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The Best Core Exercises for Athletes

The Best Core Exercises for Athletes

We all know that abs of steel can help you look great in the mirror, but there are more reasons athletes of all shapes and sizes should do core exercises.

In this guide you’ll find core exercises designed to get you functionally strong where you need it most so that you can perform at your best and stay in the game - injury free - for as long as possible.

Before we dive into the core exercises, let’s take a look at what your core really is.


WHAT IS YOUR CORE?


Your core is made up of the muscles that support and stabilize your spine, namely:

  • pelvic floor muscles
  • transversus abdominis
  • multifidus
  • internal and external obliques
  • rectus abdominis
  • erector spinae (sacrospinalis)
  • diaphragm
core exercises - what muscles make up your core

 

You use your core anytime you bend forward or back, to the side, or rotate on your spine...and it also supports nearly every other movement you make, especially when competing or training for sports or fitness events. 

 

core exercises - forward flexion, side flexion, trunk twist



WHY YOU NEED TO DO CORE EXERCISES

reasons to do core exercises

Neglect the foundation of your house and it's bound to collapse some day. Your core is just as important - without a strong core, you're going to have a host of problems. 

But if your core is strong then you're going to reap the benefits. Here's just a few. 

Core Strength is Important for Every Day Movement

Your core supports every movement you make, whether it's walking up stairs, opening a door, or carrying groceries. Neglect your core and you'll have a tougher time doing everything in life. 

Scott Mitsiell C.S.C.S and Meredith McHale, P.T., D.P.T. explain in Shape Magazine:

"The ab muscles play a dominant role in movement in every plane of motion: sagittal (forward and backward), frontal (left and right), and transverse (rotational)," says Scott Mitsiell, C.S.C.S., strength coach at Soho Strength Lab in New York City.

Even when they don't seem important, your core muscles are often the first—and most important guest—at the party.

"Typically, the core muscles fire or activate prior to us doing an activity," says McHale. "Our nervous system anticipates the activity, and braces for support, really, when we go to do anything. If you don't have that core stability and support acting as a brace or a girdle for your spine, you're likely going to compensate with other muscles."

Core Strength Can Help You Be a Better Athlete

Your core muscles stabilize the spine from your pelvis all the way up to your neck and shoulders, and they allow the transfer of power to the arms and legs. Your most powerful movements start at the center of your body and work outward...so having a strong core is imperative for powerful, explosive movements. 

When playing sports, because you produce force with your limbs, your spine will have to be neutral and your core stabilized to have the maximum impact. 

A great way to train for sports performance is to do core exercises that put your body in an unstable environment. There's lots of gear you can use to do this - BOSU balls, ab wheels, balance boards etc - but you can also get loads of benefits from bilateral and unilateral free weight training as well. 

Trainer Jon Hinds explains in Men's Journal

“Exercises that cause you to stabilize teach your body how to react in sports performance or life situations where you need it–running, jumping, and any other situation that requires a quick reaction,” says Hinds. “Crunches or situps, although they make muscles burn, aren’t going to help athletic performance because the body isn’t put in an unstable environment where the upper and lower abs are engaged together.”

Core Exercises May Prevent or Reduce Back Pain

Nearly 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life. One smart way to avoid this is to do the right core exercises. Cleveland Clinic physical therapist Patti Mariano, DPT explains why:

"Theoretically, if your muscles around the low back are weak, your body will rely more on passive structures, including ligaments — the tissue that connects bone to bone — as well as the spinal bones or discs, which lie between the spinal bones, for stability, which can cause pain."

Strength coaches and physical therapists agree, as explained in Shape - a weak core is a recipe for injury. 

"A weak core is the number-one risk for potential injuries, especially lower-back injuries," says Kristina Jennings, a certified functional strength coach at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Boston. Research shows that core strength training (and training the deep trunk muscles specifically) can help alleviate lower-back pain.

"While back injuries are very common with a weak core, you can also injure other parts of your body as a result, like your shoulders, hips, and knees," says McHale. Even if a weak core isn't the sole reason for a person's injury, it usually plays a part, which is why McHale says she almost always incorporates core work into her patients' rehab.

Core Exercises Can Improve Posture 

Staying fit and exercising regularly can be great for your posture and overall health, but doing core exercises can get you extra benefits.

Over time - especially in our modern world with sitting being labeled the new smoking, and heavy use of mobile devices + laptops, we're prone to lean our neck too far forward and round out our shoulders. This can lead to pain and injuries over time. 

The right core exercises can counter-act that by helping you to keep your shoulders back, your head straight, and your chest up. 

 

Now that you know why it's important to have a strong core, here are 10 core exercises you can do that will help you strengthen one of the most important parts of your body. 

10 KILLER CORE EXERCISES FOR ATHLETES


Seated Twists with a Medicine Ball

best core exercise - seated russian twist with medicine ball

Seated twists are great for conditioning your core and abdominals, especially the obliques. 

Choose a medicine ball that's heavy enough to give you some resistance, but not too heavy that your form will suffer. 

Here's how to do it (VeryWellFit): 

The starting position has you sitting at about a 45-degree angle and holding a medicine ball firmly with both hands in front of you. Start the movement by contracting your abs and slowly twisting from your torso to your right and tap the medicine ball on the floor beside you. Then quickly, but with a controlled motion, contract your abs and twist your torso and touch the medicine ball to the other side. Repeat 10-20 reps and rest.


