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4 Side Plank Variations For A Stronger Core

Try out these moves to help improve your bigger lifts.

The side plank is an exercise lifters love to hate. Why? Because there is no barbell in sight, they’re tough to perform correctly, and those payoffs aren’t immediately obvious. But the benefits of it — such as a stronger and more stable core and improved bracing — are worth the anguish.

I’m going to let you in on a trade secret. Most trainers avoid side planks like the plague themselves but program them for their clients anyway. When my coach programs side planks, I’ll utter a few choice words, but then I’ll do them. Because I know that the benefits of those side planks will pay off in the form of an improved deadlift and stronger squat.

So together, we’re going to take a look at four side plank variations, and get over our distaste of them for the sake of our goals.

Side plank
Image via Shutterstock/LarsZ

[Related: The Right Way to Breathe When You’re Doing a Plank]

How to Perform A 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, then 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 ankles to shoulders. Hold that for the designated time. Lower down and rest for the allotted time and then repeat each step.

Side Plank Form Tips

Here are three things to keep in mind that will help you maintain better form when performing side planks:

  1. Make sure your body is in a straight line from head to heel. There is a tendency to roll the torso forward making this a quad-dominant exercise and not a core exercise. To avoid this, stay aware of your body positioning when setting up.   
  1. Many tend to forget the side plank is a shoulder stability exercise. Make sure you have your elbow underneath your shoulder, and that you think to push your elbow and forearm through the floor to engage the shoulder and upper back. If you collapse your neck into your shoulder while having a disengaged shoulder blade, your body is likely to follow suit.
  1. Engage your glutes and quads to prevent your hips from sagging down. When your hips drop, your core isn’t doing its job of keeping the spine in neutral. 

Side Plank Benefits

Here are four quick key additional benefits of side planks to help motivate you to incorporate them into your training routine.

  • Side planks strengthen the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that plays an important role in preventing lower back pain. 
  • Lower back pain often comes from a lack of endurance from the core muscles. Side and front planks help solve this problem. 
  • Side planks strengthen the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors which play a role in strengthening the spine/pelvis area and protecting it from injury. 
  • This exercise leads to a more stable and stiffer core which will help you to transfer power from the lower body to the upper body. This is useful for most pressing exercises such as the overhead press.

Four Side Plank Variations

Once you’ve mastered the basic side plank and are looking to further strengthen and challenge your lateral core with instability, movement, and resistance take these four variations out for a spin.

1. Stability Ball Side Plank 

Take a stability ball and place it on the inner side of your calves, then maneuver into a side plank. The addition of the stability ball makes a tough exercise even tougher as the instability added by the ball messes with your balance. Additionally, since your ankles, knees, and hips are not stacked in this variation, stability is challenged even further. If you are performing this variation correctly, you should notice tension on your adductors to help maintain the position.

Although this position may feel a tad awkward at first and your focus will be pulled toward maintaining the ball in position, don’t forget to keep your core engaged and to remember to push your elbow away from you into the floor to ensure proper alignment of the torso and neck.

2. Side Plank With Mini Band Hip Abduction 

Wrap a mini band around your ankles and then set up in the side plank position with your joints stacked (elbow underneath your shoulder). While in the side plank position, attempt to touch your top ankle to your hand that is in the air and then lower it back down. This is one repetition.

This will be difficult and the resistance will naturally lead to your hips wanting to dip. Resist that urge and maintain a solid plank, elevated hips included. You can see that tendency for the hips to drop in this video below. If this happens to you, that’s okay, just reset into a good position after each repetition.

The hip abduction muscles play an important role in keeping the hip and knee joints stable and are vital for single-leg balance. This variation strengthens them in the side plank position with a mini band is a challenge for your hips, core, and balance.

3. Side Plank With Row

Attach a resistance band to a secure anchor point and grab it before setting up into your side plank. The closer to the anchor point you are, the easier the movement will be. The opposite is also true: further away is more difficult, so adjust accordingly to your strength level. 

Prop yourself up into a side plank and row until your elbow is level with your torso. From there, perform a row by pulling your elbow until it is in line with your torso. Then perform a slow eccentric to the starting position and repeat for reps.

This exercise can also be done using a cable machine and adjusting the weight accordingly. With the resistance pulling your forward, this increases the demand on the obliques to resist rotation while reaping the benefits of the row. Don’t go too heavy with this exercise. It’s a core exercise, not a strength movement.

4. Side Plank With Rotation

Set up in your side plank, forming a straight line from your shoulder to your foot, and extend your opposite arm up above your shoulder. Rotate your torso down towards the floor, reaching under your torso with your arm. Using a light dumbbell is optional for increased difficulty. Once you have rolled as far as you can without breaking the side plank, rotate back to the starting position. Repeat for reps or for time.

The rotational component makes this exercise both a static and dynamic one, further strengthening your obliques. As your weight is rolling forward and back in this movement, it trains the isometric, concentric, and eccentric every rep.  Plus, your balance is challenged as you have to prevent yourself from hitting the floor, even though you’re close to it.

Wrapping Up

Side planks are tough, no doubt. If you’re like me and cringe when they’re in your program, perhaps these variations can help you strengthen your ability to do them properly, and eventually, you won’t dread them as much. The benefits are too good to ignore from a performance and injury prevention standpoint, and it is worth your time and effort to add these into your training routine.

Feature image via Shutterstock/LarsZ

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