Few moves are as good for your midsection as the side plank, yet despite this, it’s often overlooked in favour of the standard face-down, forearm supported, regular Joe variety of plank. There’s nothing wrong with that, but by ignoring the side plank you’re ignoring the often weak muscle called the quadratus lumborum, part of the posterior abdominal wall that plays a prominent role in averting back pain.
Researchers in Finland found that people who had poor muscle endurance in their lower backs are three to four times more likely to develop on-going lower back problems that those who have fair or good endurance. What constitutes good endurance? Being able to hold a flawless side plank on either side for a minute. But not just once. For a minimum of three sets.
There are several other benefits for going unilateral with your core drills. Working either side of your body separately will help identify any weaknesses in your joints and muscle, helping you address them before they become chronic issues. If you find you can hold a side plank easy on one side and barely at all on the other then there’s an imbalance you need to work on. It’s the same with shoulder presses, lunges and any move you can do unilaterally. But we digress, back to the all conquering side plank.
Follow the instructions below to master the move and then the step up your oblique game by advancing to the four tougher variations.
Side Plank Form Guide
- Start on your side with your feet together and one forearm directly below your shoulder.
- Contract your core and raise your hips until your body is in a straight line from head to feet.
- Hold the position without letting your hips drop for the allotted time for each set, then repeat on the other side.
Common Form Mistakes
- Ensure you’re balancing on the side of your foot and not the sole as this is key to prolonging stability.
- Engage your abdominals at all times to keep the body rigid. Forget to do this and your body will likely sway and lose strength.
- Try to keep your head and neck straight. Ideally find a spot on the wall and keep your eyes locked on it.
- The longer you hold the side plank, the better. Anything in excess of a minute is good, two minutes plus is excellent. To make the exercise harder, straighten your supporting arm with the palm flat on the mat. You can also elevate your feet on an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball for added difficulty.
Aim to achieve these times on both sides of your body to maintain muscular balance
- 15sec – novice
- 30sec – average
- 1min – good
- 2min – very good
- 3min – excellent
- 4min – side-plank master
Side Plank Variations
Kneeling side plank
If you’re finding the standard side plank too tough to hold for longer than a few seconds then build up your oblique strength slowly by starting with this less demanding variation of the exercise. Lie on your side supporting yourself on your forearm and your knees, rather than your feet. Engage your core and hold a straight line from your knees to your head – don’t let your hips sag.
Raised side plank
Lifting an arm and a leg introduces other muscles into the hold and makes your core work harder to maintain balance. Don’t let your hips sag.
Gym ball side plank
Rest your supporting arm on a gym ball, the extra instability makes it tougher to hold the position. Use your core muscles to control the wobble.
Bosu ball side plank
Resting your feet or elbow on a Bosu ball adds some instability to the exercise, increasing the challenge to your core without being quite as tough a variation as the gym ball version. Although if you have both to hand (and a forgiving audience) you can really up the ante by resting your elbow on the gym ball and your feet on the Bosu ball.
Side plank crunch
When elevating your limbs during a side plank no longer presents a challenge, you need to start moving them. For the side plank crunch you get into the standard position, then raise your top leg and arm. Hold for a second in this position, then bring your leg up and your arm down so your elbow meets your knee somewhere around your hips. The rest of your body should remain as still as possible during the exercise, so if your torso is twisting and your hips are sagging, you’re better off doing stationary side planks instead to develop your core strength.
Side plank with lateral raise
Hold your body in a straight line from head to feet with your elbow directly beneath your shoulder. Maintain the plank position while slowly raising and lowering the weight. Use a light dumbbell – this move is more about improving co-ordination than building muscle.
Side plank pulse
Add a vertical hip drive to the side plank to test your abs ability to generate power as well as provide static stability. From the side plank position, lower your hips until they’re just off the floor and then drive them up as far as you can with each rep.
Joe Warner worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach, from 2008 to 2013, then returned as editor of Men’s Fitness UK from 2016 to 2019.
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