everyday activities as well. It holds us up while we are walking. It helps us maintain proper posture. Planks are simply a way to train the core for what is designed to do: stabilize the spine.
Planks for Beginners: How to Do Planks Correctly
Correct Form: Lay on your stomach with your forearms underneath you. Then raise your hips and straighten your legs so your body is in a straight line. Hold this position.
Mistake #1: Head up Make sure not to have the head looking up during the plank. This will tighten muscles in the upper back that aren’t supposed to help. Maintain a neutral head position.
Mistake #2: Head down On the flip side, don’t let your head sag either. This is not a healthy neck position and it reinforces the forward head posture which most people struggle with.
Mistake #3: Hips too high Some people tend to raise their hips too high. This will decrease the effectiveness of the exercise.
How to Check Your Form on The Plank:
Below is a fantastic video by Mike Robertson, one of the top strength coaches, sharing how to check your form on the plank along with a few other invaluable tips.
What If Planks Hurt My Back?
During planks your lower back should not be hurting or getting tight.
The motto “no pain, no gain” doesn’t apply here.
Pushing through this discomfort will not help. And the lower back tightening is not because the lower back is weak. Your core muscles (like the abdominals) should be doing the work during planks. If they are not here are a couple reasons why:
Reason #1: Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Anterior pelvic tilt is where the pelvis is tipped forward which creates a greater arch at the lower back. This is especially common in women but men have this happen as well. When the pelvis is tilted forward it compresses the spinal vertebrae and tightens the lower back muscles. This pelvic position also tends to cause…
Reason #2: Inhibited Core Muscles
When anterior pelvic tilt happens, core muscles (such as the external obliques) are lengthened and can weaken. When this happens, something has to help you stabilize when you’re holding a plank. And since the lower back is already in a position where it's contracted, it can help you.
But once again the lower back should not help.
Usually as your core gets stronger the lower back doesn’t get as involved during the plank.
So how do you relieve the lower back?
Two Ways to Relieve The Lower Back During Planks
Lift Your Hips: Simply raise the hips so they are in-line with your torso. Sometimes people have a habit of letting their hips get too low which can put greater demands on the lower back (and the vertebrae themselves). So sometimes just raising the hips does the trick. Or you may need to combine it with the next way.
Contract Your Glutes: Squeeze the glutes (butt muscles). Before we talked about how when your pelvis is in anterior tilt, your lower back tightens. When you contract the glutes it causes your pelvis to go into posterior tilt. This will put your spine in a better position and it will actually fire up the external obliques (and make the plank a heck of a lot harder). And often this will relieve the lower back as well.
When You Should Seek Assistance: If no matter what you try your lower back still hurts, then enlist the help of a physical therapist, movement specialist or chiropractor. They will be able to give you more answers as to what is going on.
If you notice that by doing the corrective techniques above that you’re able to hold a plank for a little bit longer - that’s progress! Keep at it!
The lower back tends to compensate when the core isn’t doing its job. So as it gets stronger you may notice less and less lower back discomfort.
Be patient with it and stay focused on the improvement.
How to Make Planks Easier
For some people it can be difficult to hold a plank for very long. If that’s the case here are a few options for you to start with.
1. Push-up Position: In this variation, instead of going onto your forearms go on your hands like the top of a push-up. This is typically easier because your arms are holding up less of your bodyweight.
2. Stairs: If the push-up position is still too challenging then you can put your hands on the stairs. You can start at a higher step and then as you build up your strength you can go to the step below… and keep going down until you can do them on the ground.
How Long Should You Hold Planks For?
Over the years, many spine specialists have suggested holding a plank for 60-90s. I recommend holding a 60s plank minimum before moving onto more advanced core exercises or plank variations. Here are a few ways to work up to 60s.
Climb to 60: Simply hold a plank for as long as you can. And then the next time you do them you try to beat your previous record. For instance, if the first time you hold it for 20 seconds then the next time you aim for 25 seconds. Keep bumping it up until you can hold it for the full minute.
10-Second Burst: This time hold a plank for 10 seconds, rest for a moment, and then hold another 10-second plank. Do this six times. The advantage to these short bursts is it keeps your form good and the right muscles working.
10 seconds might not sound very impressive but according to Stuart McGill, one of the leading lower back specialists on the planet, most people can get by with this.
Basically holding repeated holds of 10 seconds is best for the average person. - Stuart McGill
There are a lot of advanced core exercises floating around out there, but sometimes we need to start small and master the fundamentals. And plank is a crucial fundamental for core strength.
Start small if needed but start doing this exercise.
And remember planks are just one of dozens of powerful exercises. To learn more workout tips for maximizing your results and lasting - grab a free copy of my Mind-Body Breakthroughs newsletter and prepare for a monthly "coaching session in print" of nutrition tips, fitness motivation and much more.