15 Plank Variations to Strengthen Your Core and Help You Support Your Big Lifts

Need a strong core to support that next max attempt? Try these plank variations.

Too many people go about building core strength the wrong way. They sit all day working with a rounded back and then head to the gym to put themselves in more flexion through countless sit-ups and crunches. At that point, it’s only a matter of time before your lower back gets angry at you.

On the surface, it’s a smart thought — with most muscles you train, you want to flex and contract it through a certain range of motion. But comprehensive core training means working toward stability and multi-directional strength, not just flexion. If you’re a serious lifter hoisting barbells off the ground and over your head, you can never get enough core stability.

A person wears a blue t-shirt while performing a plank.
Credit: G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock

That’s why planks are never going out of style. When done right, they don’t just improve midline stability. Planks and their variations also strengthen your glutes and quads while targeting the rectus abdominis, which can improve posture, reduce back pain, and increase balance. These aren’t the only core exercises you should have in your rotation. But for their sheer versatility and do-anywhere-ness, it’s worth fitting some solid plank sessions into your program.

Best Plank Variations

Incline Plank

The incline plank, like an incline push-up, is a scaled version of the original. It requires a little less stability and puts more emphasis on the middle muscles of your abs. 

Because of the incline, you’re supporting less body weight. That means you’ll be able to build core strength if you have trouble holding the regular front plank for 30 seconds or more.

Benefits of the Incline Plank

  • This is a more accessible version of the floor front plank to help develop core strength.
  • The incline plank focuses on the middle muscles of your core.
  • You’ll learn how to keep your shoulders, hips, and glutes in a line regardless of the angle of your body.

How to Do the Incline Plank

Kneel in front of a weight bench. Place your elbows on the weight bench. Make sure your shoulders and elbows are aligned. Straighten your legs, engage your glutes, and hold for the desired time.

Decline Plank

The decline plank places little more stress on the lower abs than the rest of your “six-pack” muscles. Since your lower abs are often neglected, and since the decline puts more stress on your shoulders, this “beginner” front plank exercise can wind up surprisingly hard to maintain.

Because your feet will be elevated, your upper body will be under a bit more pressure. So make sure your wrists and shoulders are thoroughly warmed up before you get after this one.

Benefits of the Decline Plank

  • This variation emphasizes the oft-neglected lower abs.
  • You might find this a natural progression to perform after you have mastered the floor front plank.
  • You’ll build extra shoulder and wrist strength because of the angle of decline.

How to Do the Decline Plank

Get on your hands and knees with a weight bench behind you. Straighten your legs and place each foot on the weight bench. Get your elbows underneath your shoulders. Engage your glutes to keep your lower back neutral. Hold for the desired time. You can make this more difficult by performing a toe tap back down to the ground one at a time.

RKC Plank

This is not your everyday front plank. It’s accessible to people who’ve mastered front planks because it physically requires the same position — but it raises the stakes quite a bit. By creating tension with your upper and lower body, the RKC plank turns this into a total-body challenge from head-to-toe. Maintaining this version of the plank for longer than 10 seconds calls for your all-out effort.

This exercise fixes the main potential problem with planks, which is a lack of deep core activation over an extended period. By tightening every muscle you can, you’ll be maximizing core engagement and bringing in muscles from all over your body, as well.

 Benefits of the RKC Plank

  • The entire core region works as a unit to create tension, which improves your overall strength.
  • You’ll strengthen the deep muscles that surround the spine (erectors) and core (transverse abdominals), which improves your ability to keep your spine neutral under load.
  • This move will teach and reinforce deep, disciplined breathing, which bodes well for lifters interested in holding air pressure braces during heavy lifts.

How to Do the RKC Plank

Start in the front plank position with your elbows underneath your shoulders. Clench your hands in fists. Pull your shoulders down and in. Squeeze your quads and glutes as hard as you can. Pull your shoulders towards your toes and your toes towards your head. Take deep breaths through your belly in and out. Use your breaths as reps.

Weighted Plank

The weighted plank is also called the plank plus. When the regular front plank and its variations are not challenging you anymore, placing the weight directly over your core will up the ante for sure.

There are two ways to go about this. One is to get a partner to put a weight plate on your back or put the plate on yourself before getting into a front plank.

