The core is the body's center of power generation, making it vital for athletic performance. For this reason alone, it's a hot topic of conversation among coaches and athletes. In general, core exercises have focused on the abdominals, mainly the rectus abdominus—better known as the six-pack muscles. In fact, the core encompasses all the muscles in the middle of the body. For this article, the core refers to any muscle that attaches to the hips or spine.
For optimal athletic performance, core work should keep athletes in proper position to produce power. To strengthen the core correctly, we need to look at the five main movements of the core.
Flexion. One of the most often used core movements. Think of flexion as performing a crunch. It involves closing the gap between the rib cage and the pelvis.
Extension. As one would assume, extension is the opposite of flexion. "Superman," a popular exercise in which you lie on your stomach and lift your chest, arms and legs off the floor, is an extension exercise.
Rotation. Sports movements involve a lot of rotation. Thing of swinging a golf club or a baseball bat, or simply turning around. Rotation is essentially twisting and turning.
Lateral Flexion. This form of flexion involves side bending and leaning over.
Stabilization. The most important function of the core, stabilization involves all the above movements. Weakness in the stabilizer muscles can lead to back injuries and reduced power output.
Check out STACK's Core Guide for a full library of core exercises in each category.
Identifying the Unique Demands of the Sport
In addition to the movements of the core, we must look at the demands of the sport.
Will the athlete be standing, sitting, or in a prone position? Swimmers compete in a prone position, so they should get accustomed to engaging their core muscles in that position.
Is the event explosive, like baseball, where the athlete is forced to produce power, or is it endurance-based, like distance running, where the athlete must maintain proper position for the long haul?
For most athletes, establishing core stability is the primary goal of their strength program. Once athletes advance, explosive moves should be added. Initial core exercises should focus on maintaining a neutral spine while moving through a range of motion. Use the following exercises to build strength and stability to increase athletic performance.
Flexion: Stability Ball Roll-Out
Kneel on a pad and place both forearms on a stability ball in front of you. Keep your stomach in and your back flat as you roll the stability ball away from you and drop your hips towards the ground. Your shoulders, hips and knees should always be in a straight line. Push into the ball and roll back to starting position.
Extension: Overhead Medicine Ball Deadlifts
This exercise builds stability in the low back and allows the glutes and hamstrings to get into the action. Raise a light medicine ball over your head with both arms. Keep your knees slightly bent and the ball over your head. Push your hips back as you hinge into a deadlift position. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as you return to starting position. The ball over the head extends the lever arm and makes this exercise quite challenging when done properly.
Rotation: Anti-Rotation Press
Grab a pulley handle and stand perpendicular to the machine. With your feet about shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, extend your arms in front of your chest and lock them out. The cable should be trying to rotate you to one side. Keep your core tight and remain stable. Hold this position like you would a Plank.
Lateral Flexion: Single Arm Farmer's Carry
Grab a heavy dumbbell in one hand. Keeping your torso upright and stomach tight, walk 50 to 75 meters before setting it down and switching hands.
Stabilization: Plank Variations
All of the above exercises include a stabilization component. Use Plank variations to finish off your routine. Start with the traditional plank on forearms and toes, and progress to lifting an arm or a leg (or both).
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