Planks can be difficult or downright painful if you’re struggling with chronic pain in your shoulders, wrists, or spine. They can also be too challenging for your body if you’re still building strength, recovering from an injury, or moving through a postpartum journey.
While planks are a great exercise, there are many other Pilates exercises to help you build core strength! Since we’re big fans of modifications at Lindywell, I want to share a few of the many plank alternatives you can use to strengthen your core and the surrounding muscles.
First, I want to talk about the importance of lifelong core strength. Then we’ll go through 10 Pilates exercises to support those core muscles at any age.
Why You Need a Strong Core in All Stages of Life
Core strength is not about a surface-level aesthetic. The benefit of training your abdominal muscles (and the surrounding areas) at each stage of life is maintaining strength and functionality as you grow older, whether you’re 21 or 81.
A recent study from the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity looked at the effects of core stability exercises on older women with chronic pain and saw the following results:
- Increase in dynamic balance and postural control
- Reduction in pain intensity and movement restriction
- Increase in ability to perform daily tasks with ease
- Increase in motor function and muscular endurance
As someone with Scoliosis, I’ve found that focusing on my core strength with daily Pilates has made an incredible difference in my ability to manage and reduce pain in my neck and back. It was also central to my pregnancies, deliveries, and recoveries.
No matter what your body is experiencing, or your age, core strength equals stability. This, in turn, improves healthy movement patterns and balance, so you can move with less pain and tension and with more freedom and ease.
10 Exercises to Build Core Strength—If Planks Are Not for You
In Pilates, many of the exercises we do build core strength, even if they don’t look like traditional “ab exercises.” So if you’re looking for some plank alternatives to keep your body strong and stable, we have ten versatile Pilates exercises for you to try.
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Lie on your back with your legs extended down the mat. Raise your arms up by your ears Inhale as you lift your head, neck, and chest up off of the mat.
Exhale as you continue rolling up to stretch forward beyond your toes. Think about holding a beach ball on your lap as you stretch forward to create a rounding shape with your spine – stretch forward, over the feet, as opposed to down toward the ground. Inhale at the top and as you exhale lower yourself down to the mat one vertebra at a time. Repeat 8-10 times.
Modification Tip: Bend your knees slightly as you roll up and place your hand behind your thighs to help your move with control as you build the strength to work up to the full expression of the exercise.
Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle (aka: tabletop position). Interlace your hands behind your head and keep your elbows in your peripheral vision.
Inhale to prepare, as you exhale, nod your chin toward your chest and lift your head, neck, and shoulders off of the mat. Keep your belly drawing into your spine and return to starting position. Repeat 8-10 times.
Modification Tip: Place both feet on the ground rather than holding them in a tabletop position as you lift your chest.
Lie on your back with your left leg extended long down the mat and your right leg extended up toward the sky. Rest your arms down by your side. Draw your belly toward your spine to maintain a stable pelvis. Cross your right leg over mid-line and draw a big circle, returning to starting position. Draw 8-10 circles in each direction, focusing on keeping your pelvis stable as your thigh bone rotates in your hip socket. Repeat on the other side.
Modification Tip: Give a slight bend to the supporting leg and the circling leg, rather than keeping it fully extended, to provide more stability for your core.
Single Leg Stretch
Lie on your back with arms at your sides and a neutral spine. Bend your legs into a 90-degree angle (aka tabletop position) with the knees a fist-width distance apart and calves parallel to the floor. Draw your belly button toward your spine to activate your core, and gently grab behind your thighs to lift your head, neck, and chest off of the floor.
Draw the right knee into the chest and place your hands on your right knee as you extend your left leg out, hovering above the mat, and switch sides, drawing your left knee toward your chest as you extend the right leg long, hovering above the mat. This is one repetition. Repeat 8-10 times.
Modification Tip: Keep your head resting on the mat to reduce tension in your neck. For additional support consider resting your head on a small folded towel.
