Figuring out how to train your abs can be a toughie. For many lifters, it’s tricky to navigate how to get their abs strong enough — from all angles — to support their heaviest squats and deadlifts. This is where the side plank comes in handy.
Much like the traditional plank, the side plank helps teach you how to hold your core under tension isometrically. This isometric strength is a key component in maintaining your torso shape under heavy loads. By working one side at a time, the side plank helps you ensure that your core will be strong from multiple angles. Here’s how to do it and why you should.
- How to Do the Side Plank
- Side Plank Sets and Reps
- Common Side Plank Mistakes
- Side Plank Variations
- Side Plank Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Side Plank
- Benefits of the Side Plank
- Who Should Do the Side Plank
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Side Plank
Form-wise, it’s easy to do the side plank — but it’s also easy to do the side plank wrong. Learn how to do it the right way to give yourself maximum benefits.
Step 1 — Lie on Your Side
Lie on one side with your elbow under your shoulder and your top leg stacked over your bottom leg. You can keep your knees bent or opt to keep your legs straight. Make sure there’s cushioning under your forearm to ensure that you can focus on your core rather than pain from your elbow and forearm rubbing against the ground.
If you’re a beginner or your body needs extra support, you can bring your top foot down in front of your bottom foot. When you press up into position, placing your top foot on the ground in front of your bottom foot will widen your base of support.
Coach’s Tip: If your arms are particularly long, you might opt to position your elbow a little above your shoulder on the ground instead of directly under it. However, to maximize the tension on your core, aim to gradually place your elbow directly under your shoulder.
Step 2 — Press Your Hips Up
Press your elbow, your hips, and your feet (or bottom foot, if your feet are stacked directly on top of each other) into the ground. Raise your hips as high as you can, aiming to establish a straight line from your ribs through your hips and bottom leg.
Keep your bottom shoulder down and away from your ear instead of letting your shoulder shrug up and your head collapse.
Coach’s Tip: Find the right position for you by feeling around to where your core is feeling the strongest contraction.
Step 3 — Hold the Position and Breathe
Once you’ve found your optimal position, hold it as steadily as you’re able. Your top arm can rest on your hip or side with your arm straight or bent.
Don’t hold your breath. Make sure you’re breathing during your plank. Hold the position as long as you can without breaking your form.
Repeat this process on your other side, keeping your times even.
Coach’s Tip: Start your set on your weaker side. That way, your second set (on the opposite side) can more easily match the time you achieve with your first set.
Side Plank Sets and Reps
Sets and reps look a little bit different for isometric exercises than they do for more dynamic movements. Instead of counting reps, you’ll be counting seconds.
- For Muscle Mass: Do three to four sets per side for 45 to 60 seconds.
- For Strength: Perform two to three sets per side for 30 to 45 seconds. Hold a dumbbell in your top hand during your set to increase your strength.
- For Endurance: Aim to do three sets per side, holding each set as long as possible.
You can customize the number of seconds per set according to your own experience level. So if 45 to 60 seconds feels extremely short, feel free to add weight or extend the duration of your sets.
On the other hand, if 30 to 45 seconds feels extremely long, start smaller. Even five to 10 seconds per side can start helping you build the strength you need to get your core stronger.
Common Side Plank Mistakes
It’s easy to hop onto your side, lift your hips for a few mindless seconds, and call it an ab workout. But to maximize your core gains, you’ll want to make sure you’re doing it properly. Here are a few typical mistakes in the side plank that you’ll want to avoid.
Holding Your Breath
One of the biggest crimes you can commit during your side plank is forgetting to breathe. When you’re not breathing, you’re failing to bring this lift to its fullest potential. Hold your core in a strong brace during this lift, and take big, slow breaths through your abdomen. Really fill your belly up with each slow breath.
This will increase your muscular engagement and force your core to work a whole lot harder. Breathing during your side planks will also give you excellent practice at controlled breathing during a strong core brace. That will come in handy during lifts as versatile as deadlifts and overhead presses.
