Welcome to Customize This Exercise
Welcome to Customize This Exercise, the ongoing series where you’ll find everything you need to modify a standard exercise to meet your goals, your body, and your mood. Each article breaks down how to perform a foundational fitness move, then offers various alterations based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to target most. So leave your pride at that door and ensure every workout meets you where you’re at today.
The side plank is most well-known for one key characteristic: The exercise puts your obliques — the core muscles that are responsible for rotating your trunk — through the wringer.
While that benefit shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s not the only advantage that comes with performing the bodyweight move, says Sal Nakhlawi, a certified functional strength coach and weightlifting coach in New York City. The side plank challenges your balance and also calls on your hip and shoulder muscles to keep you stable, she says. Since it’s an unilateral exercise (meaning it works one side of your body at a time), the side plank may help correct any muscle imbalances too, explains Nakhlawi. “So if you feel like your left side is stronger than your right, you can do the right side plank to help improve strength in that side,” she notes.
The takeaway: The classic side plank can be a seriously challenging move. And luckily, there are plenty of alteration options if it doesn’t feel right for you. Whether you’re giving the exercise a shot for the very first time or the 50th, you can use a scaled-down side plank variation to address any poor form habits or perfect your technique. Looking to progress the move? Try specialized side plank variations that can help you reach specific fitness goals, such as improved core stability, balance, or strength in your lower back or legs. Regardless of your reason, you should feel comfortable adapting the move so it works best with your fitness level, needs, and aspirations.
Ready to give the equipment-free core exercise a shot? Follow the instructions below to master the traditional side plank, then watch as Nakhlawi demonstrates how to mix up the exercise with seven different side plank variations that work for all abilities and fitness goals.
How to Perform a Side Plank
A. Lie on the right side of your body with your right elbow resting on the floor directly beneath your right shoulder, both legs extended out to the left side, and feet stacked. Place your left hand on your left hip.
B. Engage your core, grounding through your right elbow and the side of your right foot, and lift your hips and knees off the floor. Look forward and maintain a straight line from head to heels.
7 Variations of Lateral Plank
If you try out the conventional lateral plank and feel that it doesn’t suit your body, capabilities, or fitness level, you have alternatives. To ensure that you achieve exactly what you desire and require from your training session — and make your core workout truly enjoyable — consider utilizing a lateral plank variation that meets your current position.
Here, you will discover diverse variations of lateral planks that either make the exercise more challenging or easier, as well as options that test your core stability, balance, and strength in your oblique muscles and hip abductors. As you attempt these movements, keep in mind to elevate your hips and knees so that your body forms a straight line from head to toe, as advised by Nakhlawi. Additionally, continuously assess your physical and mental state. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to experiment with a different lateral plank variation.
Modified Lateral Plank to Make it Easier: Lateral Plank on the Knee
If you don’t possess sufficient core power to execute a full-fledged lateral plank — or if you simply want to reduce the intensity of your workout — consider attempting this adapted variation. By keeping your knee resting on the floor, you provide yourself with added stability, allowing you to enhance your strength (without the risk of toppling over) before progressing to more complex variations, according to Nakhlawi.
A. Lie on the right side of your body, with your right elbow resting on the floor directly beneath your right shoulder. Extend both legs out to the left side and stack your knees. Bend your right knee at a 90-degree angle, positioning your right foot behind your body on the floor. Keep your left leg straight, with the inside of your left foot resting on the floor. Place your left hand on your left hip.
B. Activate your core, grounding through your right elbow, right knee, and the inside of your left foot, and lift your hips off the floor. Gaze forward and maintain a straight line from your head to your heels.
Advanced Lateral Plank Variation: Alternating Lateral Planks
In this dynamic exercise, you will alternate between performing planks on your right and left sides — without allowing your hips or knees to touch the ground. Consequently, this lateral plank variation challenges your balance, core stability, and oblique muscles, according to Nakhlawi. Due to its difficulty, Nakhlawi suggests postponing this progression until you can hold traditional lateral planks for 45 to 60 seconds.
A. Rest on the right side of the body with the right elbow resting on the floor directly beneath the right shoulder, both legs extended out to the left side, and feet stacked. Place the left hand on the left hip.
B. Activate the core, grounding through the right elbow and side of the right foot, and lift the hips and knees off the floor. Look forward and maintain a straight line from the head to the heels.
C. Remove the left hand from the hip, unstack the feet, and simultaneously rotate the body to the left and toward the floor, placing the left forearm and left toes on the floor to enter a forearm plank. The forearms should be resting on the mat as if forming an equal sign.
D. Push through the left forearm and left foot and rotate the body to the right, placing the right hand on the right hip and restacking the feet to enter a side plank. Look forward and maintain a straight line from the head to the heels.
