Strengthen Your Core and Protect Your Back Without Crunches
We are a population obsessed with abs. Scan the covers of fitness magazines and see captions like, “Get Sexy Abs!”, “Flat Abs!”, “6 Moves for a 6-Pack!”, and, “Best. Abs. Ever!” A strong core is crucial to a runner’s success, and not because of those times it’s too hot to run in a shirt! We often think of our abs as the outer layer that we try so hard to shape into a 6-pack, but the core is so much more than that.
The core has many deep layers of stabilizing muscles that protect the spine in all three planes of motion- think of when you throw a ball, the twisting action that happens is dependent on your core. When it comes to running, the core plays an important role, from protecting your low back from the repetitive force of each stride, to helping you power up a hill.
But when it comes to strengthening your core, many people go straight to crunches and never look back. Not so fast! Not only are crunches boring, they can actually do more harm than good.
The main function of the abdominals is to support the spine and prevent it from spinning all the way around, breaking over backward, or flexing to the side. The crunching movement is a secondary function and one that’s not meant to be done at high volume due to the stress it puts on the discs of your spine. – Timothy Bell, Breakingmuscle.com
Image from Lovetoknow.com
What’s a runner supposed to do, then? Fear not! There are a ton of exercises that will strengthen your core without the crunching movement pattern.
Here are 6 of my personal favorites (click images for a video demo):
Mountain Climbers – Twist
Starting in the plank position, bring one knee to towards the opposite elbow. Alternate legs as you go while keeping shoulders over wrists.
Rotating Side Plank
There are SO many variations of a plank, but this one works your core from different angles. Start in a regular plank, then rotate to a side plank, turning on to the sides of your feet and raising one arm towards the ceiling. Rotate back to a regular plank on your toes, then switch to the opposite side. Rotate back and forth.
Plank Toe Touches
Starting in the plank position, pike your hips up as you reach one hand towards the opposite foot. Lower your hips back to a plank and alternate sides.
Start with feet wider than hip width, with knees bent in a semi-squat. Keep hands on back of head, elbows back. Pretend you are in between two panes of glass, bend to one side bringing your elbow towards the ground. Return to starting position and alternate to the other side.
This one requires one dumbbell. Starting in the plank position, pick up the dumbbell in a back row motion, making your elbow graze your ribcage, and lower back down. Switch hands (I like to keep the dumbbell between my hands for a quick transition), alternate back and forth. The challenge here is to minimize the amount your hips shift from side to side. You’ll be forced to use the deep stabilizing muscles to remain as close to a motionless plank as you can while alternating rows.
Sitting upright, hinge back so you’re at a 45* angle. For beginners, keep your heels on the mat, for more of a challenge, raise them up with knees slightly bent, shins parallel to the floor. Keeping a braced core and legs in starting position, twist towards one side, back to center, then the opposite side. For an additional challenge, hold a dumbbell as you twist.
You can work the core everyday, which sounds overwhelming, but if you do each of these exercises for 1 minute each, you’ll have a well rounded core workout in 6 minutes! Try incorporating core training into your running by using them as a warm up or cool down. Another trick I recommend is working your core exercises into TV time. For one show in the evening, use the commercial breaks as a timer and do one of these exercises per commercial.