What Are the Best Ways to Progress a Plank?

The front plank is both one of the most commonly used and misused exercises in the gym. They’re often performed incorrectly, likely due to the fact the being able to hold a front plank for a long time is like wearing a badge of honor. Like any other exercise, you must ask yourself why you’re including it into your workout routine. The front plank is an excellent exercise for building endurance in your core and keeping your spine healthy—both of which are essential prerequisites for developing more dynamic stability that can carryover to your sport or daily activities. So, if the front plank is such a valuable exercise, where does it go wrong?

Why Adding on Time Isn’t the Best Idea

Most frequently, the way a front plank is progressed is by adding on time. Let’s say you’ve built up from doing sets of 1 min. holds to 3 min. holds. This looks good on paper, but chances are you’re actually fatiguing the muscles you’re supposed to be using well before you’ve reached the 3-minute mark. A well-performed front plank has you building tension and recruiting muscles throughout your entire core. A strong front plank is much more than just using your “6-pack” muscles. Internal & external obliques, transverse abdominis, QL’s multifidi, erector spinae, and rectus abdominis all need to be working together.

Take a look at the two pictures below. In the first picture he was told to crunch down and squeeze his abs as hard as possible.

This becomes a very rectus abdominis dominant brace. You can see the increased tone in his "six pack" muscles and if you look even higher up you can also see his SCM's and anterior neck are also contracting hard. This is one strategy people will resort to when fatigued during a plank.

In the second picture he was told to fully exhale, feel his ribs move down toward his hips, and then brace his abs.

You can see the more balanced contraction of his rectus abdominis and obliques. You'll also notice that his neck is much more relaxed. This is the position and type of contraction that you want with your core when performing a front plank.

Smarter Ways to Progress Front Planks

1. Challenge Yourself by Increasing Reps, Not Time

To prevent fatiguing and resorting back to your usual compensation strategies, consider progressing week to week as shown below, rather than adding time onto your planks each week.

Week 1: 3x(3x15s)

This means you’ll do three mini sets of 15s planks, instead of one long set at 45s.

Week 2: 3x(3x20s)

Week 3: 3x(2x30s)

Week 4: 3x(3x30s)

2. Use Breaths Instead of Reps

Once you’ve mastered the proper position of your body during a front plank and are able to build appropriate tension through your entire core, try holding your planks for a certain number of breaths instead of time. So, instead of 3x30s, work 3x10 breaths. Going through full inhalations and exhalations during your plank will allow you to incorporate diaphragmatic breathing, which can be important for spinal stability because of its attachments on your sternum, rib cage, and lumbar spine.

3. Increase Lever Arm Length

Another way to increase the difficulty of a front plank is to increase the lever length. The further you extend your arms, the more you’ll be challenging your body to maintain neutral spine while bracing during the front plank.

4. Decrease Stability

During a front plank, you have four points of contact with the ground: both elbows and both feet. These four points help you build tension and create stability. By altering and moving any of these four points, you can put yourself in a more unstable position and create a greater challenge for your core to stabilize your spine. Give the below options a try if you’ve already progressed to being able to breathe while maintaining good position and balanced core tension for a 30s front plank holds.

5. Add Perturbations

When you’re on the field or court or simply going through your day, things happen unexpectedly. Whether it’s a defender bumping into you or you slipping on ice, your body must be able to work reflexively and properly fire your abdominal muscles to stabilize your spine. Getting a training partner to add rhythmic stabilizations or perturbations to your front planks is a smart way to train your core to brace and stabilize your spine against unexpected forces.

In Summary

Abdominal training doesn’t have to be super complicated. The front plank is a very simple and effective exercise. As you can see above, by making slight adjustments to this classic exercise, you’ll be able to greatly increase its effectiveness and keep it in your training program without getting bored from long durations holds with sub-optimal form. Give the above variations and progressions a try!