The most common misconception about core conditioning is that its main purpose is to strengthen the muscles of the trunk. In reality, developing strength is only a secondary purpose of core conditioning. Its primary objective is to teach you how to activate important stabilizing muscles and coordinate the use of these muscles with other muscles in sport-specific movements.
The reason this objective is so important is that most of us are unable to functionally activate some of our most important stabilizing muscles during running, and this problem reduces our efficiency of movement and contributes to overuse injuries. It doesn't take any special strength to use the key stabilizers correctly. It takes coordination between the brain and muscles.
Consider the example of the deepest muscles of the abdominal wall (the transversus abdominis and internal obliques). According to Michael Fredericson, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at Stanford University and one of the world's premier experts on core conditioning for runners, these muscles are vital to proper stabilization of the pelvis during running.
Yet the vast majority of runners (including most elite runners) are unable to activate these muscles functionally to maintain pelvic stability on the run.
Again, weakness isn't the issue. "It only takes a 10 percent contraction to do the job," says Fredericson. Rather, the problem is a lack of neuromuscular communication. Our brains literally can't find these muscles, probably because of the absurd amount of time we spent slouching in seats -- a posture that requires no use of the deep abs.
So correcting the problem doesn't require that we increase the maximum force generating capacity of the deep abs. Instead it requires that we learn how to use them, especially in sport-specific movements.
Getting to the core
One of the most common errors we make in the practice of core conditioning is failing to train progressively. In order to enhance the stabilizing capacity of your core muscles, you have to bring them along step by step. Too many athletes fail to divide their core training into properly ordered stages, beginning with very basic exercises that help them to simply find the right muscles and advancing a step at a time from there.
Leaping straight into advanced core conditioning exercises makes about as much sense as running 22 miles on the first day of a beginner's marathon training program. Sure, you may build some strength by doing these advanced exercises, but there'll be little or no functional carryover to your sports movements, hence little or no benefit. The strongest abs in the world are useless if you can't activate them functionally.
Conditioning your core properly requires patience and a willingness to spend a fair amount of time working on exercises that may not look like they're doing much. Your core conditioning program should proceed in three phases. In the first phase, do basic isolation exercises that train the connection between your brain and the targeted muscles without any requirement to coordinate this action with other muscle actions.
Once you're able to consistently and easily activate your stabilizers, do exercises that involve core activation in coordination with other muscles movements. And in the third phase, do exercises in which core activation is incorporated into sport-specific movements similar to those involved in running, at least some of which include a balance requirement.<!--pagebreak-->
Core conditioning program
The most important stabilizing muscle groups in runners are the aforementioned deep abdominals and the hip stabilizers -- namely the hip abductors and external hip rotators on the outside of the hips and buttocks. The core conditioning program I'm presenting here is a bare-bones program that focuses on just these two muscle areas with only four exercises per workout.
Phase I: Finding your stabilizers
Do these exercises three times a week for three weeks. In the first week, do each exercise once. In the second week, do each exercise twice. And in the third week, do each three times.<!--insertad-->
Lying Hip Abduction
Conditions the hip abductors and hip external rotators, enhancing hip stability
There are two versions of this exercise. First, lie on your side with your legs bent 90 degrees and your knees together. Now rotate your upper leg upward and backward, keeping the foot of this leg in contact with the other foot. Repeat 12-15 times or until you feel fatigue in your buttock, then switch sides. To make this exercise more challenging, perform it with a resistance band tied around your thighs.
To do the second version, straighten your legs and repeatedly lift the top leg toward the ceiling (toes pointing forward) as high as you can. Repeat 12-15 times and then switch sides. To make this exercise more challenging, do it with an ankle weight.
Cook Hip Lift
Trains the deep abs to stabilize the lower spine and pelvis while the glutes and hamstrings generate backward thrust
Lie face up with your legs sharply bent. Place one foot flat on the floor and draw the other leg up against your torso, holding it in place with pressure from your hands. Now contract the hamstrings and glutes of the grounded leg to lift your butt off the floor two or three inches. Keep your deep abs contracted and your pelvic neutral. Hold this position for five seconds and relax. Repeat five times and then switch legs. Progress by holding the contractions longer and/or by adding repetitions.
Kneeling Overhead Draw-In
Teaches you how it feels to contract the deep abs for stabilization
Kneel on both knees and raise your arms straight overhead. Draw your navel toward your spine and try to lift your fingertips another inch or so toward the ceiling, as though you're trying to place an object on a shelf that's just out of reach. Hold the contraction for five seconds and relax. Repeat a total of five times. To progress, add repetitions and/or hold the contractions longer. To make this exercise more challenging, do it with dumbbells or a weight plate in your hands.
Teaches you to sustain activation of the deep abs as your hips rotate
Lie face up with your legs sharply bent, knees together and feet placed flat on the floor. Contract your deep abdominal muscles by drawing your navel toward your spine. Don't arch your lower spine.
