Planking has found its way into a wide variety of exercise systems — and with good reason. Done correctly, it’s a great (and efficient) way to work your core. But without proper form, you might be missing out on the benefits, and you could even risk straining your back, neck or shoulders. As the name suggests, you want your body to be one straight line, head to toe. Here are nine tips to get you there, for your best plank yet.
1. Take your time getting set up to establish a strong base. Start in a quadruped position (on your hands or elbows and knees), roll your shoulders back and down, engage your abs and press one leg back at a time.
2. Line up your hands (for high plank) or elbows (for low plank) right under your shoulders, tucked in close to your sides. If your arms are reaching long, don’t hyperextend your elbows — a slight bend will protect your joints and make your arm muscles work.
3. Keep your abs in line — literally. Be sure your ribs and belly do not droop down toward the floor, as this can hurt your back — and you won’t get the core work you’re trying for. To fix it, pull up and in through your lower abs to lift your lower back, and engage your lats (lattisimi dorsi) and upper abdominals to keep your ribs in line, too.
4. Don’t let your shoulders creep up toward your ears. Pull them gently down your back (use those lats!) to put the work in your core, taking any strain out of your neck and shoulders.
5. Gaze straight down at the floor. Your neck should be a natural extension of your spine — not craning up or hanging down.
6. Keep your hips even. Most of us have a dominant side that likes to take over the work. Resist this urge! Check that both hips are square (parallel) to the floor, with weight evenly distributed between both sides of your body.
7. Release those glutes! Squeezing your glutes (or large gluteus maximus muscles) in a plank will strain your lower back, reducing the work you can get in your core. Pull up and in through your lower abs to stabilize instead.
Tip: A great way to pull “up and in” with your lower abdominal muscles is to imagine squeezing into those tight jeans. Pull your belly button to your spine (in theory — not actually!) and zip up those jeans.
8. Try feet hip-distance apart, or keep your legs squeezed together. If you feel stable enough with legs together, do that: not only will you get good inner thigh work (remember to squeeze!), but practicing with legs together helps take any strain out of the lower back. It also makes it easier to engage your low abs when you’re squeezing the legs.
9. Only hold your plank for as long as you can keep great form — this will mean better muscle work and less strain. As you get stronger, add on more time to challenge yourself. For even more of a challenge, try lifting one foot at a time to a hover. Just keep those hips level!