When we look more closely at running, walking, and most daily activities, the core and hip musculature are very important to provide support to the spine, pelvis, and surrounding areas. One exercise in particular that might be the most impactful is the side plank. And, for good reason!
The side plank challenges the larger muscles surrounding the lateral core, as well as the smaller stabilizers at the spine to maintain a rigid, sidelying position. To execute this position with proper form, many of the joints from head to toe have to work together in a coordinated fashion. Not to mention, they must also possess the strength, stability, and endurance, to do so for an extended period of time.
One problem I typically see is that people are stopping at traditional side planks rather than continuing to progress this exercise. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic exercise as I stated above. But, once you master the side plank and work on building endurance by holding for 60-seconds or more, you are in a great position to layer some more challenging exercises on top of it. In fact, you will quickly realize that the side plank is just the starting point!
If you are someone who has mastered the side plank and need more of a challenge, I welcome you to try several of the single leg variations. Due to the sidelying nature of the side plank, it’s very easy to incorporate different variations which add additional focus on the hip abductors.
The hip abductors are a super important group of muscles which provide stability and support to the hip and pelvis. In fact, when it comes to running or walking, these muscles are responsible for maintaining proper alignment of the lower limb, shock absorption, and propulsion throughout the gait cycle. Therefore, progressing the side plank a step further to target this area would be in your best interest.
Before I outline this effective side plank progression, let’s perform a simple (yet hard!) self-assessment! The single leg side plank isometric hold can serve as a valuable test to determine strength and endurance at the core and hip abductors. The goal is to be able to maintain a minimum of 20-seconds per side.
Now, that is the bare minimum in my opinion. That is why I want you to perform this exercise to failure and determine overall strength/endurance, as well as if you have an imbalance from side-to-side. If you are unable to hold for 20-seconds per side or uncover there is a weakness on one side, the side plank progression I will teach you later in this article will become even more important.
Self-Assessment: Single Leg Side Plank Isometric Hold
- Goal: Minimum of 20-seconds on each side and symmetrical
Now that you understand the importance of progressing the side plank, let’s dig into the progression! We will start from square one and then increase the difficulty with a total of 5 different side plank variations…
Modified Side Plank
The modified side plank is the most basic starting point in this progression. Basically, the knee bent position helps shorten the lever to help you execute it with good form and confidence. If the full side plank is challenging, this is where you should focus your attention until you are able to perform 2-3 sets of 30-60 second holds.
The side plank is always the first choice for most people and often the last. But, as you’ll see there are progressions and regressions to really make sure this movement is performed in a proficient way and then progressed to see more benefit.
The traditional side plank is a classic when it comes to building strength and stability. Truthfully, it’s a full body exercise. Stabilization and proper positioning needs to happen from the head/neck, shoulder, spine, all the way down to the ankle and foot. So many things have to go right to execute this movement properly. But when they do the reward is huge! Perform the side plank for 2-3 sets of 30-60 second holds.
Modified Lateral Elbow Stabilization
What’s important to realize when looking at this progression is that we are moving back to the modified position. Now, that you are ready to move on from the side plank, it’s necessary to really put yourself in the best position possible when challenging the hip abductors to maintain an upright position.
By shortening the lever, you are allowing yourself to be more aware of how the hip is required to provide support in abduction without overloading this area. This is important to learn now before more challenging variations are performed in the next two progressions. Perform the modified lateral elbow stabilization for 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
Lateral Elbow Stabilization
With the modified position mastered, let’s kick it up a notch with the lateral elbow stabilization. This side plank variation requires an isometric side plank hold, while raising and lowering the top leg. Why I love this exercise is because it really challenges the core and hip abductors to work together in order to sustain the position. Therefore, it often highlights if we have a weak link at one of those two areas.
Even though you have mastered the modified lateral elbow stabilization, this step in the progression is, hands down, the most challenging. Instead of having two legs to hold the side plank, we are switching to a single leg which has to do twice the work. This proves to be challenging for many and that is why you might have to work at this exercise for several months before becoming proficient. Perform the lateral elbow stabilization for 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
Side Plank with Top Leg Marching
The final step in this side plank progression is the side plank with top leg marching. Instead of abducting the top leg, as in the lateral elbow stabilization variations, this exercise utilizes a marching motion. Since the march is in another plane of motion, it provides a different set of forces for you to resist against while holding the single leg side plank.
Although not completely different than the previous variation, this exercise requires the bottom hip to stabilize in abduction and extension, while the top leg moves in the sagittal plane. This action has significant carryover to walking and running and is therefore important for endurance athletes. Perform the side plank with top leg marching for 2-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
There you have it! Those are 5 side plank variations for you to continue progressing and, ultimately, achieving great results. Remember, don’t stop at traditional side planks but continue to challenge yourself with the single leg variations. Although this progression looks pretty straightforward, I would expect it to take most people 6+ months to progress through with proper form and proficiency. So be patient and stay the course!
If you are looking for an individualized strength training program to fit your needs, please contact me and let me know how I can help. I have a range of options from remote coaching to in-person training and would love to help customize something to create you lasting results. Click here to connect with me directly.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART