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September 06, 2020 10 min read
The core is without a doubt one of the most essential parts of our body when it comes to general fitness and athletics.
It connects the power of the upper body and the power of the lower—so the better your core strength, the better you can utilize all of your body’s potential. It makes sense that there are hundreds if not thousands of exercises you can do to target your core, but since that part of your body is so prone to injury, a lot of these exercises have fallen into disrepute.
A variation of the good ol’ plank, the side plank is one of the best core exercises you can do to strengthen not only your abdominals but also with a focus on the obliques. The sooner you include this movement into your routine, the sooner you’ll have a base as strong as a tree trunk.
The focus of the side plank is on your obliques, which are located to the sides of your abs on both sides of your body. Including the side plank into your workout routine will improve your anti-lateral flexion—also known as preventing your spine from bending sideways.
This is an essential skill, especially for an athlete or anyone taking their fitness seriously. Your lower spine (the lumbar spine) is designed to remain as stable as possible—not to move around. So, strengthening the muscles around it will give you more stability and balance, while also helping you prevent injuries.
Increasing the durability of power in your obliques and abdominals will allow you to more effectively transfer power between the lower and upper body. This means greater efficiency and greater power when it comes to throwing things, picking up things, or kicking things. A strong core (and specifically the obliques) will be insanely helpful when it comes to just about everything.
The fact that the side plank is a unilateral movement is also a great benefit. While this becomes much more obvious when it comes to lifts done with a barbell, for example, there is a tendency for your body to make up for the weaknesses in terms of left side/right side. For example, if you’re right-handed, chances are that your right side does more work in a barbell bench press—even if you’re unaware of it. The dumbbell press, on the other hand, separates the sides and the weaker side is forced to catch up with the stronger.
So, working on each side of your core unilaterally will help to address any weaknesses in your joints or muscles. If you find that one side comes much easier than the other for you, then it’s a good idea to address that issue with some focused training.
The side plank is also unique since it offers both the benefits of a static and a dynamic core workout—which somewhat depends on how you decide to perform the movement.
Static strength training comes into play when you’re at the top of the movement, hips lifted off the floor, and you hold that position for a count. At that point, you’re training the musculature necessary to stabilize yourself and hold a certain position. An example of this can include placing a heavy object on a high shelf.
Dynamic training comes into play with the hip lift portion of the exercise. Now, you don’t necessarily have to lift your hip up and down to perform a regular side plank; your conventional side plank is just a hold. However, even when you initially lift your hip up for the hold, dynamic forces are still coming into play.
And, as the name suggests, dynamic exercises are those done with movement. So, the hip lift for example. This comes into play when shoveling snow, throwing a ball, or swinging a bat—and it’ll definitely help you with your other lifts. But thankfully you don’t have to choose between static and dynamic—at least not if you have the side plank at your disposal.
The side plank is much more than just an abs workout.
The obliques, the most important muscle group when it comes to the side plank, are the muscles that run down the sides of your torso. There are two types of obliques.
The external obliques can be visible if your body fat percentage is low enough to see them, and they run from the top of your hip bones to the side of your rib cage. And the internal obliques are directly below them.
The obliques help to twist or rotate your body one way or the other. If you want to rotate towards the right, you’ll be engaging your left external oblique paired with the right internal oblique to make it happen.
The side plank isn’t just a great exercise for the entire core, but it’s also a full-body workout.
The side plank with hip lift also relies on the glutes to perform correctly. While we tend to focus on the gluteus maximus in a lot of lifts (mostly for aesthetic reasons, since it gives our butts the shape they have), the side plank also does a good job of engaging the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus as well. This is due to the hip lifts requiring a lot of stabilization throughout the movement.
The muscles around your shoulder also have to put in their fair share of work. The scapular stabilizers, much like the glutes, will be helping you balance and control the movement. These guys will support your upper body as you go through the exercise.
Putting it all together, you can expect to see benefits for your posture, balance, coordination, mobility, and overall general athleticism.
So, without further ado let’s dive into the nitty-gritty.
All you really need to have if you want to do this exercise is a floor and enough space, making it a terrific bodyweight exercise for home workouts. While this exercise places less stress on the lumbar spine and the neck than some other core workouts, it’s still important to follow the proper form and precautions.
Not only will proper form make sure that you don’t get injured, but it will also help you activate the correct muscles. Working out—and especially when it comes to the core—isn’t always about chasing as many reps as possible. It just as often comes down to activating the right muscles, and also activating them enough. If this comes easy for you, chances are that you’re not engaging the proper muscles hard enough.
