Why the 500 crunches you do every night are insufficient.
So many athletes still train under the misconception that the way to build a strong core is by doing hundreds of crunches every day.
PLEASE, for your sake, STOP!!
Your core is the central foundation of your body in all athletic activities. Not only does it include your abs and obliques (those muscles that you see in the mirror), but it also includes the muscles along your back that keep your spine erect and those surrounding the hip (hip flexors and glutes). Strengthening these core muscles will help you control your body when changing directions, decrease your likelihood of injury, and help reduce muscular imbalances developed during repetitive sport movements. In addition to building strength (the max amount of force that the group of muscles can exert), athletes MUST train the core for power (tapping into that force as quickly as possible - aka short, explosive bursts). Think plyometrics for the core!
But how should you incorporate core work into your training program? Glad you asked. Ideally, your core work should never consist of a few (or 500) measly crunches added to the end of your lift or before you go to bed. A much better and more effective approach is to train your core during your workouts like you do your other major muscle groups. You deliberately train the rest of your body to be strong and explosive, so why train the muscles in your core any differently?
First off, get rid of the mindset that “when 25 is easy, I’ll do 50, then 100, and blah, blah, blah.” Here’s how you solve that problem. Ready? The technical phrasing is “the principle of overload,” but in layman’s terms: Add weight and mix it up instead of adding more reps! When holding a plank or forearm bridge gets easy, try ab rollouts. Add weights to your sit-ups, crunches, and v-ups. Utilize cables for standing or kneeling crunches and add rotation. Hold a medicine ball between your legs for hanging knee tucks and leg raises. Adding stability balls, BOSUs, and weights (overhead lunges and squats) to different exercises will add a challenge and hit the core much harder. Just make sure to keep sets to 8 reps or fewer so that you’re stressing the strength component as you would in other lifts (think 3-5 sets of 8 for any of these core exercises).
Now understand that if you haven’t been training ALL of the muscles in your core, you shouldn’t just jump into a weighted program headstrong. That’s the easiest way to cause injury. Progress your core additions bit by bit as a supplement to your main lifts – squats, cleans, etc.
For focus on the lower back, start with basic exercises such as supermans (easiest) or back extensions and use your body weight as resistance. During back extensions, be sure to pause at the top (upper torso in line with your lower body) and control your movement rather than using momentum in a swinging fashion. To increase resistance, simply hug a weight to your chest. Get used to training in more than one plane… i.e throw some rotational movement into your core activities. Rotation can be added to a back extension by twisting a shoulder back toward the opposite heel.
Additionally, if you have never dead lifted, there’s no better time to start. Bottom line is that there may be no better full body exercise that heavily stresses the core. If you are currently performing Olympic movements, I pray that this is the first movement you were taught. Posturally, focus on keeping your core braced and torso upright. START LIGHT (And by light I mean the bar and the lightest set of bumper plates you can find) and progress the weight as long as you can maintain correct technique.
Building a powerful core is a must for athletes who are constantly trying to generate as much force as possible. Think of sports like baseball and golf. They aren’t swinging their weapon of choice with just their arms just as a soccer player isn’t going to just use his legs to fire a ball into the back of the net. The core is ALWAYS involved in generating and controlling the force, with the best athletes able to consistently transfer explosiveness from their core into the relevant movements of their sport.
Bands and medicine balls are great for developing rotational power. Attach a band to a fixed pole – possibly a squat rack or bleacher railing – at any height and work the band aggressively using the same motion as a cable wood chopper. I would keep the rep range under 8 per set to maintain an explosive nature during the activity. If you have access to kettle bells, small or large tires, or sledgehammers, they are also a killer way to work on core explosiveness.
Last but not least remember that your abs and lower back are muscles – and like every other muscle after abusing it, allow time to rest, recover, and rebuild! You don’t trash your chest two days in a row and doing so to these muscles would be just as ridiculous.
But if you want to get a stronger and more powerful core, go do your homework and search OneResult.com’s exercise database for some great additions to your workouts. Why? Because those 500 crunches aren’t doing anything for making you a better athlete.