Strengthen Your Core With Pilates Plank Variations

Plank is a popular exercise in Pilates, yoga, and other fitness methods. Holding this one position strengthens your core and gives your whole body a workout. Plank tones the arms and legs, and especially the shoulder, back, and abdominal muscles.

Alignment for Plank in Pilates

When we do plank in Pilates, we pay special attention to our alignment. Certain key elements will be part of each version of plank we look at in this series. Use this checklist to make sure each plank you do reinforces the integrity of your whole body:

  • Your abdominal muscles are in and lifted.
  • Your spine is long.
  • Your shoulders are relaxed with the scapula (wing bones) settled in the back, not popping up. (read about scapular stabilization)
  • Your legs are engaged in the movement, drawing in toward the mid-line of your body.
  • Your body creates one long line from your ankle bone to your ear.
  • Your neck is a long extension of your spine.
  • All of your movements are performed with the Pilates principles: centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow.

Pilates Plank - Plain

A woman performing a plank exercise in the comfort of her own living room.See more home exercise images here:
Anthony Mayatt/E+/Getty Images

Let's get started.

Pilates Plank

1. Begin on your hands and knees with your knees directly under your hips, and your hands directly under your shoulders.

  • Roll your shoulders back and down as if you were going to slide your scapula into your pockets. Have your fingertips pointing forward and turn your inner elbows slightly forward as well. These moves will help stabilize your upper body and keep your chest open.

2. Lift up in your middle as you step one foot straight back and then the other. Keep your legs engaged in supporting the plank position.

3. Hold for 3 - 5 breaths. Release and repeat 1 or 2 more times.

Dolphin Arm Plank

Pilates Front Support
Pilates Front Support. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Dolphin arm plank is an interesting variation taken from yoga. Though it is very similar to the plank we do with straight arms, some people feel it drives even more effort into the core abdominal and back muscles.

1. Begin as you did for regular plank, on your hands and knees. Then move your elbows to the floor directly under your shoulders.

  • Your forearms can extend on the floor straight in front of you with your hands flat, or your hands can be clasped with fingers entwined. Make sure your shoulders are back and down, and your chest is open.

2. Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in to support the movement as you step back into a plank position. Again, your legs are together. The length of your body is supporting this move -- it is not focused only on the upper body.

3. It is tempting to either sag in the middle or let the butt be too high. Both positions make things easier on the core, but it's the core that we want to work! So make sure you are in a straight line.

4. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths. Release and repeat 1 or 2 more times.

Both regular plank and dolphin arm plank are good exercises for testing your symmetry side to side. The shoulders should be even on both sides as should your pelvis. Double check that alignment so that you increase your shoulder and pelvic stability as you work.

Side Plank Set Up

Side plank is more difficult than the last two plank positions we worked with, plain and dolphin arm. Supporting yourself in a sideways position is much less stable.

In Pilates, we take advantage of unstable positions to help us develop core strength as the core muscles have to work hard to make the subtle adjustments that keep the form we want.

Side plank takes support from the whole body, especially the abs. But in side plank, you are going to need your core to provide even more stability for the pelvis, and you will need a lot of shoulder stability and arm strength as well.

1. Begin sitting sideways with your legs folded to the side. Put your top foot on the floor in front of the other, heel to toe. Feel that you are seated with deep creases at your hips, allowing even the top hip to drop toward the mat.

2. Place your supporting hand on the mat straight out to the side, just a few inches beyond your shoulder.

3. Before you press up, draw your abs in, drop your shoulders, and lengthen your spine.

Side Plank Exercise Instructions Continued

Side plank
Collingwood Magpies Pre-Season Training. Michael Dodge/Getty Images

4. On an inhale, press into the supporting arm and extend your legs to lift your pelvis away from the mat. Take your body into a long line.

  • Feel support from your abs, from under the supporting side, and from your back (especially your latissimus area).
  • Squeeze the tops of your legs together. Think of pulling your sit bones together. This will give you more support from the pelvic floor.
  • Make sure you are stacked vertically so that your shoulders are one on top the other, as are your hips.

5. Your top arm can remain on your side or you can extend it toward the ceiling as is pictured.

6. Smile.

7. Hold a few seconds or a few breaths if you are strong. If you start to sag, take a break. There is no point in holding a position with poor form.

Congratulations for trying side plank! Now take it into a full side stretch or try kneeling side kick and see how they are related.

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.