If you want to want to strengthen your core while also protecting your spine then side planks may be one of the most important exercises to do.
That’s because they strengthen ‘outer core’ muscles like your obliques while also targeting ‘deep core’ muscles like the TVA and QL (the deepest core muscle of them all). In essence, they build your midsection while keeping your spine healthy.
In fact, a 2014 study published in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine found that this simple exercise reduced spinal curvature by at least 32% in patients with scoliosis.
Another 2011 study published in Human Movement Sciences found that men who could hold a side plank for less than 83 seconds and women who could hold it for less than 64 seconds were much more likely to have back pain while standing.
With all this attention on side planks, there have been many variations that have spun off of them.
Some of them good. Some of them bad. Some of them ugly.
Takes Your Core Strength to the Next Level Your body eventually gets used to the workouts that you do. At first, holding a side plank for 10s may be challenging- but eventually it won’t be. When this happens, if you want to continue improving your core strength, you’ll have to challenge these muscles even more. Holding the side plank for longer is one option or you can find ways to challenge it in different ways.
Trains Dynamic Core Stabilization When you hold a static position (like a side plank) this is known as pure stabilization. This is an important level of core training. But once this is mastered, the next step is dynamic stabilization where you hold a static position while your arm or leg is moving. When your limbs are moving, it tends to be more challenging to stabilize your core.
Keeps Your Core Training Engaging Many people don’t find much excitement in holding a plank for a minute straight. With these side plank variations, they can allow you to switch things up while also challenging other muscle groups at the same time. Plus, with these variations the focus is not on how long you hold the plank but how many repetitions you do. This psychology is different because you can control how long you do the exercise instead of being at the mercy of a clock.
What Are Side Plank Variations?
Search online and you’ll find hundreds of variations for about every exercise under the sun. The creativity that people have with creating exercises is unbelievable. However, there’s a difference between random variations and progressive variations.
Random variations are exercises that look challenging and may be extremely challenging. But they don’t necessarily make you better. In fact, in many cases they make you worse. In presentations, I’ve shown a classic picture of a guy squatting on a stability ball with 135lbs on his back. This may be impressive. This may be tough. But it’s not very useful (and potentially dangerous).
Progressive variations build off the original exercise in a logical sequence. They have some reasoning and explanation behind why the variation is in place. Know why you’re doing a variation before doing it. If the only reason to do a variation is because it’s tough, be wary of how useful it is. With that said, here are three useful variations to try out:
3 Powerful Side Plank Variations
Side Plank + Roll In this variation, you hold a side plank but this time you actually roll forward and then back to the starting position. This variation is from low back expert Stuart McGill and engages not just the obliques but the front of the abdominal wall as well. Do 10 “rolls” each side.
Side Plank + Front Plank This time you hold a side plank and then roll your entire body as one unit into a front plank. And then roll back into a side plank on the other side. Make sure your body moves as one unit and does not twist at the spine. This is testing your core’s ability to hold these static positions and then transitioning into the other movements all while keeping spinal stability. Hold each position for 10 seconds and do 5 rolls to each side.
Side Plank + March This variation comes from top strength coach Eric Cressey. It involves holding a side plank while one leg comes up. This challenges the lateral side of the core more than a regular side plank. Plus, it involves important hip muscles (such as the glute medius) that are important for knee stability. Do 10-20 marches each side.
When to Consider Side Plank Variations
It’s important not to jump right into these variations. Even if you think you can handle them or you believe your core is strong enough. Start with a regular side plank. In fact, if you need a guide to them you can read about them here.
Once you can hold a side plank for 30-60 seconds on both sides, then these progressions become appropriate. Most people underestimate the difficulty of regular side planks. When you have them mastered then you can take things up a few notches by integrating the side plank variations above.