Now slowly let your knees fall outward toward the floor without relaxing your deep abs. (This is very difficult at first. If it feels easy, you're letting your deep abs relax!) Once your legs are splayed as wide as you can get them, pause briefly and return to the start position. Repeat a total of 10 times. Progress by adding repetitions.<!--pagebreak-->
Phase II: Stabilization and coordination
This phase of your core conditioning program should also last three weeks. Continue training your core three times a week. In the first week of this phase, do each of the four exercises described below just once and do the exercises of the previous phase twice per core session. In the second week, reverse this ratio. And in the third week, do only the four exercises presented below, three times apiece.
Trains the hip abductors and external rotators to maintain hip stability during a single leg movement similar to running
Stand on one foot and bend the other leg 90 degrees. Lower your butt slowly toward the floor, keeping most of your weight on the heel of your support foot. Squat as low as you can without your butt moving to one side or the other (a sign that other muscles have begun to pick up the stabilization slack). Return to the start position. Do eight to 10 squats on each foot. Progress by squatting deeper and/or by adding repetitions.
Trains all of the muscles involved in maintaining lateral stability at the hips, pelvis and spine
Lie on your side with your ankles together and your torso propped up by your upper arm. Lift your hips upward until your body forms a diagonal plank from ankles to neck. Hold this position for 20 seconds -- don't let your hips to sag towards the floor (watch yourself in a mirror to stay honest). Reverse your position and repeat. Progress by increasing the duration you hold the bridge position. To increase the challenge further, perform several hip abductions from the bridge position.
Lying Draw-In with Hip Flexion
Teaches your deep abs to stabilize the pelvis during alternating leg movements
Lie face up with your head supported by a large pillow or foam roller. Begin with your legs bent 90 degrees and your thighs perpendicular to the floor, feet together. Engage your deep abs by drawing your navel toward your spine. While holding this contraction, slowly lower your right foot to the floor, return immediately to the start position, and then lower the left foot. If you find this easy, you're failing to hold the contraction of your deep abs. Lower each foot to the floor eight to 10 times. Progress by adding repetitions.
Teaches your deep abs to stay active against a balancing challenge while performing alternating limb movements
Kneel on all fours with a broomstick or dowel rod balanced along your spine. Engage your deep abs by drawing your navel toward your spine. Holding this contraction, extend your right leg until it forms a straight line with your torso. Do this without rotating your hips. If you cheat and allow your hips to rotate (a movement that would allow your deep abs to work less), the broomstick will roll off your back to the left. Hold this position for 10 seconds, return to the start position, and then extend the left leg.
Repeat on both sides. Progress by holding the extension longer and by adding repetitions. To make this exercise even more challenging, extend your left arm forward as you extend your right leg backward, and then extend your right arm and left leg together.
Phase III: Functional stability
Continue training your core three times a week throughout this third phase of your off-season core conditioning program. In the first week, do each of these exercises just once and do the exercises of the second phase twice per core session. In the second week, reverse this ratio. And in the third week, do only the four exercises presented below, three times a piece.
Single-Leg Box Jump
Challenges your hip stabilizers to maintain hip stability during single-foot impact
Stand on one foot facing a sturdy platform such as an aerobics step. Leap forward onto the platform and land on the same foot. Make a small hop step on the platform for balance and then jump back to the start position. Repeat 10 to 12 times and switch legs. Concentrate on engaging your hip abductors and hip external rotators on your support side when landing. Progress by raising the platform and by adding repetitions (up to 20 per leg).
Stability Ball Leg Curl
Trains your deep abs to maintain pelvic stability against a balance challenge while the glutes and hamstrings generate backward thrust
Lie face up and place your heels together on top of a stability ball. Raise your pelvis so that your body forms a straight plank from head to toes. Contract your glutes and hamstrings and roll the ball toward your buttocks. Pause briefly and return to the start position. Focus on keeping your pelvis from sagging toward the floor throughout this movement. Do eight to 12 repetitions. Progress by adding repetitions and/or by switching to a single-leg version of the exercise (straighten one leg and elevate it above the ball while using the opposite foot to roll the ball).
Swiss Ball Jackknife
Trains your deep abs to maintain stability in the pelvis and lower spine against a balance challenge while performing hip flexion movements
Assume a push-up position with your hands on the floor and the tops of your feet supported on a stability ball. Engage your deep abs by drawing your navel toward your spine and bend your legs sharply, rolling the ball toward your hands -- don't arch your lower spine. Pause briefly and return to the start position. Complete eight to 12 repetitions. Progress by adding repetitions.
Trains your deep abs to maintain stability during alternating arm and leg movements
Lie face up with your head slightly elevated above the floor and your deep abs engaged. Begin with your right leg fully extended and also elevated a few inches off the floor, your right arm reaching towards your right foot, your left leg sharply bent with the knee drawn towards your chest, and your left arm extended straight behind your head, parallel to the floor. Keeping your navel drawn towards your spine, smoothly reverse the position of your arms and legs, and continue alternating arm and leg positions for 25 seconds. Progress by increasing the duration of the exercise.
- Click here for a printable copy of the Core Conditioning Program.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).