Plank Progressions for Killer Abs

You are putting together your “beach body” program and trying to find that perfect movement to really set off your midsection, but have grown tired of endless crunches…

Well there is one movement that has been proven effective in martial arts and athletics for years. Are you curious now?

It is as simple as “planks”. A plank is a static contraction in a supporting position that places a great deal of stress on your core muscles, specifically the abdominals and hip flexors.

Today, just about everyone, regardless of fitness level or education is doing planks and everyone seems to understand its benefits.

That said, there is still a large amount of room for improvement. I say this because it’s been my experience as an educator who trains the trainers that even professionals still don’t understand how to make the most out of the abs planks.

This article will change that for fitness pro’s, athletes and exercise enthusiasts alike.

I’m going to provide you with simple, user friendly, battle tested concepts on how to drastically improve the basic plank and how to progress it to challenge the strongest and fittest of athletes.

This article will tell you everything that there is to know about planks including advanced variations for those who are ready to take things up a notch. I hope you brought your Karate slippers because I’m about to give you your black belt in abs plank training.

Wanna build some killer abs like these? Read on…..

Perfecting the Basic Plank

Ask an experienced coach from any sport and he or she will tell you that it’s mastering the fundamentals that are most important to continued success.

The plank is no different. You have no business performing any of the higher-level progressions shown later in this article until you can perfect the basic plank.

There is a three-step process to perfecting the plank and they involve using a dowel rod.

Step 1- Build awareness

The dowel is placed along the spine and is kept in contact with 3 points; back of the head (not the top), Thoracic region (between shoulder blades) and Sacrum (tail bone). This forces you to understand and become aware of proper alignment.

Essentially, the dowel serves as your coach. If it rolls off or wobbles, you aren’t in good alignment.

Additionally, the quadruped position is great to begin to develop awareness of optimal alignment because it takes most of the load off the system while still keeping the torso in a very similar position to the abs plank. 

Once you can hold optimal position for 30 seconds, move on to step #2. 

Build awareness

Step 2- Lengthen the Lever arm

The straight-arm plank is essentially a static hold in push up position. This takes what we learned in step one and adds in some load due to the increased length in lever arm. The load on the abs here is not as great as on the elbows.

If you cannot hold optimal alignment for 30 seconds, keep working here until you can.

If you can maintain optimal alignment without disturbing the dowel, you are ready to move on to level three.
As I stated above, the elbow plank with dowel increases the load on the torso even further over the straight-arm variation. In other words, it demands more strength and control of optimal alignment.

Lengthen the Lever arm

Level 3 – Elbow Plank

Once you can hold this position for at least 30 seconds without much fatigue, you are ready to move on to the advanced progressions that I’ve laid out below.

If you cannot, remain here at level three until you can achieve a thirty second hold without too much fatigue.

Keep in mind that just because you are doing planks, it doesn’t mean that you can do them correctly. The dowel is a simple method of telling you how good your planks really are.

Once you’ve mastered the basic plank with the dowel, you no longer need to use the dowel.

Elbow Plank

Planks and Push Ups

Many females that have trouble with doing abs planks also have trouble performing push- ups. This is because both exercises are very closely related. In my article Everything Push Ups, I show you very similar progression spectrum to improve your ability to do push ups. Plus I provide a ton of new push up variations.

I highly encourage you to read that article as well because doing push ups will improve your planks and doing planks will most definitely improve your push-ups.

Plank Progressions

Now that you understand what is required to perform an optimal fundamental plank, I can show you the complete progression spectrum from beginner to advanced planks.

But, before I go into the exercises, I wanted to say a few words on arm position.

Arm Position

While performing any of the abs plank progressions shown below, you can use either of these arm positions:

Arms Externally Rotated

Or Arms Internally Rotated

Which position you use will be determined by:

  • Your Shoulder Health
  • The Specific Demands of your sport
  • What feels better to you?
  • Your Postural Habits
  • Or just for the sake of variety

Plank Level #1/2 – Kneeling Elbow Plank

The kneeling plank is easier than the straight leg plank because it shortens the lever arm. If you can’t manage the traditional straight leg plank, start here and work up to doing 2 sets of 1min holds.

Kneeling Elbow Plank

Plank Level #1 – Traditional Elbow Plank
The traditional elbow plank is the next step up from the kneeling elbow plank:

Traditional Elbow Plank

Once you can maintain optimal alignment here for 2 sets of 45 seconds, move on to the next level.

Plank Level #2 – Straight Leg lift

The first progression to the elbow plank is to keep one leg straight and lift it one inch from the ground.  Hold for 1-2 sec and switch legs.

Be sure to maintain optimal alignment while lifting leg.

Do not rotate your pelvis or allow your hips to sag.

 Straight Leg lift

You must be able to perform 2 sets of 20-second holds on each w/o rest in between before moving on to the next level

Plank Level #3- Feet on Bench

By elevating the feet, the demand on both the shoulders and abs increases.
This is harder than you may think!

Feet on Bench

Once you can complete 2 sets of 45 seconds holds w/o deviating from optimal alignment, move on.

Plank Level #4 – Feet Elevated w/March

Now, add in some more work by pulling one knee in toward your chest. Hold it for a second then switch sides. Perform this march type action for the entire length of your plank.

Feet Elevated w/March – 1

Feet Elevated w/March – 2

Once you can achieve 2 sets of 1 min total work by alternating 10-15 second holds each leg, you can upgrade to the next level.

Plank Level #5 – Wall March

This is the ultimate in abs plank training. Plus you get to work your glutes and hips along with it. Here’s how it’s done.

Begin in optimal spinal alignment with one knee on the ground and the other leg extended behind you against a wall.

Your rear leg should be at the same height as your head and shoulders – shown below:

Wall March – 1

From this position push your rear foot against the wall and lift your bent knee into the air as to hover over the ground as shown.


Wall March – 2

By now you will be well aware of the fact that you have abs because they will be working overtime to hold you in place. Also, your glute has to work overtime to push your foot into the wall keep your from sliding down.

After a second or two, bring your bent leg back against the wall as shown below.

Wall March – 3

Transition to pulling in the other knee mimicking a marching motion similar to what was performed in level #3.

Wall March – 4

Work up to holding this position for 45sec-1min. Use varieties of times, form, how long you hold each leg before switching. This can be anywhere from 2 seconds up to 15 seconds.

Perform 1-3 sets.

The added bonus to doing the wall march is that it will make you the most popular person in the gym. You are certain to have folks asking you about how to do it and wanting to try it for themselves. They probably wont be able to do it properly because they haven’t gone through the same progressions that you have.

Training Tips from Coach Nick

  • Be sure to always maintain optimal spinal alignment during all progression levels
  • Do not progress onto the next level until your can perform the current level for at least 30-45 seconds with little fatigue
  • Perform plank exercises for no more than 1 minute
  • Breath as normal as possible during all plank exercises
  • There is no need to hold in your belly while performing these exercises
  • Perform these exercises toward the end of your workout after your major lifts
  • If it hurts, don’t do it! This should be obvious but some folks are stubborn. Find a way to work around your limitations, don’t work through them

In my next installment, I will provide you with a comprehensive progression spectrum for performing side planks. I promise that like this article, it will also deliver many new, creative and battletested concepts that will make your abs stronger and looking better than ever.

Written by Nick Tumminello

About Nick Tumminello

Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.

Go to his website to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Plank Progressions for Killer Abs discussion thread.