5 Challenging Plank Variations (& Tips to Help You Master Them)
Let’s be honest – planks are boring.
They’re an exercise that you know you need to learn to do and do well. But once you’ve got that down, they can be the chore of your workout that you’re most prone to skip.
And no one wants to hold a 10 minute plank. Heck – as a strength coach, I don’t even see the point of that. With that said, it’s about time we found variations that will spice things up a bit.
First: What is a Plank?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of what a plank is. But just to be safe, let me explain here.
A plank basically involves a lifter assuming a table-top position with points of contact made at either end of the body. These can be done from any of the hands and elbows up top, and the knees or toes down low.
Related: Understanding Core Training – Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk
The most commonly used plank would be that of keeping the forearms and toes on the ground, in a basic prone bridge position. Doing a good plank will engage the muscles of the entire trunk, most specifically the abdominals.
Good trunk stability during a plank can translate itself to strength in many other compound movements.
Building a Proper Plank
With all of the above said, there are probably weak links in your chain. If you make your plank look like the bad example in the video below, then you have things to work on, and you’re wasting your time practicing the movement.
As you can see in the good example, I’m following a few rules to make the plank effective.
- Head down, with the chin tucked. Don’t look up and extend the cervical vertebrae
- Press away from the floor with the elbows. Don’t sink in by relaxing the shoulders or upper body.
- Keep a neutral spine. That means no arching, especially near the lumbar region.
- Engage the glutes. Keeping a hip position an inch or two higher can help make this a possibility.
- Squeeze the quads. Maintaining straight knees by engaging the lower extremities can help bolster the plank, and keep the demand even between upper and lower body.
Spicing Things Up with Advanced Planks
Since you’ve got the basic plank down, it’s time to find some suitable progressions. The problem I see many people fall into, however, is that they get far too ambitious for their own good. As a result, they exit their capabilities and trade good quality performance for being able to “get through” the movement.
If you’ve really got a mind for training the core and its weaknesses, then you should know that it won’t take much to make your plank work overtime. Here are some ideas.
Idea 1: Remove a Base of Support
The second you do this, the abs and obliques are forced to engage to resist rotation. It’s much more difficult to maintain a neutral spine while respecting this.
The goal should be to avoid the hips shifting or the torso twisting to “lean” on your supporting arm. And if there’s external load, it won’t take much to really get the target muscles working. First, focus on mastering this skill with bodyweight by using the 4-Point-Touch drill.
I’ve found that starting planks from the hands and not the elbows makes it easier to do the movement with good form, and avoid losing the ideal spine position. As you’ll see in the video, whether the hands are touching the opposite shoulder or opposite thigh, there’s no drastic shift in position, and the body looks as though all 4 points are still on the ground, at all times.
Once you’ve got a handle on shifting your weight, you can increase the difficulty level by alternating from an elbow plank to a hand plank. The Plank to Up drill is a smart, safe, and still bodyweight option to make this a reality.
When doing this exercise, it’s important to make sure you follow these rules:
- Always make sure your hand goes back to where your elbow just was. In other words, tuck your elbow by your side to press up. When you do this, you’ll hit your triceps as a bonus.
- “Lead” with one arm for a set number of reps, and then “lead” with the other after. Make sure you don’t dominate with one hand for the entire set. In the video, you’ll see that I do 4 reps using my right arm to lead, and then 4 more using my left.
- Don’t let your body “fall” to the mat. Make everything happen smoothly and gently. There’s no need to place unnecessary stress on the shoulders or elbows, nor lose tension through the trunk.
Idea 2: Increase the Lever Arm
If all of the above is still too blasé, then it’s time to up the octane by using some long-lever plank variations instead. Moving the arms further away from the body when planking instantly exposes another vital function of the trunk: Anti-extension.
The first thing that will happen during a long-lever plank is an increased demand on the lower back to remain neutral despite the propensity to overarch. A very strong core will prevent that from happening to greater and greater ranges. This has the most translation to your overhead press.
To work your way into this, it’s smart to pass through these long-lever ranges rather than hold them and risk injury, and the TRX body saw is the smartest way to do this from the elbow plank position.
To do them, simply set up in your classic elbow plank position, with your feet placed in the harnesses instead of on the floor. Using your elbows, “push” yourself away from your hands, and aim to have your eyes go from fist level to elbow level, as seen in the video.
If you feel plenty of pressure in the low back, you’re using too great a range of motion, and need to reel it in some.
To experience the same phenomenon from a hand plank, work with hand walkouts. This movement trains anti-extension, but it also doubles as a great alternative to the very advanced ab wheel rollout performed from the toes.
It allows a lifter who’s not capable of doing rollouts to perform an anti-extension long-lever movement without having the knees on the ground. And I’ll be the first to say: that’s music to the ears for big and tall guys like me.
Again, it’s smart and safe to only pass through end ranges rather than attempt to spend plenty of time in the long lever plank. To do this one, walk out with the hands to a full body extension (for your ability), and hold for only 2 to 3 seconds at full extension before walking back in.
Idea 3: Remember, Planks Don’t have to be Face Down!
If we’re looking to train our core, we have to remember that our lower backs are just as much a part of the core as anything else. Though they’re quite involved during traditional planks, we can zero in on them more by making a plank that emphasizes the posterior chain.
Related: Why You Should Focus on Building Core Strength
The lower back works in harmony with the glutes and hamstrings to create a healthy posterior chain during movements like deadlifts, sprinting, and jumping. Making all three of them do their job during Chinese Planks can be invaluable to your health.
I love this exercise partially for the fact that you can also throw in a pressing pattern to put the extremities through work to help the body multi-task. Just remember that what’s important is the plank itself, so too much load need not apply. Here it is in action.
More to Come
I know what you’re thinking – Boyce is crazy if he thinks that the above is all there is to core training.
And don’t worry – I’ve got you. Look out for more on core training real soon.
In the meantime, get your fix with these plank variations, and I’m sure you won’t be at a loss.