Dance Teacher Tips

Beyond Basic Planks: These 12 Variations Strengthen More Than Your Abs

Photos by Jayme Thornton for Pointe. Modeled by Anna Greenberg of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

Planks are one of the most popular exercises for core strength, but they're not just about flat abs. Julie O'Connell, physical therapist and performing arts program manager at Chicago's Athletico Physical Therapy, says that dancers can use them to maximize their conditioning: Look at the corrections you're getting in class or the choreography you're learning and mirror those concepts in your strength work.


Get creative: There are several plank variations below, but the possibilities are limitless. For example, if you have to do a long arabesque balance onstage, you might hold a forearm plank with one leg in a turned-out arabesque to build strength and stamina.

Create a circuit of four variations, or if you're short on time, sprinkle them throughout your day, says O'Connell. Instead of completing a certain number of reps, work until your body is fatigued. This might mean doing controlled dégagés in a front plank, right side plank, left side plank and reverse plank for 30 seconds each. If you're not tired, increase the time to 45 seconds for each position on your next round.

How to progress: "Challenge yourself to whatever capacity you're up for, making sure that you maintain form and function," says O'Connell, who notes that the exercises can be done in parallel or turnout. Planking on your forearms gives you more stability than straight arms since your body is closer to the floor. When you're ready, progress to variations that only have two points of contact with the ground, or those that require moving a prop like a physio ball or foam roller.

Keep these form tips in mind throughout any plank circuit:

  • Don't look down or strain your neck. Keep your head in line with your body.
  • Engage your shoulder blades and avoid splaying the ribs.
  • In side planks, stack your shoulders as well as your hips.
  • In reverse planks, engage the glutes and squeeze the shoulder blades.

Three Points of Contact

● Lift and lower one leg at a time.

● Pulse the heel toward the ceiling.


● Translate elements from barre to a plank position. O'Connell recommends a series of dégagés or battements to the side and back, shown here with both legs in turnout, though it can also be done in parallel.


● Draw one leg up into retiré, return and switch legs.

● For more of an upper-body strengthener, keep the legs still as you move from a forearm plank to straight arms and back down, one arm at a time.

● Start in a reverse plank position, using your glutes to lift your body up. Test your stability with a series of front and side dégagés or battements. For another variation, slowly développé side and carry front.


Two Points of Contact

● Lengthen your opposite arm and leg off the ground.


● For more of a challenge, reach the arm and leg on the same side off the ground.

● From a side plank, dégagé or battement front, side and back, with legs in turnout or parallel.


Incorporating Props

● Start in a basic plank with your feet on a physio ball. Slowly draw the knees toward your chest, moving the ball in, then return to straight legs. To strengthen the obliques, pull the knees in on a diagonal.


● Start in a side plank with your bottom arm extended and the top leg placed on a ball slightly in front of you. With control, push down on the ball and use your leg to move the ball forwards and back to the original position.

● Place your forearms on a foam roller and push it several inches away from you, then pull it back in. Start with your knees on the floor for more stability.


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The human head weighs somewhere between 8 and 12 pounds. For many of us, our youngest students included, that comparatively large weight spends on average at least a couple hours a day hunched over a screen. While you may not consider your students as average, there is no denying we spend more hours than ever looking down at handheld mobile devices. "I think of it as 'tech posture,'" says Blossom Leilani Crawford of Bridge Pilates, "when the head is forward and the shoulders are forward. People don't know where their heads are anymore, and you certainly can't turn well with the weight of your head forward."

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According to Dr. Marshall Hagins, physical therapist for the Mark Morris Dance Group, there are really two things going on when you see forward head posture. First, the skull is projected forward in front of the body (as in when we look down at a phone). But then, because we are social creatures who want to see and interact with the world in front of us, the head rotates backward on the spine, thrusting the chin up and out. "The muscles in the front of the neck are short and relaxed," he explains, "while the muscles in the back, which are keeping the head from falling further, are lengthened and overworking." The neck muscles have a very high density of proprioceptors and the nervous system feedback is working to fight gravity all of the time, all of which can result in a levator scapulae that is overused and painful.

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However, both Hagins and Crawford caution that dancers are often hypermobile and prone to overcorrecting, so it is important to focus on good postural habits and incremental changes so they don't move from one misalignment of the head and neck to another. Here are three simple exercises Crawford uses to help students find and feel where proper head alignment is in different planes of movement. They are great on their own, in any warm-up, or can be easily sprinkled into a Pilates mat routine.

Supine Head Float​

Elena Prisco, age 17, student at Lake Tahoe Dance Collective. Photos courtesy of Thompson

1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet planted, with a yoga block, or prop of similar height, under the shoulder blades. Let your head rest back into this big, chest-opening stretch, with your fingers interlaced, hands behind your neck so that your pinky fingers are against the base of your skull.

2. Float your head up to spine level, chin tucked in, hands helping to
traction your neck long. Use exhales to activate the abdominals and keep ribs heavy and soft while your head is up. Hold for a few counts and then rest back into the stretch.

3. Repeat several times, being careful not to let the chin jut forward.

*If you are ready for more, float the pelvis up to spine level along with the head. Keep the pelvis in a neutral, untucked position.

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