Planks can be a game changer for your core. Try 'scaled' exercises to make it easier to hold the position for longer.

Planks can be a game changer for your core. Try 'scaled' exercises to make it easier to hold the position for longer.
© Halfdark/Getty Images Planks can be a game changer for your core. Try ‘scaled’ exercises to make it easier to hold the position for longer.

  • The plank exercise can build strength and muscle in the whole body, but requires proper form.
  • To hold a plank, you need a stable core and shoulders.

The plank is a foundational exercise to build muscle, and a prerequisite for exercises like push-ups.

Correctly maintaining a plank position requires a strong core, sturdy shoulders, and full body stability — and the longer you hold the position, the harder it becomes to engage all those muscles.

If you’re working up to your first full minute plank, experts say focusing on proper form, scaling the exercise, and gradually increasing your plank time are the keys to success.

Start with excellent form

Planks have a relatively low risk of injury even for beginners, according to Matthew Barle, founder of Trident Physical Therapy. However, attempting a plank with bad form won’t help you build core strength or full body stability.

“You may not be strengthening the core as much as you want to and it turns into more of an upper body workout,” Barle said.

To correctly perform a high plank, place your palms on the ground directly under your shoulders, and step your legs back to balance on the balls of your feet. Engage your core by squeezing your glutes and abs, pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Maintain a straight line from head to feet, being careful not to arch your back, sag your hips, or stick your butt up.

Scale the exercise as needed

If you feel unsteady in a plank, start with less intense variations. Dropping your knees to the floor or elevating your hands on a box or wall reduces some of the resistance.

Performing a plank on your forearms, instead of your hands, can also help take some of the stress off your shoulders and wrists to prioritize your core.

“You want to focus on creating stability through the shoulder, engaging the shoulders instead of just resting on them,” Barle said.

Scaled exercises aren’t just for newbies, either, according to Ben Foster, head coach and founder of the People’s Athletic Club. They can also help athletes of all levels work up to a higher volume of exercise (more repetitions or time exercising).

If you’re unable to hit a target number of reps, you can scale an exercise mid-set, he said. For example, if your goal is 20 push-ups, but you can only do 10, you can complete the final 10 reps as easier variations, like eccentric push-ups.

For a plank, your goal is to add time in the position, not reps — so you might try holding a full plank for the first 20-30 seconds, then finish the remainder of the time in a knee plank.

Adding less strenuous forms of the exercise to “make up the difference” to your goal helps keep your form consistent as you challenge yourself, Foster said.

Start with shorter sessions of plank holds

Even if you feel confident with your plank form, beginning with shorter periods of exercise can help you maintain good form and work up to longer holds. You might also be humbled to find that good form intensifies the burn of the exercise, according to Barle.

“If you’re engaging, it ends up making the plank feel a lot tougher,” he said.

Focus on a little bit of progress each week

You’ll need to keep challenging yourself in order to get stronger (a basic principle of fitness called progressive overload).

For planks, that means adding time to each hold, or increasing the number of holds you do with rest in between.

And if you hit your plank time goal and are looking for more, advanced versions of the exercise like single arm planks, side planks, plank jacks, can ramp up the challenge.

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