Sinking Your Hips
Even though this is a core exercise, the movement is all about your hips. Keeping your hips up — as though there’s an invisible string pulling them up toward the ceiling — is critical for an effective side plank. When your hips start to sink, your core muscles become much less involved in the movement.
Maintaining maximum core involvement means a focus on keeping your hips up and steady. Doing so will ensure that your obliques are as involved as they can be.
Not Holding Long Enough
Side planks can be intimidating for even the strongest of athletes. If you’re used to hoisting heavy barbells, manipulating and holding your own body weight might not be in your normal wheelhouse.
To avoid the discomfort that can come with exercises like this, many lifters may end their sets too early. Make sure you’re focusing on what your core can handle, letting your body approach failure before your mind. You can do this little by little, pushing one or two seconds longer than you think you can with each passing set.
Shrugging Your Shoulder
You don’t want to be focused on your arms during this isometric hold. Instead, you want all the emphasis to be on your core and your hips. To facilitate this, make sure you’re keeping your shoulder down and away from your ear. Continue to avoid shrugging your shoulder up toward your face even when the going gets tough.
If you don’t feel like there’s an alternative, it might well be time to call it a set and go again after a period of rest. To further increase your arm’s comfort — which might be a reason your shoulder starts to shrug — place a soft yoga mat or exercise mat under your elbow and forearm.
Side Plank Variations
The side plank is itself a variation of the regular plank. What variations does this variation have lurking? Here are a few of the best ones.
Side Plank with Resistance Band Row
Adding a resistance band can make even the toughest exercises even tougher. And adding movement to an isometric exercise is an almost guaranteed way to increase the challenge even more.
When you secure a resistance band to an anchor like a power rack or squat rack, you can use it to add a row to your side plank. You’ll have to fight hard to maintain your balance and not tip yourself backward. This will fire up your core even further, while giving your back a nice workout, too.
Rotational Side Plank
Adding a rotation to your side plank is a great way to challenge your balance and make sure that your obliques really are doing what they’re supposed to.
You can perform the rotational side plank with or without a free weight in your hand. Start this move by just moving your arm, then add weight once you get used to the movement.
Side Plank Crunches
These aren’t your average crunches. And they’re also not your average side plank. The side plank crunch brings both of these classic core exercises to the next level.
Performing a crunch at the top of your side plank will require you to bring your top elbow toward your top knee. In doing so, you’ll add lateral flexion to this isometric move. Plus, it’ll increase the balance challenge in a big way.
Side Plank Alternatives
Can’t or don’t want to get on the ground? You don’t have to. These side plank alternatives are best-served standing. Or hanging from a pull-up bar.
The suitcase carry looks nothing like the side plank, but they’ve actually got a lot in common. They’ll both be testing your oblique strength while challenging you to keep your shoulders in a stable position.
With the suitcase carry, you’ll be operating under a lot of load offset to one side. This will work your grip strength and even cardiovascular endurance in addition to giving your core a great workout.
Side-to-Side Hanging Leg Raise
The side-to-side hanging leg raise takes regular leg raises and has your legs go — you guessed it — from side to side. You’ll go left with one rep and right with another. This will increase your oblique involvement, making it a great alternative to the side plank.
You can also perform this move with bent knees, making it more of a knee raise than a leg raise. Either way, make sure the contraction is coming from your obliques rather than your hip flexors for maximum effectiveness.
The Pallof press is another alternative to the side plank that will tax your obliques and overall body stability all at once. You’ll be using a cable machine or resistance band to assist you here.
When you do the Pallof press, keep your shoulders down and away from your ears, just like you do with the side plank. Keep your reps even on both sides, and your core will feel it in the morning.
Muscles Worked by the Side Plank
This one’s pretty straightforward. The side plank primarily works the sides of your core — your obliques. You’ll be involving your hips and shoulders, too, since those will be holding you up. But mostly, all the pressure to perform this isometric move should be squarely on your obliques.
Your oblique muscles make up the sides of your core. You’ve got internal and external obliques, both of which cross your torso diagonally. Your external obliques kick in with hip flexion (bringing your knees toward your chest) and help rotate your spine.