With that said, here is our guide to the side plank and hip lift:
1. Lie down on one of your sides, while propping yourself up with your elbow and forearm perpendicular to your body. Your shoulder should be directly above your elbow, and your legs should be stacked one on top of the other.
2. Engage your abdominals, obliques, and glutes, and raise your hips up off the ground. Flexing your legs may help as well, and keep in mind to push through the feet and the elbow. You should raise them until they form a straight line from the heels to the head. This will be your starting position.
3. Once again, make sure that your shoulder is aligned directly over your elbow. You should be feeling the side of your back (near your armpit) activate to support your shoulders.
4. Remember to keep your body (namely your core and glutes) engaged throughout the entire exercise. Keep your legs braced as well, as this will prevent any sagging throughout the motion. Slowly lower your hip to the ground—make sure not to go too fast. You want to do this movement in a slow, controlled, manner.
5. The bottom of the movement happens when you tap your hip closest to the floor, on the floor. Pause for a count.
6. Reverse the movement after the pause and return to the starting position with your body in a straight line from the head to the heels.
7. Repeat for the desired amount of reps, and then switch sides.
As we mentioned further above, this movement can be done with either the hold or a hip lift “pulse” where you hold at the top and the bottom of the movement for a set count. How you do it is up to you, but the pulse way will be more challenging since you’ll have to remain stable through a more dynamic motion.
You can either not incorporate a hip lift at all, hold a short pause at the top of the movement before coming back down, or hold a longer pause.
And if you’re looking for some sort of benchmark, or you’re wondering how good you are, these times provide a very rough general guideline:
While we’ll get to the more technical stuff further down, we also want to mention that you should be controlling your breathing. You want to avoid gasping for air—and if you are, then the movement might be too difficult for now. Keeping a steady in and out breathing as you move up and down will help you control your body to a higher degree. And don’t forget to breathe as you’re bracing everything!
And speaking of bracing everything, one of the most important aspects to keep in mind with the side plank is keeping tension. You want to feel your muscles activating all the way from your feet to your neck. This will help you avoid almost every single mistake when it comes to form, and it’ll turn this movement into a full-body workout.
Also, keep in mind your shoulder positioning. Don’t let it sag into your neck, and make sure it stays away from your ear. Your arm and shoulder muscles should be working to keep everything in line.
Making sure that you’re balancing on the side of your foot instead of the sole will also help in terms of balance in the long run. Keep your head straight as well as this will prevent any neck strains from occurring.
We’ve said it a bunch of times already, but it’s important enough to say again: make sure that you’re keeping your entire body braced. This will avoid most mistakes when it comes to form.
Saying that, one of the more common problems when it comes to the side plank are the hips sagging. While a common problem with the conventional plank is a saggy lower back, the same can be said with the hips in the side plank. It can help to draw an imaginary line through your body and bracing the core to maintain your positioning with that line.
Your torso should also be perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Your butt can’t be going out, and you shouldn’t be leaning forward or caving in. This is probably a sign that you’ve been holding too long, and you should take a rest before you injure yourself. And of course, engaging all the correct muscles will help you avoid any leaning.
It’s of particular importance to engage your quads and glutes. This will help your body stay in alignment throughout the lift and hold. It’s important to mention because it is possible to do the side plank without activating the lower back, and it’s easier to do. However, this will just lead to an incorrect form.
Lastly, we have the problem of holding too long or doing an advanced variation before you’re ready. If you start wobbling all over the place, your shoulder is sagging into your neck, and your butt is out and chest forward—it’s probably time to stop. It was probably time to stop a while ago, actually.
It might feel good to set a new personal best for the hold at the top or for rep count, but form is so much more important. If you never properly do the exercise, you’ll never really have a good grasp of your progress or areas that need improvement. You don’t want to run before you walk, and getting a grasp on the basics is step one.
Here are some variations that’ll really spice things up if you’re down for it.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you can hold for a while without breaking a sweat, making the exercise more difficult will probably be more beneficial than simply holding for even longer.
And since this is such a basic movement, feel free to combine some of these if you’re looking for an even greater challenge.
And if you want to spice up any of the above further, try elevating your legs. This will make you support more of your body weight and make it more difficult for your stabilizers. But if you really want to put your stabilizers through the wringer, elevate your feet on an unstable surface like an exercise ball—we wish you the best of luck.
Not only is this your ticket to a shredded physique and a washboard six-pack, but it’ll also turbocharge your functional fitness, athletic performance, and all-round physical health—leaving you with a sculpted, powerful body.