When you're on the mat, your core endures more stress than any other muscle group, assisting you with balance, stability and strength as you work your way out of hulk-like holds. Without question, "[a strong] core is key," says Jim Zielinski, head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Illinois.
Zielinski's Fighting Illini work their cores daily, either as a good warm-up before practice "to set the tone and tempo of the workout," or at the end of strength training, which they do on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And on their mat days, Zielinski gives his athletes personal routines to do on their own.
"Along with the neck and calves, [the core] is a muscle group you can train every day without really overtraining," he says.
Proper technique is crucial, and Zielinski says it can also be fun to make the ab routine competitive. Three days a week, after strength training, the Illini perform his personal favorite, the Core Circuit.
Bicycles [alternate touching elbows to opposite knees]
Knee tucks [place hands under butt, bring knees to chest, then shoot them forward without letting heels touch ground]
V-Ups [lie on back on ground with legs straight and arms outstretched overhead; bend at waist to bring hands to toes]
1. Perform each movement for 30 seconds; progress to one minute
2. Perform 2-3 sets
3. Never let your heels touch the ground throughout the whole circuit
4. You'll be fatigued after strength training, so you have to be extra careful about technique. It's critical that it doesn't slip
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