The internal obliques are also big players in your side plank. It’s a good thing, too, because these puppies support your abdominal wall, helping to keep your spine stable. This is especially handy when you’re bracing for and performing forced respiration during your heavy loaded lifts — think deadlifts and squats.
Benefits of the Side Plank
If you want to maximize your core strength and your performance in the gym overall, you don’t want to sleep on the side plank. Here’s why.
Improve Squat and Deadlift Strength
The squat and deadlift have you moving straight up and down. Ideally, you don’t have any side-to-side movement in there. Strengthening your obliques is actually a huge part of this. The stronger your core is overall — including your obliques — the more stable your up-and-down barbell lifts can be.
With a stronger, more stable core — which the side plank will help you build — you’ll be better able to transfer force as efficiently as possible into moving a loaded barbell. This translates into stronger, more powerful lifts.
Practice Bracing and Breathing
If you do nothing else during your side plank, you still need to breathe. Filling up your core with air from 360 degrees while it’s under isometric tension is excellent practice for heavy bracing under big loads. When you’re piling on the weight plates, you’ll be grateful for the practice with taking deep belly breaths under tension.
Build a Stronger Core
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of side planks is forging a stronger core. By integrating side planks into your program, you’re prioritizing a strong, stable core that can support you through any kind of loaded movement — from fast-paced, explosive exercises to slow, grinding deadlifts.
Who Should Do the Side Plank
It might be tempting to skimp on core-specific exercises during your program. Especially if you work a lot of loaded carries and front squats into your training rotation, it’s easy to assume you don’t need any accessory core training. But a little bit can go a long way.
Newbies to the gym are unlikely to be lifting enough weight to give their core a full training stimulus without training their abs directly. Especially with modifications like keeping your top foot out on the ground in front of your bottom foot — or even keeping your bottom knee on the ground entirely — the side plank can be accessible to many beginners.
Competitive Strength Athletes
From powerlifters and weightlifters to CrossFit athletes and bodybuilders, a strong core is absolutely essential for strength athletes looking to compete at high levels.
While the side plank might not be the most accessible move for powerlifters and strongman athletes in very heavy weight classes, many competitive strength athletes can benefit from the low-impact isometric stimulus that side planks provide.
Folks Who Work Out at Home
No weights, no problem. The side plank is a spectacular exercise to do when you’re working out without equipment, whether you’re at home or traveling. You can bust out this move wherever and whenever you’re working out — just grab some padding for your elbow and forearm and your ab workout is ready to go.
Slide to Your Side
The side plank is a spectacular accompaniment to any well-rounded core workout. Whether your goal is crafting that six-pack or hitting your next one-rep max on the platform, sprinkling side planks into your routine can help get you there.
You’ll find the side plank pretty much everywhere you find ab training. So it’s understandable to have a lot of questions about it. Here is a load of answers.
How long should I hold a side plank?
You should hold the side plank for as long as you can hold excellent form (and keep your time even on both sides). For some athletes, this may last five to 15 seconds. In that case, add to that time gradually, pushing your efforts further a few seconds at a time until you can approach a 30-second or even 45-second plank on either side.
Other athletes may be able to hold the side plank much longer, and that’s great, too. If you can, aim to hold the side plank for 30 to 60 seconds per side. If you can go even longer than that, try to make it to 90 seconds.
Once you can comfortably hit the 60 to 90-second range with good form, consider upping the ante with variations like the side plank crunch and side plank rotations.
Is the side plank a good oblique exercise?
The side plank will challenge your obliques, for sure. As long as you keep your hips pressed up so that your lower body forms a straight line from your shoulders down to your heels, your obliques will likely feel the tension. They’ll get a lot stronger as a result.
How can I modify the side plank?
You can make the side plank more accessible by placing your top foot on the ground in front of your bottom foot. This will widen your base of support and give you a stronger starting point, making balance less of an issue. You can also lower your bottom knee completely, letting it rest on the ground to give yourself more points of contact.
If you want to modify the side plank to make it even more challenging, add a rotation to the mix while holding a dumbbell. You can also add a crunch or resistance band row your side plank to give yourself an added stability and balance challenge.
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