Ab Wheel Rollout

core exercise for athletes - ab wheel rollout

The ab rollout is a killer core exercise that can be done using any roller wheel, slides, or even a barbell. The key with this movement is to keep your core tight and focus on the movement - like all the other exercises here, form is critical so make sure you're practicing perfectly. 

Here's how to do it (Men's Journal):

Kneel on the floor and hold an ab wheel beneath your shoulders. Brace your abs and roll the wheel forward until you feel you’re about to lose tension in your core and your hips might sag. Roll yourself back to start. Do as many reps as you can with perfect form and end the set when you think you might break form.

Barbell Russian Twist

core exercise for athletes - barbell russian twist

You don't have to be on the ground to work your core. In fact, some of the best core exercises are done standing. 

The Barbell Russian Twist is great for developing explosive power for combat sports and ball sports. 

Here's how to do it (Men's Journal):

Grasp the barbell near the very end again—this time with both hands. Stand with feet at shoulder width. Swing the bar to your left, pivoting your feet as needed, then swing to your right.

Front Squat

core exercise for athletes - front squat

Wait...squats are good for your core?? You bet! Full body compound movements are great for developing core strength, and the front squat does exactly that. 

Make sure to take a big old belly breath at the top of your movement, brace tight as you descend and come back up, and then reset.

Here's how to do it (Men's Journal):

Set a barbell on a power rack at about shoulder height (if you don’t have a rack, clean it to your shoulders). Grasp the bar with hands at shoulder width and raise your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Take the bar out of the rack and let it rest on your fingertips—as long as your elbows stay up, you’ll be able to balance the bar. Step back and set your feet at shoulder width with toes turned out slightly. Squat as low as you can without losing the arch in your lower back.


Planks

core exercise for athletes - planks

Planks are one of the most effective core exercises because they target your shoulders, back, and abs. You can do these anywhere, anytime, without any equipment, and they're the perfect addition to any HIIT workout

Here's how to do it (Runner's World):

Get into a push-up position, then stay there. However, once you can do a basic plank for one to two minutes, you need to start adding in modifications to see gains. “Hold up an arm or a leg, or your opposite arm and leg at the same time,” suggests Durner. When those get too easy, put one foot or one hand, then both, up on a bosu ball or a medicine ball.


Glute Bridges

best core exercise for athletes - glute bridge

Glute bridges are important for endurance athletes, because they work the glutes and low back - two areas where distance athletes typically get worked. 

Here's how to do it (Runner's World):

Lying on your back, bring your feet in toward your butt, then raise your hips up towards the ceiling. “Make sure there’s a straight line from your shoulder blades to your knees,” says Durner. Beginners should work simply on holding this position for 30 seconds to one minute. More advanced athletes can do reps of lifting and lowering motion, then work on holding the bridge for longer periods of time. When that gets easy, lift one leg.

Windshield Wipers

best core exercise for athletes - windshield wipers

Windshield wipers are the perfect core exercise for crushing your external obliques and lower back, too. 

Here's how to do it (Runner's World):

To perform windshield wipers, start by lying on your back with your legs straight up in the air and your arms out to your sides. Slowly lower your legs to the left, then bring them back up to center before lowering them to the right. Beginners can start with bent legs, then gradually work towards straightening them.


Knees to Chest

best core exercise for athletes - knees to chest

Want to stay off the floor while you work your core? Look no further than these next two core exercises that you'll do while hanging from a pull-up bar, rack or rings.  

Here's how to do it (CoachMag):

Start at the top of the hanging knee raise position with your abs engaged. From there, keeping tension on your abs, draw your knees up as high as possible. Lower back to the start position, maintaining tension throughout your body.

As well as working your abs, these moves really test your grip strength because you must keep your entire body tight and stable for the duration of each rep. If your grip goes before you feel your abs getting worked, try using straps to keep your hands locked in position so you can hit your target number of reps.

Hanging Knee Raise Twist

best core exercise for athletes - hanging knee raise twist

Is your grip burning yet? If it's not after doing Knees to Chest, your forearms are sure to burn doing Hanging Knee Raises with a Twist. 

Here's how to do it (CoachMag):

Hang from a bar or rings with your legs straight. Keep your chest up and brace your abs and glutes, then bring your knees up, twisting to one side as you lift them, until they’re at hip height. Pause and hold for a second, then lower your feet back to the start. Repeat, twisting to the other side, and alternate sides with each rep.


Bird Dog

best core exercise for athletes - bird dog

The Bird Dog is an excellent core exercise because you can do it anywhere, and it's easy to make it more difficult by using exercise bands.  

How to do it (OpenFit):

Get down on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. This is the starting position. Keeping your back flat and core braced, simultaneously extend your left leg straight behind you and your right arm straight in front of you. Pause, and then return to the starting position. Repeat with your right leg and left arm. Do equal reps on both sides.

10 Bonus (and HARD!) Core Exercises

Want an extra challenge? Check out these 10 core exercises that are more advanced than what we have above, and are sure to have your core burning!

NOW...GO GET TO IT!

Core exercises are an important part of any fitness routine, especially for athletes. Add these movements to your workouts and with time and the proper workout recovery you'll develop more power, reduce your risk of injury, be stronger for everyday movements, and you'll stand taller, too.