Double Leg Stretch
Lie flat on your back with arms at your sides and a neutral spine. Raise your legs into a tabletop position, with the knees fist-width apart and calves parallel to the floor. Pull your belly button toward your spine to activate your core, and raise your upper back off the floor until the chest lifts and you feel a contraction in the abdominals.
Draw both knees into the chest and hug both to your body, keeping your shoulders and upper back off the ground, core activated. As you inhale, straighten both legs out in front of your body, and as you do, extend your arms up by your ears. As you exhale, draw your knees back in toward your body and place your hands on your shins. Repeat 8-10 times Note the lower your legs are, the harder this will be.
Modification Tip: Keep your head resting on your mat (consider a folded towel under your head for extra support) and focus on the movement of the lower body, while keeping your belly button drawing up and in toward your spine.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Raise your legs into a tabletop position, with the knees about hip-width apart and your calves parallel to the ground. Rest your arms long down by your side, palms facing down.
Keep your collarbone open and maintain a neutral spine position if possible. Hinge at the hip crease and lower the right foot down to tap the floor. Keep your core engaged as you lift the leg back to tabletop position. Repeat with the opposite leg for a total of 8-10 repetitions.
Modification Tip: Keep one leg on the mat, knee bent with feet flat on the floor, and focus on the toe taps one leg at a time.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms long down by your side. Raise the legs into a tabletop position, externally rotate at the hip, keeping the heels together and toes apart (frog position).
Inhale to prepare. As you exhale, draw your belly button toward your spine, and extend the legs out on a 45-degree angle inner thighs activated. Return to the bent-knee frog position and repeat 8-10 times. The lower you extend your legs, the more challenging this movement will be.
Modification Tip: Extend the legs up toward the sky, rather than straight out, to keep your back from arching if you’re still building up your core strength.
Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle (aka tabletop position). As you curl your head, neck, and chest up off the mat, extend one leg up toward the sky, holding behind the leg, and the other leg straight out, hovering above the mat. Draw the upper leg toward you for a quick “pulse, pulse” and switch legs. Keep your legs fully extended and your belly button drawing toward your spine. Repeat for a total of 8-10 repetitions.
Modification Tip: Keep the legs slightly bent and/or rest keep your head resting on the mat. Consider a folded towel behind your head for extra support.
Lie down on your side, with your bottom arm extending toward the mat, resting your head on your upper arm as a pillow. Stack your legs, hips, and shoulders so you are lying in a straight line and then if needed, slightly bend your bottom leg to provide a base of support.
Find your abdominal engagement to create stability. The goal is to not wobble! You can use your top hand for stability by placing it on the mat in front of you. Finally, keep your hips stacked and create a little space beneath your side body and the mat. I like to call this a little mouse hole.
Flexing at the hip crease, flex your foot and kick your top leg forward, keeping it parallel to the ground. Point your toes as you kick the leg back, slightly behind your body making sure to stay stable in your core and keep your hips stacked. Repeat for a total of 8-10 repetitions and then do the same on the other side.
Modification Tip: Keep your kick nice and small, focusing primarily on core stability and less on the range of motion.
Supine Spine Twists
Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle (aka tabletop position). Extend both arms out on either side of your body in a low V shape, palms facing up. Drop the shoulders away from your ears, and hold a neutral spine position. Keeping your knees and feet glued together. Inhale as you rotate at the waist to allow the legs and hips to fall to one side. Keep both shoulders pressing firmly into the mat. As you exhale, use the abdominals to draw both legs back up to the center. Repeat on the other side for a total of 8-10 repetitions on each side.
Modification Tip: Place your feet on the ground rather than holding the legs in a tabletop position. This will help steady your body as you move from side to side.
Build Lifelong Core Strength with These Simple Exercises
These plank alternatives can be used to build lifelong core support. At Lindywell, we believe having strong abdominals isn’t about looking a certain way but helping your body function no matter what you’re doing or how old or young you are.