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The right way to do a plank so that it doesn't hurt your back

All of the benefits of a plank are dependent on your form. Here's what you need to know in order to strengthen and tone your core.
Illustration of woman doing a plank on a yellow background
When done properly a plank works your entire body — your abs, arms, back, glutes and legs.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

In this series, we’re helping you master basic exercises — as if you had a personal trainer by your side! Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge to perform these moves properly in order to get better results and prevent injury.

The plank is one of the go-to moves when it comes to working the core, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy! Although it seems simple, it's easy to perform a plank incorrectly — and improper form not only negates the core-strengthening benefits, but can lead to back strain as well.

That's why it's so important to make sure you're holding your body correctly when performing the move. For many, this may mean modifying the move to build up your core strength and working your way up to the full plank.

What does a plank do for the body?

In addition to being a core exercise, a plank is a full-body exercsie that requires proper engagement of the thighs, arms and back. But to reap these benefits, you have to engage all of these muscles, which is something people often overlook. (You likely aren't focused on tightening your quads and glutes while in a plank position, right?) All of the benefits of a plank — increased balance and posture, improved core strength, reduced stomach fat — are dependent on your form.

Common mistakes people make when planking

I see a lot of my clients arching their backs while in plank position, which defeats the purpose of the exercise and can even cause injury. Instead of allowing your back to collapse, tighten your abs, pulling your belly button inwards (toward the ceiling). Reach your tailbone toward your heels by tilting your pelvis slightly back. This will ensure correct form and reduced risk for back injury.

My clients also tend to let their heads drop down toward the floor. Your neck is connected to your spine, so try to keep that in mind while in plank position. You don’t want to strain your neck, so keep the top of your head reaching toward the front of the room, with your eyes on the floor a couple of inches in front of your hands.

How to do a modified plank

If you lack the strength to hold a standard plank without your back starting to arch, don't worry. Plenty of my clients struggle with letting their stomachs droop toward the floor. This happens when your body becomes tired, forcing you to rely on your back when you should be engaging the core.

One way to fix this problem is to modify the plank so that your knees are bent on the ground. Be sure to keep your torso straight from your head to your tailbone, and continue to pull your belly button inwards, tightening the core. By performing a knee plank, you’re allowing yourself to focus on your form without worrying about collapsing your back, which could cause injury.

How to perform a plank properly

A plank may be a static move, but getting there (with proper form) is a process.

  1. Start on your hands and knees on the mat. Line your shoulders up over your wrists, and make sure your wrists are parallel with the front of the mat.
  2. Walk your knees back a few inches, but make sure that your shoulders stay over your wrists. This means that your hips will not be over your knees anymore; your hips will be further forward, and your knees will be behind your hips.
  3. Pull your navel in toward your spine as if there is fire on the mat and you’re trying to pull your stomach away from the fire.
  4. Tuck your toes under and lift your legs up off of the ground. Squeeze your quads and reach your heels toward the back of the room.
  5. Make sure your shoulders are over your wrists, and that you’re looking a few inches in front of your fingers to keep your head and neck elongated. If you have a mirror, check yourself out to ensure that you’re in one straight line!

4 exercises that will help you plank better

These exercises will teach you how to properly engage your body when doing a full plank.

Wall push-ups

Place your hands flat on the wall and step your feet back a few steps away from the wall so that your body is at an angle. Perform a push up. Repeat 10 times. This will get your core warmed up for the next few moves.

Modified plank

Move to a push-up position on your hands and knees and hold. This modified plank position will work your entire core, but in a less intense way, allowing you to really focus on your form. Hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat two more times.

Modified push-ups

From this modified plank position, perform 10 push-ups by lowering your chest to the ground and then pushing the ground away to return to the starting position. By performing modified push-ups, you are gradually increasing the intensity of the move and challenging your balance — slowly working your way up to the plank.

Forearm plank hold

Move from your hands down to your forearms and straighten your legs so that you are now balancing on your toes in a low plank position. Hold this for 10 seconds, release. Repeat two more times.

Run through this sequence, gradually increasing the time you hold each position until you feel ready to attempt a full plank. When you do, start slow. Hold a full plank for 10 seconds and then break. Steadily work your way up to longer intervals, but make sure to dial it back if you feel your back arching.