12 Plank Exercises That Will Fire Up Your Entire Core

Plank exercises are universally loved by tons of trainers. But the downside to the simple plank’s popularity is that there’s a chance you may see it in nearly every workout you try. And that can get a little boring.

The thing is, a regular old plank is far from the only exercise of its kind. There are a seemingly endless number of variations on the plank, and they all have similar benefits, yet hit your core and shoulder muscles just a little bit differently—a welcome changeup for both your brain and your body.

“Trainers love planks because they are efficient, effective, and a necessary prerequisite to many other exercises,” Jenna Langhans, C.P.T., a NASM-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City, tells SELF. “I like to call them ‘home base.’” That means you might be doing moving plank variations in exercises where you don’t even realize it, such as a push-up and a mountain climber. “If you can’t do a proper plank, then attempting more complex or advanced moves is going to be very difficult,” Langhans says.

While yes, the first step is mastering a regular plank (FYI, here’s how to do one like a pro), once you do, there are so many great ways to mix it up. Here’s what planks really are, and why you should add plank exercises—of all kinds—to your workout routine.

What is a plank?

A plank is an isometric exercise, which is a move where you contract your muscles and hold them in one position, Renee Peel, an NSCA-certified personal trainer, kettlebell specialist, and founder of PeelFit Training, tells SELF. You don’t bend any joints, and your muscles don’t lengthen or shorten. Contrast that to a move like a squat or a bicep curl, which has both the shortening (concentric) and lengthening (eccentric) phases.

“I like to refer to planks also as ‘owning a position,’” Peel adds. Although some plank variations do add movement, in their simplest form, planks require tensing up your body in one position and holding still. Even if you add a crunch or move your feet to mix things up, you’re still maintaining that isometric hold.

The two most common planks are a high plank on your hands and a forearm plank on your forearms, says Langhans. While the plank is primarily a core exercise, it really targets many muscles all at once—remember, your core includes more than just your abs. You should feel this move mainly in your rectus abdominis (the muscles that run vertically across the front of your abdomen) and transverse abdominis (the deep muscles in your abdominal wall), but also in your quads, glutes, shoulders, T-spine (upper back), and feet, she says.

If you’re just starting exercising, planks will help you build strength. But after a certain point, their primary function is to build and maintain stability in your core and shoulders. They do this by challenging the stabilizer muscles that may not get as much attention with bigger lifting exercises. Stabilizer muscles are all the small muscles that help keep muscles and joints stable when you do certain movements. For example, if you’re training with kettlebells or a barbell and lifting weight overhead, it’s really important to lock out your body and be able to stabilize yourself underneath the weight, Peel says.

Stabilizer muscles in your shoulders are important to hold your arm securely in that overhead position, while the bigger muscles do the brunt of the heavy-lifting work. Stabilizers in your core help hold your torso in place—and resist rotating, leaning to the side, or flexing—when you’re doing everything from lifting, to running, to just simply bending to the side or sitting upright with proper posture.

What are the benefits of planks?

“At the end of the day, planks are important because they are amazing for your core, and a strong core means a strong body,” Langhans says.

A strong core can also reduce your risk of back pain. “Your core stabilizes your spine, so if your core is weak, your spine has to kick in more to perform tasks,” Langhans says. “Over time, if the core isn’t working enough, and your back is working too much, you could develop back issues or pain.” That’s why if you are having back pain, your trainer will likely add some core strengthening and stabilizing exercises to your workouts.

Similarly, planks teach you correct upright posture, which is especially important when you’re lifting weights (or even a kid or a heavy suitcase). “When you think about it, a proper plank on the floor is the proper upright standing position,” Langhans says. “Tall chest, rib cage dropped, core engaged, shoulders relaxed away from the ears, natural curvature of the spine (no excessive low-back extension).” It’s great to sit and stand with good posture, but it’s especially important to be able to stand in a supported position when you do physical activity in order to protect your spine, Langhans says. “A proper plank trains that.”

Core stability is also the foundation of a lot of athletic movements, Peel says, and the core stability you can gain from planks is essentially a prerequisite to all other types of more complex movement. So if you want to progress in your fitness routine and try harder and heavier things, planks can help you get there.

What are some plank variations to try?

All of these plank variations work similar muscles—primarily those in your core and shoulders—but in slightly different ways. For example, side planks hit your obliques more than your rectus abdominis. You’re still working the core, but just from a different angle. Next time you want to make your planks more exciting, try subbing one of these for a much-needed change up.

Demoing the moves below are Erica Gibbons (GIF 1),  a California-based personal trainer and graduate student becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist; Crystal Williams (GIFs 2-3, 9-10, 12), a group fitness instructor and trainer who teaches at residential and commercial gyms across New York City; Cookie Janee, a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve (GIF 4); Shauna Harrison (GIF 5), a Bay-area based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 6), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland, California; Kira Stokes (GIF 7), a celebrity trainer; Morit Summers (GIF 8), a Brooklyn-based trainer and the owner of body-positive gym, Form Fitness Brooklyn; and Amanda Wheeler (GIF 11), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength.

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