It’s the age-old question when it comes to planks – should you be doing them on your elbows or your hands?
Plus, is one version better than the other, or does it actually make a difference?
Here’s what you need to know.
Planks performed on your elbows (forearms) ensure that your body is in parallel alignment with the floor, which places more emphasis on your core. The elbow version of the plank is therefore harder than the hand plank due to the position of your body. That being said, you can make hand planks harder by having your feet elevated. Therefore, plank variations where your body is parallel to the ground will always be better for your abs and core.
It’s Not the Plank But the Body Position
Okay, firstly allow me to list the plank variations in order of difficulty.
As a beginner you would be better off starting with planks on your hands.
Essentially, this is the push up position, but it’s actually easier to perform due to the incline angle of your body.
Basically, there isn’t as much downward gravitational force on your body.
Your next progression would be to perform planks of your elbows (or forearms), which is the more difficult version.
Your body is now in parallel alignment with the floor, which means that gravity is pulling directly downwards, thus making the exercise even harder.
However, if you wish to kick it up a notch then performing planks on your hands, but with your feet elevated, will make the plank even more difficult.
So, as you can see, it’s not so much about whether you should be performing planks on your elbows or your hands for maximum benefit.
But rather, it’s the position of your body that makes all the difference.
That being said, there are numerous other benefits to both elbow and hand planks.
Hand Planks Have “Transferable” Benefits
Okay, it probably sounds as though I’m saying that elbow planks are better due to the increased ab and core activation.
However, in truth, my preference is to perform planks on my hands in the push up position.
And the main reason for this is that it is more transferable to your training.
Granted, when your feet are on the floor the hand plank is easier to sustain because of the incline angle of your body, i.e. less downward gravitational pull.
But, the hand plank is very similar to push ups and many other bodyweight exercises too.
In fact, there are very few other exercises, if any, where we are on our forearms.
Therefore, by performing planks on your hands you are training in a manner which is transferable to other training skills.
Furthermore, while you’re in this push up position you’ll work the scapula stabilizers to greater effect.
This means you’ll work muscles such as the serratus anterior, trapezius, levator scapulae, and rhomboids.
These are extremely important muscles for your push strength, especially when lifting weights overhead.
Plus, the serratus anterior are often said to be the most neglected muscles in the body, which is why you may struggle with various push-based movements.
In fact, it is actually your serratus anterior that is mistaken for lat soreness during push ups and various other exercises.
So, for me, I would never completely avoid hand planks due to these benefits.
If you regularly perform bodyweight exercises or push-based weighted compound exercises, hand planks will provide transferable skills.
Something else that is also extremely important is to keep your feet close together during hand planks.
There is a tendency to widen your stance, but this won’t allow the glutes to activate.
And glute activation is required during planks, as it helps to stabilize the torso.
When to Use Elbow Planks
Now, this doesn’t mean that I completely avoid elbow planks, as they too have various benefits.
Firstly, when performing planks on your forearms and elbows you have a wider base of support, as you have greater surface area in contact with the ground.
This is ideal if you typically feel joint pain, especially in the wrists, when performing hand planks.
That being said, you must always ensure that your elbows are directly below your shoulders.
If your shoulders and elbows don’t align this can lead to shoulder pain during planks.
However, most of us don’t actually perform elbow planks that effectively.
This actually comes down to what we’re told about body position during planks, but unfortunately much of the advice isn’t actually true.
No doubt you’ve heard that you should maintain a neutral upper back during planks.
Essentially, you want to form a straight line from your head to your heels in order to remain completely parallel to the floor.
But, you should actually round your upper back in order to get the most out of elbow planks.
This creates a hollow body position, which once again better activates the serratus anterior.
Plus, it also creates spinal flexion which better activates the abdominal muscles.
Now, you’ve probably heard that spinal flexion is bad for your lower back health.
However, this is more geared towards exercises where you’re lying on your back, e.g. sit ups, crunches, etc.
But, spinal flexion when your back isn’t on the floor will always work the abs better.
A prime example of this is cable crunches, which involves spinal flexion, but you are on your knees in front of a cable machine.
The following video shows exactly how to round your upper back to create this spinal flexion.
Key Learning Points
- Hand planks are easier than elbow planks to perform.
- Elbow planks provide far more activation of the abs and core.
- It’s actually your body position which makes the plank harder. As your body is in parallel alignment with the floor during elbow planks there is greater gravitational force.
- Hand planks with your feet elevated are harder than elbow planks and they ensure that your body is once again parallel to the floor.
- Hand planks work the scapula stabilizers better, which makes them more transferable to the rest of your training.
- Keep your feet together when performing hand planks to ensure your glutes are activated.
- Elbow planks are best performed with a rounded upper back, as creates the hollow body position, which will work your abs and core to greater effect.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.