“As an athlete, period, your core is like the friggin’ engine. It triggers everything, it gets everything going. Guys can be as big as they want in the limbs, but if they’re weak in the core, they’re not going to be (as good as they could be).”
That’s what All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce told STACK when he was walking us through his workout. I love that quote, because Kelce is exactly right. A weak core is like an anchor on athletic performance. Your core is what allows energy to be transferred throughout the body, and if it isn’t up to snuff, nearly every athletic movement will suffer. You won’t sprint as fast, you won’t cut as explosively, you won’t jump as high, you won’t hit as hard, etc.
That’s why pro athletes take their core training very seriously. In recent years, new research has helped performance coaches find the smartest ways for athletes to train their core. But the general public? Many of them are still doing outdated, unsafe and largely ineffective exercises. You may see these moves inside your average Planet Fitness on a daily basis, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an elite athlete who performs them with regularity.
With that in mind, here are three popular core exercises you won’t find inside a pro athlete’s workout plan.
Crunches might be the most popular core exercise on Earth, but recent research has found this move to be both ineffective and unsafe. Not only does the movement translate poorly to athletic performance, but it also repeatedly flexes your lumbar spine. This puts you at risk of suffering a number of debilitating injuries, such as a bulging disc.
“Crunches are an exercise that I would not incorporate into a training program for a professional athlete due to better options,” says William Townsley IV, a physical conditioning coach at IMG Academy who trains MLB pros like Andrew McCutcheon. “Research has shown the spine and discs only have so many flexion cycles in its lifetime before it eventually begins to break down. Why waste any bullets on exercises that are not even training the core for function that carries over to athletics?”
Pro-Approved Alternative: Ab Rollouts
Ab Rollouts are what’s known as an “anti-extension” exercise. Unlike Crunches, which force your spine into flexion, anti-extension exercises train the body to prevent the spine from going into extension (hence their name). This is the natural function of the abdominal muscles. As you roll forward in an Ab Rollout (which can be performed both with an Ab Wheel or a barbell), your lumbar spine naturally wants to arch. Your abs must work to prevent this arch or “extension.” This creates a core that’s both more capable of protecting your spine and better prepared to efficiently transfer energy throughout the body, which is obviously a huge plus for athletes. Ab Rollouts are a staple in the routine of USA women’s hockey star Hilary Knight.
Never performed an Ab Rollout before? Here’s everything you need to know.
2. Russian Twists
Russian Twists are one of the oldest core exercises around. According to Dr. Terry Todd, an exercise historian and co-founder of the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas, British soldiers were using the Russian Twist as far back as the 19th century. The exercise has remained popular to this day—you might’ve even seen a pro athlete use it in the past—but it’s quickly being phased out of many elite athlete’s routines.
RELATED: Can’t Quit Russian Twists? This Modification Makes Them Much Safer
Modern research has found that this ancient exercise puts a ton of pressure on the lumbar spine. Loading the movement makes it even worse. “We have to take into consideration biomechanics and appreciate the spine isn’t necessarily designed to twist back and forth, repeatedly, under load,” says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS and Boston-based performance coach. “Taking a more ‘joint-sparing’ approach with core training will be a safer, more long-term way to help people get the results they’re after.”
Russian Twists are a form of rotational exercise, but for many athletes, it’s anti-rotational exercises that offer the real performance benefits. “As a substitute to Russian Twists, I’d suggest Pallof Press and Hold variations,” says Aaron Bonaccorsy, CSCS and sports performance coach at Velocity Sports Performance. If you’re new to the idea of anti-rotational exercises, Pallof Presses are a great place to start. Named for physical therapist John Pallof, Pallof Presses train your core to resist rotation. This prepares yourself to be a more powerful, stable athlete. Say you’re an offensive lineman facing off against an explosive pass rusher. When that pass rusher tries to club or swipe your hands away, your ability to resist rotation through your core will help you stay engaged. Noted workout warrior James Harrison includes Pallof Press variations in his training.
Never performed Pallof Presses before? Here’s everything you need to know.
3. Dumbbell Side Bends
Dumbbell Side Bends suck. We’re not quite sure how this movement became so popular, but it needs to die immediately.
For one, the exercise requires lateral spinal flexion—which puts your spine in a vulnerable position and increases your risk of injury (particularly in the intervertebral discs of the spine). Two, it doesn’t train your core in an intelligent, true-to-life manner. Your core muscles are designed to resist movement, yet Dumbbell Side Bends force them to create movement. “The core muscles are anti-movers and work to stabilize the spine while the appendages move,” says Pat Downey, founder of Vantedge Performance. Think of it like this—how the heck does tilting your upper body in this fashion translate to either athletic performance or daily life? If time is money, spending a chunk of your workout doing Dumbbell Side Bends is akin to flushing dollars down the toilet.
Pro-Approved Alternative: Side Planks
If you’re looking for a smart alternative to Dumbbell Side Bends that require even less equipment, Side Planks are your answer. In addition to the obliques, Side Planks target the quadratus lumborum (QL). The QL is a deep core muscle that connects the pelvis, spine and rib cage. It works to stabilize the spine and prevent side bend during actions like unilateral pressing. “If the QL isn’t functioning as it should, even basic actions such as walking and breathing will be limited,” says Tim DiFrancesco, owner of TD Athletes Edge and former strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. “The QL functions to provide stability to the pelvis and lumbar spine intermittently as you perform any and all activities.” NFL stars Cliff Avril and Antonio Brown include Side Planks in their training.
Never performed Side Planks before? Here’s everything you need to know (plus some challenging variations for all you Side Plank veterans).
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