Side Plank Variation to Target the Obliques: Side Plank Dips
If the traditional side plank isn’t challenging enough for the obliques, try this variation, in which you gradually lower your hips to the floor and raise them back up again. Trust that even though the movement may be small, it will certainly engage those side abdominal muscles, according to Nakhlawi.
A. Lie on the left side of the body with the left elbow resting on the floor directly beneath the left shoulder, both legs extended out to the right side, and feet stacked. Place the right hand on the right hip.
B. Engage the core, grounding through the left elbow and side of the left foot, and lift the hips and knees off the floor. Look forward and maintain a straight line from the head to the heels.
C. Gradually lower the hips to the floor, then push through the left elbow and side of the left foot to raise the hips and return to the starting position.
Side Plank Variation to Strengthen the Lower Back: Plank with Hip Dips
This variation is essentially a combination of the side plank dips exercise and the classic forearm plank. As a result, the exercise will engage both your obliques and lumbar erector spinae, the muscles in your lower back that extend your trunk and assist in maintaining an upright posture when you’re bent over.
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A. Initiate in a table-top position on the ground with hands placed directly under shoulders, knees bent and positioned directly beneath hips, and feet spaced apart at the width of the hips. Lower one forearm down to the ground at a time, ensuring that the elbows are aligned with the shoulders. Plant the palms firmly on the ground or form gentle fists.
B. Elevate both knees off the ground and straighten the legs to assume a forearm plank position, contracting the glutes together and activating the core. Push away actively from the ground and uphold a straight alignment from the head to the heels.
C. While maintaining the stacked position of the shoulders and elbows, rotate the torso towards the right and slightly lower the right hip a few inches towards the ground. Lift the right hip and return to the center position, then repeat the movement on the opposite side.
Alternative Variation of a Side Plank to Enhance Core Stability: Side Plank Crunch
This variation of a side plank incorporates a crunching motion that aims to challenge your core stability. The muscles in your hips, shoulders, and abdominal region will work diligently to keep your body upright while you draw your elbows and hips closer to your chest, according to Nakhlawi.
A. Lie on the left side of your body with the left elbow resting on the ground directly beneath the left shoulder. Extend both legs towards the right side and stack the feet. Extend the right arm overhead, keeping the right biceps aligned with the right ear.
B. Activate the core by grounding through the left elbow and the side of the left foot. Lift the hips and knees off the ground while maintaining a forward gaze and a straight line from the head to the heels.
C. While sustaining the side plank position, elevate the right foot off the left foot, then drive the right knee towards the chest as you simultaneously bring the right elbow down to meet the chest.
D. Briefly connect the right knee to the right elbow, then extend the right leg and right arm to return to the initial position.
Alternative Variation of a Side Plank to Challenge Balance: Thread-the-Needle Side Plank
In this twist on a side plank, you will sweep your free arm in the region below your rib cage while maintaining the plank position. This rotational movement puts your balance to the test, as you are required to actively stabilize your body while in motion, as explained by Nakhlawi.
A. Lie on the right side of your body with the right elbow resting on the ground directly beneath the right shoulder. Extend both legs towards the left side and stack the feet. Extend the left arm towards the ceiling.
B. Engage the core by grounding through the right elbow and the side of the right foot. Lift the hips and knees off the ground while focusing the gaze towards the left hand, and maintain a straight line from the head to the heels.
C. Maintaining a fixed stare at the left hand and ensuring proper alignment of the shoulders, glide the left hand downwards and beneath the ribcage, keeping it suspended a few inches away from the body. Next, retrieve the left hand from underneath the ribcage and extend it upwards towards the sky.
Side Plank Variation to Focus on Hip Abductors: Side Plank with Leg Lift Hold
To engage both the lower body and core, consider attempting this modified version of the side plank, where you elevate your upper leg and sustain the position, as recommended by Nakhlawi. This alteration will effectively target the muscles responsible for hip abduction, a group situated on the outer region of the hips that assist in maintaining pelvic stability.
A. Lie on the left side of your physique with the left elbow resting on the floor directly beneath the left shoulder, while simultaneously extending both legs towards the right side and stacking the feet on top of each other. Position the right hand on the right hip.
B. Activate the core muscles, grounding yourself through the left elbow and the lateral portion of the left foot, and elevate both the hips and knees off the floor. Direct your gaze forward, maintaining a straight line from head to heels.
C. Raise the right foot off the left foot and elevate the right leg towards the sky until the feet are approximately shoulder-width apart. Maintain this position with the right foot flexed.
Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Sal Nakhlawi
Wardrobe: SET Active