If you practice yoga or have ever paused at the top of a pushup, congratulations, you have performed a plank. Getting into that static position—holding your stiff-as-a-board body low to the ground with your hands planted beneath your shoulders and toes grounded into the floor—is easy. That is, until the clock starts. Most people can hold the full-body tension for about a minute, but generally not without setting off a muscle-quake in their shoulders, arms, glutes and, especially, the core.
As agonizing as quivering muscles sound, there are lots of good reasons to work a plank or two into your fitness routine. First, it’s a crucial move for building core strength and stability. Second, you can perform a plank just about anywhere, including in front of the TV. But perhaps best of all for yogis, the move can seriously improve your practice, and not just when you’re flowing from Forward Fold to Upward-Facing Dog.
Planking for a minute or longer isn’t the only way to get strong. On the contrary, you can get more benefits out of much shorter holds, according to Dean Somerset, a personal trainer and exercise physiologist from Edmonton, Alberta Canada. He claims that holding a plank for as little as 15 seconds for four sets (with a five second rest between reps) will produce the same (or better) results over time.
Shortening the duration of the plank isn’t the only game-changing news we have for you. You don’t have to stick to traditional front or side planks either. The following three plank variations will challenge your core (and more!) in new ways, cut down on your body’s opportunity to break form and cheat, and make you a more well-rounded yogi.
Try the: Kneeling Plank
When You: Want to get better at standing poses (or get serious about weightlifting)
In a standing pose like Warrior II, you’ve probably been told to tuck your tailbone down and not let your butt flare out. Kneeling plank teaches the same alignment. The move “is all about getting the box (your ribcage) on top of bowl (your pelvis),” according to strength coach Dan John, who along with physical therapist Gray Cook created and popularized the move in fitness circles. “It teaches correct posture as it quiets the quads, stretches the hip flexors and teaches the glutes to keep on going.” Kneeling plank has little tolerance for muscle weaknesses and imbalances. “Tight hip flexors will be an issue. If you live on your quads, they will tire. Only by squeezing your glutes and standing tall—or rather, kneeling tall—will the alignment happen,” John explains.
While learning this properly stacked ribcage-atop-pelvis position can be helpful to anyone, John says it’s especially crucial for people who lift weights. “If you don’t have this position locked down, any loaded work you do—squats, deadlifts, overhead lifts—will be in a compromised position.” Lacking proper posture or mobility increases your risk of injury. John offers several ways to identify other alignment problems that could be putting you at risk on his YouTube channel.
How to do it: Kneel down with a kettlebell placed between your shins. Engage your glutes, keep your shoulders back, and reach for the handle of the kettlebell behind you. Lift the weight off the ground. Be sure you’re “squeezing the cheeks,” so that your glutes (not your quads) bear the load. Hold for a minute or more.
Try the: Armless Plank
When You: Want to ace lower-body engagement in Chaturanga (or get a killer burn in your lower abs)
One of the problems with the plank is that there are so many ways to cheat the move. Fed up with clients feeling planks more in their arms and shoulders than their core, Oregon-based trainer and movement therapist Christine Ruffolo took the upper body out of the equation. The armless plank that results, she says, “is entirely focused on pelvic positioning and bearing weight with the feet. With the arms unable to provide help, you’re forced to buttress the weight with the lower part of your body.”
With this adjustment, your lower abdomen has do the work of lifting you off the floor; it can’t rely on your elbows or shoulders. Going armless also makes it all but impossible to sag in your low back, which is another common plank cheat. Any dip in the lower back will create a lot of tension in the lumbar spine, leading you to quickly adjust by posteriorly rotating your hips or by dropping out of the pose entirely.
The greatest benefit you’ll get from the no-arms plank is the engagement you’ll notice from hips to heels. Your hips will be in a proper, non-tilted alignment, and will reinforce the “heels back” positioning you want to maintain in Chaturanga. The sensation will translate to stronger, more fluid motion throughout the facedown movements in your flow.
How to do it: Lie on the floor with you arms flat on the ground in front of you. To lift up, shift your weight onto your toes and then drive your heels back. Your chest probably won’t come off of the floor, and that’s okay. Focus on the lower body. If your pelvis is tilted, you’ll immediately feel it in your low back. Correct it by “scooping” the pelvis until it’s straight and you no longer feel back tension. If you have a hard time with your arms overhead, try placing them straight out to the sides instead. Do 3-5 sets of 5-10 second holds.
Try the: RKC Plank
When You: Get a full-body pump, fast
“RKC” is short for Russian Kettlebell Challenge, as the author of that book, Pavel Tsatsouline, is credited with creating the move. The idea behind it is pretty simple: Do more in less time by amping up the tension. With RKC your goal is to find more engagement—and then even more. You know that feeling you get when you curl your arm and flex your biceps? Performed correctly, this move will give you the same sensation pretty much throughout your whole body. You’ll find that you’re “feeling the burn,” even shaking, within a matter of seconds.
This more intense engagement is beneficial in several ways. First, it allows you to quickly and efficiently work tissues that might otherwise take a snooze during a long-duration plank. “The primary problem with the traditional plank is the lack of deep core activation over an extended period of time,” according to John Rusin, a physical therapist and strength coach. “Deep muscles of the spine, along with some of the deeper abdominal musculature (transverse abdominals) get overpowered by the core’s dynamic movers (mostly the six-pack muscles and obliques). Increasing tension through max contraction of all available tissues carries deep into the core, getting the little stabilizers involved.“
Another big plus for the short-but-intense version is that it helps you steer clear of the cheats people inevitably develop when they try to set out to hold a plank for several minutes: Butt in the air, shoulders and forearms doing most of the work, and so on. You hit the correct engagement, and do it forcefully, for just a few seconds.
How to do it: Start on all fours, as if you were about to cycle through Cat-Cow. Drop down to your elbows and clasp your hands together in front of you, interlocking your fingers. Squeeze all of the muscles from your hands through your shoulders, being sure to keep your shoulders down and in (don’t let them come up toward your ears). Press through both heels to lift your torso off the ground, being sure to squeeze your legs together and engage your glutes.
Once your body is up and parallel to the ground, here comes the element that makes the RKC unique: Focus on pulling your shoulders and elbows down toward your toes, and your toes up toward your elbows. “It’s like you’re trying to pike upward, except your glutes stay contracted [which keeps your body in a straight line],” according to Bret Contreras, C.S.C.S. and author of Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy. This will generate tension from your upper torso to your toes.
Rusin recommends doing two to four sets of 10-second holds with a 30 to 45 second rest period between each if you want to use the RKC as a warm-up. Or you could turn the move into a workout on it’s own by performing anywhere between six to 10 sets of 10-second holds with shorter rest (10 to 15 seconds).
Photos by: Caitlin Steuben