The pursuit of perfect abs often seems like a lifelong ordeal. So many things — pizza, pasta, and oh yes, pregnancy! — can thwart our dreams of a toned tummy. But aside from J-Lo-level #bodygoals, there are other reasons to focus on strengthening your core.
And one of the best ways to get the job done? Planks.
Love ’em or hate ’em, planks are a supercharged way to tighten your core, slim your abs, and shape your waistline. Many experts now recommend planking over crunches or sit-ups, since planks put less strain on your spine and hip flexors.
Plus, a plank will tone your back, glutes, hamstrings, arms, and shoulders at the same time. That’s a lot of gain for just 60 seconds of pain.
The basic forearm plank is a great place to start, but you can multiply the many benefits of planks by trying one of these challenging variations. From the Spider-Man to the Swiss ball jackknife, these will bring you ever closer to an abs-solutely killer core. J-Lo, eat your heart out.
If you’re new to planks, the forearm plank is a great way to really feel the burn. This video outlines proper form and technique.
- Get down on your mat and place your forearms directly underneath your shoulders. Your hands should be extended and your body lengthened.
- Tuck your tailbone and ensure you engage your glutes, triceps, and abs to prevent your spine from arching toward the mat.
- Tuck your toes under and lift your knees, so that your body forms a straight line.
Try holding your plank for 20 to 30 seconds, building up to 1 minute or longer. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest forearm plank was held for 8 hours!
Pro tip: Let your gaze fall toward your mat, approximately one foot in front of you, so that your neck is in a neutral position. For more do’s and don’ts, you can also check out this video.
You already know how to do a traditional plank, but transitioning between forearm and full plank is a great way to progress your workout.
- Start in the forearm plank position.
- Move and straighten one arm at a time to lift yourself into the full plank. Try these slowly first to master the transition.
- Pick up the pace according to your comfort level.
Aim to repeat for 30 seconds for 1 set, performing 3 sets. Build until you can perform the plank for 1 minute or longer, as long as you can safely hold proper form.
Pro-tip: Minimize swaying your hips as you alternate positions.
This video from Howcast demonstrates several modifications to make the side plank easier or more difficult. For the most basic posture:
- Lie on one side. Ensure your elbow is directly underneath your shoulder, with your arm flat.
- Keeping your knees on the ground, stack your legs and raise your hips.
- Try placing your hand on your hip or raising it straight toward the ceiling.
- Squeeze your glutes as you hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
When comfortable with this pose, try lifting from stacked feet instead of knees. Then, you can increase difficulty and build greater stability with variations like arm reaches, or raising and lowering your hip.
Hold one arm and leg up like a starfish or add a knee pull to challenge yourself further. Be sure to even out your muscle tone by completing 10 reps of each movement on both your sides.
Pro tip: When you’ve mastered this pose, kick up the intensity for your upper body and core by adding a push-up before your side plank!
Walking sideways with your plank will strengthen your core as well as your upper and lower body muscle groups. These include the deltoids, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and even calves. Trainer Clinton Steenkamp advises you to:
- Start in a full plank position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders.
- Activate your glutes and abs to prevent injury and gain maximum benefit.
- Begin to shift laterally by simultaneously moving your right hand and foot to the right.
- Lift your left hand and foot to meet in the center and return to the plank position.
Complete 5 steps to the right and then 5 again to the left for one set. Beginners should aim for 3 sets, working up to 5. Alternatively, Steenkamp encourages you to time 1- or 2-minute rounds, working up to 5 rounds.
Pro tip: “This is not a speed exercise, so the more concentrated and slower the pace, the more your core and body will benefit,” Steenkamp tells us.
By building your strength, fitness expert Ani Esraelian asserts that you’ll gain greater body awareness and control. This full-body exercise targets several muscle groups, including the glutes, hamstrings, abs, obliques, triceps, and shoulders. You can do this on a mat or with a foam roller. Using the foam roller is more advanced. It challenges your triceps while helping alleviate wrist strain.
- Sit tall on the floor with legs extended long in front of you. Place your hands behind you, either on the floor or atop a foam roller.
- Engage your glutes, core, and arms to lift your hips, forming a straight line from heels to shoulders. Esraelian cautions against letting your hips sag or lift too high. Ensure that your shoulders are drawn down, away from your ears.
- You can stop here or continue to challenge yourself by adding a tricep dip: While holding your plank, bend your arms, pointing your elbows straight back.
- If you want an even greater challenge, add a leg raise: Hold your reverse plank, bending at the hip, and kick your right leg up toward the ceiling. Be sure to keep your hips stable and upper body strong while kicking. Return your leg to the floor with control.
Repeat with your left leg, alternating for 3 kicks on each side to complete 1 rep. Aim for 5 plank reps, holding each for 3 full breaths. Alternatively, time 2 to 3 minutes for each rep.
Pro Tip: “Focus on engaging the back of the arms and think of lifting up off of the ground in order to relieve pressure on the wrists,” Esraelian advises us. “Take long deep breaths, and if the low back starts to arch, it’s time to take a break!”
Try these “Spider-Man” planks to feel the burn in your obliques, abs, and lower spine.
- Begin in your full plank position.
- Pull the knee toward the outside of your elbow and then push it back to return to a plank position. Make sure that your knee is open, so that the inner thigh hovers over the floor as you move your leg.
- Exhale as the knee rounds forward and inhale as you push back.
Start with 5 to 10 reps on each side. Aim for up to 20 reps on each side as you get stronger.
