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Movement Tip: A Proper Side Plank

The side plank is an often prescribed exercise intended to help build core strength focusing on the oblique abdominal muscles.  It’s an exercise that I find many people brush off as relatively easy.  They feel that to really get those oblique muscles they should be torquing and twisting their torsos.  If we’re being honest, a medicine ball twist certainly looks like more fun that just hanging out in a static hold.  So, I can appreciate the allure.

I always feel that simple is often better, and if you think a side plank is too easy, then you are not doing it properly.  I don’t think that anyone would argue that gymnasts have some of the strongest mid sections around, and as a former gymnast I can tell you that before we ever started twisting, we spent a lot of time in basic static holds.  Another consideration is that if you’ve already got some sort of low back discomfort and you’ve been told to “strengthen your core,” picking twisting movements that require you to already have a strong core are not going to help you, and you’ll probably end up hurting even more.

The side plank is a fail-safe exercise to build a strong mid-section.  If done right, it is highly effective and difficult at nearly any level.  It’s a rare occasion that I see it performed properly, so I hope that this article will help you with nailing down a proper side plank.

To execute this exercise, lie on your side on the floor and prop your torso up by using the floor side arm and placing the elbow stacked under your shoulder with forearm flat on the ground.
Align your body so that head, shoulders, hips and ankles are all square and stacked with one another.

Raise hips off the ground creating a straight line from the top of the head through to your feet with a neutral spine as if a steel rod were passing through you.

Core should be engaged by thinking of cinching a corset tight around your waist, holding in a poo and pee, and bracing as if you will be punched in the stomach. You should still be able to breathe with this engagement.  Hold for specified time.

Think driving elbow and forearm through the ground to give shoulder space and proper support. Shoulder blade should be braced against rib cage throughout movement.

Your body should have a slight tilt forward so that your shoulder blade follows the curvature of your rib cage and is in optimal position for support.  The slight tilt will also put emphasis on the obliques.  If stacked perfectly perpendicular to the ground, the load distribution begins to be shared with other lateral support muscles such as the quadratus lumborum (QL).  This might be okay if that’s your goal, but I have found that most people are fine in this position, but as soon as the slight tilt is implemented, they start to collapse.

Slowly return to start position and repeat.

The most common error I see with this exercise is a twist through the torso where the shoulders are usually tilting forward and the hips are rolled back.  This will give you the illusion that you can hold the position for a long time as instead of using your muscles, you are counter balancing the load.  Shoulders and hips should remain square with one another.  Avoid twisting and rolling back of hips.  I find that balancing on the side of your mid-foot with your heel slightly floating off the ground helps keep you conscious of this.

See the video below for instructions.

Suggested Variables to Start:

2-3 sets with 45-60 seconds rest in between, 3-5 reps each side of 5-10 second isometric holds.