When it comes to bang-for-your-buck core exercises, side planks will never go out of style. That's because, in addition to hitting your glutes and abdominals, side planks also work your legs, shoulders and back.
Making side planks a regular part of your routine is a great way to build head-to-toe strength and endurance. So if you can't hold the move for at least 30 seconds, it's worth figuring out how to improve.
Here, fitness experts explain where your side planks might be going wrong and offer advice for getting them right.
If Your: Hips Sag Toward the Floor
You Might: Have Weak Obliques
To pull off the side plank, the oblique muscles (the ones that run along the sides of your torso) have to be strong enough to resist gravity.
"Gravity is essentially pulling us toward the floor," says NASM-certified personal trainer Lauren Kanski. "While it's natural for the hips to sag, the idea behind the side plank is to resist that pull."
Of course, your obliques can't do all that work alone; they need significant help from your glutes, quads and even your back and shoulder muscles to resist the pull of gravity. However, the obliques are a key player here, so they need to be strong.
Modify the side plank until your obliques are ready for the full version. Bring your top foot to the floor in front of the bottom foot to add stability or press up into a side plank and return to the floor instead of holding the position, Kanski says.
It may also help to incorporate more oblique-focused core exercises into your routine. Gillian Walker, founder and CEO of The Hot Yoga Dome, recommends Russian twists, bicycle crunches, standing side bends (with or without weights) and cross-body mountain climbers.
Move 1: Russian Twist
- Begin seated and lean back slightly.
- Use your core to twist from side to side.
Move 2: Bicycle Crunch
- Start lying flat on your back with your hands behind your head. Contract your lower abs to raise your legs a few inches off the ground.
- Twist your torso and bend your left knee so that your right elbow crosses your body and reaches toward your left knee.
- Switch and twist to the other side so that your left elbow reaches toward your bent right knee.
- Keep alternating sides without tucking your chin toward your chest.
Move 3: Standing Side Bend
- Stand tall with your arms at your side.
- Without rotating or twisting your trunk, hinge to the side and slowly slide the weight down the side of your leg until it reaches your knee.
- Return to standing and repeat on the other side.
Move 4: Cross-Body Mountain Climber
- Start in a high plank.
- Drive your right knee toward your left elbow.
- Return your right knee to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side, driving your left knee to your right elbow.
- Alternate between right and left as quickly as you can while maintaining the plank position.
If Your: Torso Leans Forward or Backward
You Might: Need to Work on Balance and Form
Side planks really test your balance: "In a side plank, you only have two points of contact on the ground as opposed to four in a conventional plank," says Ben Wegman, a founding trainer and chief curriculum officer at Fhitting Room.
To master this balancing act, you need to make sure your form is on-point. If it's not, your torso will likely fall forward or backward during the side plank.
Which direction you fall may depend on where your form is breaking down. If you're falling forward, chances are you're putting more weight into the legs, "turning it into a quad exercise rather than an oblique exercise," Walker says. Meanwhile, rolling backward means you're likely dumping weight into your bottom shoulder instead of engaging it, he says.
If you struggle to stay balanced during side planks, first focus on your form and alignment. “Pretend like you’re pressed between two panes of glass, so the spine is straight, hips are extended, and the obliques and glutes are taking the brunt of [the work],” Kanski says.
While you’ll likely feel this exercise mostly in your obliques and glutes, engaging all the muscles between your feet and shoulders will help you stay aligned. Flex your feet to create tension in your lower legs and engage the sides of your upper back to support your shoulders.
Ensure your elbow is directly under your bottom shoulder and your forearm is pressing firmly into the ground. “When the shoulder is properly engaged, the side body will be brought back into alignment,” Walker says.
Still wobbling? Modify the exercise. Instead of stacking your heels, place your top foot on the ground of your bottom foot. “This creates three points of contact on the floor and a much more stable base,” Wegman says.
If Your: Neck or Shoulder Hurts
You Might: Have to Engage Your Upper Body
If you feel neck or shoulder pain during or after side planks, you may need to rethink how you approach the exercise. You may consider side planks just a core exercise. But to do them pain-free, you need to involve your entire body — shoulders included.
If you forget to engage your shoulders, your upper body will collapse, Wegman says. This collapse causes your shoulders to shrug, which adds tension, soreness and pain to the neck and shoulders over time.
Get your shoulders involved to keep your upper body from collapsing. Think about pressing your bottom forearm into the ground and pulling the shoulders down the spine.
“A great visual is to think about creating as much space as possible between the floor and the side of the body,” Wegman says.
If your shoulders still collapse, modify the side plank to make it easier on your upper body. You can stagger the top foot in front of your bottom foot or even drop your bottom knee to the ground, Wegman says.