Pro tip: Trainer Amy McCauley advises that a little bit of rocking is OK, but cautions to avoid any rotation or sagging in the hips.
For another move that will define your obliques, try taking the knee to the outside, pulling it across your torso.
- Begin in a full plank position.
- Lift your leg and pull your knee toward the opposite shoulder.
- Push your knee back to starting plank position. Be sure to keep your abs and glutes tight throughout the exercise.
- Repeat on the other side to balance out your strength training.
Continue alternating sides for 45 seconds for 1 set. Aim for 3 sets.
Fitness expert Melissa Boleslawski calls this exercise the “money maker.” This full-body exercise targets the abs, mid-back, and chest, but also activates so many other muscle groups. It also offers a kick of cardio.
- Grab 2 dumbbells of your choice.
- Get into a full plank position and place the dumbbells in your hands.
- Complete a row with one arm.
- Replace your dumbbell to starting position.
- Complete 1 row with opposite arm.
- Finish the rep with a push-up.
Boleslawski encourages her beginner clients to complete 7 reps and her advanced clients to do 15. You can further challenge yourself to finish within 60 to 90 seconds.
Pro tip: “The object of this exercise is to not let those hips swap back and forth like crazy,” says Boleslawski. “And as always, breathe! Too many individuals forget to breathe in the plank position.”
Plank jacks get your heart pumping during your strength routine.
- Begin in a forearm plank.
- Jump both feet outward, wider than hip-distance apart.
- Immediately hop them back into the original plank position.
Plank jacks should be performed quickly, similar to regular jumping jacks. Aim for 3 sets, 60 seconds each, or do as many as you can safely perform with excellent plank form.
Pro tip: Throughout the exercise, be careful not to raise or lower your hips out of the straight-line position.
Planks with shoulder taps work several muscle groups, including hip flexors, abs, back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Fitness pro Pauline Mitchell shows several variations of plank taps. For the most basic:
- Start with a full plank modified on knees.
- Keep your abs in tight and prevent your body from swaying as you lift one arm, bent at the elbow, and cross your hand to your opposite shoulder.
- Repeat with the other side, alternating.
Mitchell recommends that you start with 10 to 15 reps, followed by a rest, and then repeat for another set. Aim to build up strength so you can perform sets lasting 30 seconds each.
Pro tip: For added challenge, come off your knees to a regular full plank. As you get more advanced, bring your feet together. This makes maintaining stability more difficult.
Mountain climbers activate your whole body, making them a really effective exercise with a burst of cardio. Be sure to keep your wrists, arms, and shoulders stacked throughout the exercise.
- Start in a full plank position.
- Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders and use your upper body and pelvis to stabilize yourself.
- Tighten your abs and draw one knee toward your chest without letting your hips lift.
- Extend your leg back to starting position to finish one side.
- Alternate with the other knee to finish the rep.
This fitness pro demonstrates the movement with a toe tap, but you don’t necessarily need to touch the ground.
Pro tip: As you become more comfortable, you can pick up speed. The faster you go, the more cardiovascular benefit you gain — but be sure to still safely maintain proper form.
Swiss ball jackknives are also excellent for building strength and stability. Coach Adam Ford emphasizes that it’s important to keep a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
- Start in a full plank position with your feet on the exercise ball. Activate your abs to maintain stability and align your spine.
- Roll the ball forward with your feet, pulling your knees toward you. Be careful not to drop your hips or round your back.
- Extend your legs, rolling the ball back, to return to the starting plank position.
Initially, aim for 2 sets of 4 to 6 repetitions. When you can comfortably do 10 reps, try one of Ford’s advanced variations.
Pro tip: Moving the ball further back increases the resistance on your abs.
Planking on a pike is even more advanced. It tests your stability and core strength.
- Start with your ball behind you and come into a full plank position, toes pointing down on the ball.
- Keep your knees locked as you roll forward on the ball and lift your hips.
- Slowly roll back as you lower your hips, getting back into the original plank position.
Pro tip: If you really want to kick it up a notch, try this super advanced variation with a press at the top of the pike.
Burpees will get your heart pounding. That’s why they’re beloved by boot camps and CrossFit gyms alike. Here’s how you do them:
- Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Squat down, keeping your weight in your heels.
- Drop your hands to the floor, a little narrower than your feet.
- Shifting your weight to your upper body, jump your feet back into a full plank.
- Immediately hop them right back to where they started.
- Then lift your body to standing, reaching your arms over your head, and jump.
Repeat for as many as you can do with good form. For the ultimate challenge, check out this “Prison Burpee” ladder workout.
Pro tip: For an added challenge, insert a push-up while in your plank position at the bottom of the burpee.
Planking sounds easy enough: Raise your body off the ground and hold for 30 seconds or more. But because planking activates so many muscle groups in one exercise, it’s an excellent strength workout. With these variations, you can keep challenging yourself, building your stability and strength to help prevent injury and improve overall health.
Disclaimer: Some of these are more advanced, so use your own judgment about whether the move is right for you. Remember, practicing good form is critical in reducing injury and ensuring your body benefits from the exercise. Be sure to consult your physician before starting any new workout program.
Catherine is a journalist who’s passionate about health, public policy, and women’s rights. She writes on a range of nonfiction topics, from entrepreneurship to women’s issues, as well as fiction. Her work has appeared in Inc., Forbes, The Huffington Post, and other publications. She’s a mom, wife, writer, artist, travel enthusiast, and lifelong student.