Benefits of the Weighted Plank

  • This is a simple — but not easy — way to progressively overload your plank.
  • The weighted plank helps you improve your ability to keep a neutral spine under load.
  • Performing weighted planks increases your time under weighted tension, which can help translate into stronger barbell lifts.

How to Do the Weighted Plank

Place a weight plate on your lower to middle back while lying prone. Get up on your toes. Keep your elbows directly underneath your shoulders. Prop yourself into the front plank position. Engage your glutes to put your lower back in neutral. Hold for the desired time.

Side Plank

Side planks are an exercise everyone loves to hate, but their benefits are undeniable. They train almost every muscle from your head to your toes, including your lower back

The lower back muscles surrounding your spine will contract isometrically to keep your spine neutral. Because gravity isn’t directly acting on your spine, this is a great exercise to strengthen the lower back if you’re experiencing lower back pain.

Benefits of the Side Plank

  • Side planks strengthen the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that plays an important role in preventing lower back pain.
  • This move helps strengthen your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors, which play a role in strengthening the spine and pelvic area while protecting it from injury.
  • The side plank leads to a more stable and stiffer core, which is then better able to transfer power from your lower to your upper body.

How to Do the Side Plank

Lie on your left or right side with your knees straight and your elbow directly underneath your shoulder. Prop your body up on your elbow and forearm. Raise your opposite hand until it’s perpendicular to your torso. Align your feet, knees, and hips together. Brace your core and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Hold for time.

Side Plank with Rotation

The rotational component of this side plank variation makes this exercise both a static and dynamic one. This further strengthens your obliques, which comes in handy when you want to maintain anti-rotational strength during big lifts.

Because your weight is rolling forward, this trains the isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions all at once. 

Benefits of the Side Plank with Rotation

How to Do the Side Plank with Rotation

Set up in your side plank. Form a straight line from your shoulder to your foot. Extend your opposite arm up above your shoulder. Rotate your torso down towards the floor. Reach under your torso with your arm. Using a light dumbbell is optional. Rotate back to the starting position. Repeat for reps or time.

Isometric Bird Dog

Simply lifting two limbs off the ground into the bird dog position is a terrific way to ramp up your front plank. It’s much better at challenging your balance, kinesthetic awareness, coordination, and low back strength.

For extra difficulty, try adding movement by bringing your knee and elbow together or performing the exercise with straight arms.

Benefits of the Isometric Bird Dog

How to Do the Isometric Bird Dog

Get into the six-point position. Put your knees under your hips, hands underneath your shoulders, and toes on the ground. Extend your left leg behind you and your right arm in front of you. Push your left hand into the floor. Hold for the desired time. Repeat on the other side.

Extended Plank

It’s tough enough to hold a regular plank with your hands under your shoulders. Extending your arms to form the extended plank is even tougher. The extended plank places more stress on your upper back and upper abs to maintain a neutral spine position.

Here, you’ll gain strength in the extended position — which is much more compromising for your shoulders — to further enhance your overall core strength.

Benefits of the Extended Plank

  • You’ll gain a lot more strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.
  • By emphasizing an eccentric position, extended planks can help build muscle.
  • This variation will help you build stability in extremely unstable positions.

How to Do the Extended Plank

Start with your hands underneath your shoulders in the push-up position. Slowly walk them out in front of you as you get closer and closer to the floor. Squeeze both your glutes and abs to keep your back straight and to prevent your hips from sagging. Hold for the allotted time. Walk your hands underneath your shoulders to finish.

X Plank

With the X plank, you are moving the base of support away from your core. This forces your muscles to work harder to stabilize the body and keep your spine neutral. This variation is tougher on your shoulders and elbows so if you have any issues with those, it is best to stay away from this one.

If you’re daring, you can combine this with the extended plank, moving back and forth between the positions.

Benefits of the X Plank

  • Your core muscles are forced to work harder in this variation because of the reduced base of support.
  • This move builds strength in your anterior shoulders and biceps.
  • You’ll keep your hands in an unusual orientation during this variation, which can help build forearm strength and wrist flexibility.

