HIIT circuit, boot camp classes, strength training sessions — planks tend to find their way into almost every workout. And for good reason. Not only do they fire up your core, but your shoulders and legs, too. That's why, to do them correctly, you need muscular strength and endurance from head to toe.
But why are planks so hard? (We repeat, so hard.) If you're struggling to sustain a 30-second plank, don't sweat it. Once you pinpoint the problem, you can focus on fixing it. Here, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac, shares what might be holding you back from holding a plank, plus advice to help you improve your plank performance.
If Your: Hips Are Sagging
You Might: Need to Tighten Your Core
If your core muscles are weak, holding a 30-second plank is going to be a struggle. "Poor rectus abdominal and oblique strength limit your ability to properly support the midsection of your plank," Tripp says. That results in your hips sagging in an attempt to lighten the load for your abs. But this throws off proper form and places too much pressure on your lower back. Ouch!
But while doing a ton of crunches can help strengthen your abs, but it won't improve your ability to hold a plank. "Having a well-balanced strength and conditioning program that is designed to not only develop your plank holds, but also address specific muscle weakness is key," Tripp says.
With that in mind, start with elevated planks with your hands on a bench, says Tripp, who adds that doing the move at an angle makes it easier. Once you build core strength, transition to the floor. Begin by performing several reps of short, 10-second plank holds — to focus on perfecting form — then gradually increase your time to 20- and 30-second holds.
The Pallof press, also called the standing core press, is another effective exercise to train your abs and prepare your core for planks, Tripp says.
Move 1: Banded Pallof Press
- Anchor a resistance band around a stable object at waist height.
- Grab the band with both hands and step out to the side to create tension in the band. Brace your core to tuck your tailbone.
- Keep your core engaged as you press your hands forward and away from you. Don't let your body rotate!
- Pause, then slowly bring your hands back to start.
- Do all reps, then switch sides.
If You: Can’t Maintain Neutral Alignment
You Might: Need to Engage Your Glutes and Quads
Believe it or not, your core consists of many muscles between your shoulders and knees, including your glutes and your quads. And during a plank, you need to actively squeeze your butt and legs to keep your whole body aligned.
"Not engaging your glutes and quads will hinder how well you can tuck your pelvis and maintain a neutral spine," Tripp says. That's because these muscles act together to pull the pelvis into a neutral position, which helps to hold your body in a straight line from your head to your toes and reduces your hips from dipping too.
While you don't need to squat 300 pounds to nail your plank, having some lower-body awareness and knowing how to engage the correct muscles is key to perfecting your plank form and avoiding excess pressure on your back, says Tripp.
Moves like squats, deadlifts and lunges will aid in the activation of your glutes, quads and hamstrings. "I personally like glute bridges and split squats because they work the lower body unilaterally and require mindfulness of your core to maintain balance and a neural body alignment," Tripp says.
Move 1: Glute Bridge
- Lie on the ground with your knees bent, feet close to your butt and arms at your sides. Brace your core.
- Press into your feet and arms to lift your hips and lower and mid-back off the ground.
- Pause, focusing on squeezing your glutes.
- Lower back down to the start.
Move 2: Split Squat
- Stand with one foot a few feet in front of the other and clasp your hands together in front of your chest.
- Brace your core. Keeping your torso tall, bend both knees to lower down as far as comfortable.
- Straighten both legs to stand up.
- Do all reps, then switch sides.
If Your: Shoulder Blades Pop Up
You Might: Need to Strengthen Your Upper Body
If your shoulder blades are "winged" think: not flat, but rather sticking up like wings) during a plank, you need to push harder off the ground. But if that's too difficult, you probably have weak shoulders and upper-body muscles, which can limit your ability to perform the pushing motion, says Tripp.
When you do a plank, many muscles (including deltoids, pectorals, triceps, trapezius and lats) must work in concert to allow you to press away from the ground as well as maintain stability in the shoulder joint, says Tripp. In other words, without a strong upper body, you won't be able to master proper form or hold a plank for very long.
The best way to gain upper-body strength?
"Any pressing movement will aid in the development of your shoulder and upper body muscles," says Tripp who recommends practicing push-ups because the move is just an active plank. Start with incline push-ups to prevent overloading yourself and having form issues.
Move 1: Incline Push-Up
- Place your hands flat on a sturdy box or bench with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Walk your feet back until your body forms a straight line from your heels to your shoulders. Brace your core.
- Bend your elbows to form a 45-degree angle with your trunk, lowering as far as comfortable.
- Pause, then press through your hands to raise your torso to start.