How to Do the X Plank

Get into a push-up plank position with your hands underneath your shoulders. Engage your glutes. Walk each hand out to the side until there is a slight bend in your elbows. Point your fingers away from you. Hold for the desired time. Slowly walk your hands back underneath your shoulders to finish.

Fingertip Plank

Hand strength is arguably the most important kind of functional strength and the fingertip plank will help here. It can result in everything from heavier deadlifts to finally opening that problem pickle jar.

The fingertip plank will help you build grip and core strength but remember that you don’t want to be all the way on the tips of your fingers. Instead, be on the pads of your fingers with the tips slightly bent back.

Benefits of the Fingertip Plank

  • This variation builds massive finger strength, which can be difficult to train specifically.
  • The fingertip plank can also be used to increase forearm strength and wrist health.
  • You’ll get great carryover to grip-intense exercises like deadlifts, carries, and pull-ups.

How to Do the Fingertip Plank

Place your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees on the ground. Open up your hands and plant your fingertips on the ground. Extend your legs behind you. Engage your glutes and abs. Hold for time.

Suspension Trainer Plank

The suspension trainer plank has you loop your hands inside the handles of a suspension trainer to feel your abs working instantly. The inherent wobbliness of the suspension trainer throws your body into an unstable position.

The instability of the lift forces your core to work harder to maintain a neutral spine position. If you’re game, move your hands backward and forwards for more core action.

Benefits of the Suspension Trainer Plank

  • The instability of the suspension forces your core to work harder to maintain a neutral position.
  • You can easily scale this move by adjusting the strap height.
  • You’ll build powerful, stable shoulders with this move, too.

How to Do the Suspension Trainer Plank

Adjust the strap height to your desired intensity. Grip the handles tightly. Extend your legs behind you to get in the plank position. Engage your glutes and core to keep a neutral spine. Hold for time. Drop to your knees to finish safely.

Stability Ball Side Plank

The addition of the stability ball makes the side planks even tougher (if you can imagine that). The ball messes with your balance, and because your ankles, knees, and hips are not stacked, it further reduces your stability.

Keeping the ball between your legs strengthens your adductors, which is important for injury prevention. Hip adductor strength is one of the most common risk factors for groin injury in sports — so this can be an important part of your injury prevention game. (1)

Benefits of the Stability Ball Side Plank

  • This move helps prevent groin strains by strengthening the adductors.
  • You’ll strengthen the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors.
  • This exercise leads to a more stable and stiffer core that can better transfer power throughout your body during big lifts.

How to Do the Stability Ball Side Plank

Place a stability ball between your ankles and calf muscles, making sure it’s firmly in place. Place your elbow underneath your shoulder. Use your opposite hand to push yourself into a side plank. Raise this hand above your shoulder. Squeeze your glutes and hold for time. Keep your time even on both sides.

TRX Body Saw

Adding movement and instability to the front plank position will help you build a greater level of core strength compared to the regular plank. The TRX body saw does this in spades.

Your feet will be unstable through the movement, meaning you’ll need your core and upper body to work overtime to keep you steady. The body saw also engages other secondary muscles like your deltoids, glutes, and hip flexors, making it more than just a core exercise.

Benefits of the TRX Body Saw

  • This move strengthens your shoulders, glutes, hip flexors, and core.
  • The instability of the TRX engages your body right away for increased time under tension.
  • Keeping your feet in an unstable position makes your core work overtime.

How to Do the TRX Body Saw

Get into the front plank position. Place your feet into the straps. Rest on your forearms. Engage your glutes and core. Prop your body up, keeping your abs and glutes braced. Drive your body back and forth while keeping your back neutral.

Front Plank with Shoulder Tap

The front plank with a shoulder tap is a full-body core exercise that trains your chest and core at the same time. Every time you take one hand off the ground, your whole body has to stabilize, including your chest.

Being stronger in the front plank position will only help you do more push-ups. How? Because the push-up is basically a moving plank.

Benefits of the Front Plank with Shoulder Tap

  • This move trains your chest, hip flexors, abs, back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads as a unit.
  • You’ll improve anti-rotational core strength with each rep.
  • Strengthening the front plank position helps you to be able to perform more push-ups.

How to Do the Front Plank with Shoulder Tap

Begin in a front plank position, with your wrists under your shoulders and your feet hip-width apart. Squeeze your glutes and quads to get your spine neutral. Touch your left shoulder with your right hand without rotating at your hips. Return to the starting position. Touch your right shoulder with your left hand. Alternate sides for the desired reps.

Stability Ball Breathing Front Plank

The stability ball front plank increases your ability to recruit more muscle units without an increase in load. This is due to the greater activation of your core muscles. (2)

When you add breathing to this equation, the deep inhales and exhales not only help strengthen your core — you’ll improve lung function, too. (3)

Benefits of the Stability Ball Breathing Front Plank

  • Improves core strength and lung function at the same time.
  • Easy way to increase the intensity of the front plank without adding weight.
  • The stability ball leads to greater activation of your core muscles.

How to Do the Stability Ball Breathing Front Plank

Kneel in front of a stability ball. Place your elbows on it and position them underneath your shoulders. Straighten your legs behind you. Engage your abs and glutes to maintain a neutral spine. Take a deep inhale through your nose, pause, and then breathe out through your mouth. That is one rep.

Muscles Used in Training Planks

Many of the plank variations on this list are full-body challenges, recruiting But when training planks there are a few select muscle groups that rise above the rest. 

Glutes

Lifters often associate glutes with deadlifts, squats, and hip thrusts — not planks. But your glutes are an integral part of your core. Glute strength and endurance play a huge part in keeping a neutral spine during most plank variations. Keeping them engaged prevents your lower back from going in extension and enjoying all the benefits planks provide.

Shoulders and Upper Back 

All plank variations engage your shoulders and upper back to different degrees. You’ll either be on your hands or your elbows. Especially with less stable variations, your shoulder and upper back muscles will be working to hold yourself up and keep your spine neutral.

Direct Core

When we talk about the direct core, this includes the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse ab, hip flexors, and erector spinae. All these muscles work to varying degrees to stabilize you and keep your spine neutral when performing planks.

Plank Technique Tips

No matter the variation, the key to training planks is to maintain a neutral spine. Without it, all the strengthening benefits of planks pretty much vanish. There are a couple of ways to do maintain your focus on excellent form.

Press Down With Your Elbows and Hands

Whether you are on your elbows or hands, directly apply force to the ground, stability ball, or suspension trainer to help maintain a neutral spine. Think about the way you initiate a deadlift pull by driving your feet down — similarly, driving your hands or elbows down will help maintain proper form in your plank. You’ll keep yourself propped up with your upper back and shoulders fully engaged to tackle gravity.

Engage Your Glutes and Quads

Whenever you squeeze your glutes together, your lower back will resist extension. This is essential for keeping a neutral spine for all plank variations. When you lose tension in your glutes, your hips are likely to sag. If you find that you are overcompensating and shooting your hips upward, try squeezing your quads, too. Engaging both your glutes and your quads will help keep your back and hips in the right position.

Hold It

You don’t have to hold endless front planks to practice isometric core work. Spicing up your core routine with different plank variations can keep you progressively overloading your training. With plank variations, you can keep the gains coming and stave off monotony.

You’ll also be able to emphasize different parts of your body with all the moves there are to choose from — some will place more emphasis than others on your shoulders, chest, glutes, or different parts of your core. If you thought planks were too easy or too boring, try these 15 plank variations to change your mind and maximize your core strength.

References

  1. Jackie L Whittaker, et al. Risk factors for groin injury in sport: an updated systematic review. Br J Sports Med 2015; 49:803-809.
  2. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jan;34(1):1-10. Comparison of the Electromyographic Activity of the Trunk and Rectus Femoris Muscles During Traditional Crunch and Exercise Using the 5-Minute Shaper Device.Silva FHO1, Arantes FJ1, Gregorio FC1, Santos FRA1, Fidale TM1, Bérzin F2, Bigaton DR2, Lizardo FB1.
  3. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Oct; 27(10): 3249–3253. “Effects of different core exercises on respiratory parameters and abdominal strength.” Luca Cavaggioni,1, * Lucio Ongaro,1 Emanuela Zannin,2 F. Marcello Iaia,1 and Giampietro Alberti1.

Featured Image: G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock