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By David L. McWhorter, PhD ‘ure, deeply chiseled abs look great and will get you lots of attention at the beach, but if you play sports or want a highly functional physique, a well-defined midsection is only half the story. Don’t overlook your low back, which, together with your abs, is your real center of power, If you want to improve your sports performance, of Americans don’t want to become one of the up t0 805 who experience low-back pain, or simply want to improve some of your bodybuilding lifts like the squat and deadlif include core training in your workout Guess that should include just about everyone you'll want Many athletes mistakenly focus only on the region of the body most obviously needed in their sport. For exam- ple, if your sport places major emphasis on throwing, then p-training the upper body is generally the major concern, You may train your lower body secondarily an iftime permits, the core region. Because all athletic move ments either originate from or are coupled to the care however, a primary focus of any training program should be on the abcominal and low-back muscles ‘You've probably heard the cliché, “A chain strong as its weakest link.” For too many athletes, the stren, s only as weakest link in the body is the crucial center of power The best tennis forehands (and backhands), golf swings, baseball bat swings, slap shots and even extra-point kicks all controlled by the core A strong core allows you greater freedom of movement, more power, fewer extraneous movements and, most important, conservation of energy through efficient move- ment, Only after achieving this ability to channel energy can you begin to realize your tremendous physical poten- tial while decreasing the likelihood Eyen in terms of general health and fitness, the abdominal ‘and low-back muscles are vital: They control posture, lower spine stabilization and total body balance id severity of injury. What Researchers Say Science has already weighed in on the importance of core strength and athletic performance. B, Shaffer and colleagues looked at muscle actviey during the baseball batting swing and showed that abdominal oblique muscles exhibit peak activity during the swing phase and follow-through. They conclude, High muscle activity in the trunk muscles indicates a need for back and abdominal stabilization and rotation emphasis should be placed on the trunk and the ere or spinae and hip muscles for a batter's strengthening program, In another study, Magnusson and co-workers looked at shoulder, trunk and thigh strength and shoulder range of motion in 24 (13 men and 11 women) competitive mas: Before you jump right into a core-training program, recognize that many injuries are the result of averwarking a part of the body that hasn't been adequately prepared for physical stress. It takes as litle as 10 minutes to warm up the core muscles and prepare them for exercise and prevent injury to the muscu- loskeletal system ‘Start your warm-up with a low-intensity activity such as brisk. walking, jogging or calisthenics for 3-5 minutes. Ths will prepare your muscles and tendons for the second component of the ‘warm-up, static stretching, which involves lengthening a muscle Stretches Low-Back Press ‘Stand with your feet together and knees bent, and slowly lean forward and lock your arms behind your knees. Slowly attempt to extend your legs while your arms are lacked behind your knees (concentrate on “pushing up" through your low back) Your legs will never fully straighten if this stretch i done correctly Knees-to-Shoulders Stretch Lie on your back, bend your knees and grasp both legs on top of the knees. Keep your back straight and pull both knees toward your shoulders. Maintain contact between the floor and your spine during this stretch. To further stretch your back, lt your shoulders off the floor and hold this position. variation to this stretch is to slowly pull one knee at a tine toward your shoulder. etting Started to a point of comfortable tension (not pain) and holding this lengthened position for at least 10 seconds. Perform the core stteiches described inthis section for atleast five minutes The cool-down is ane of the most overlooked components of any raining program. Of course, the last thing you want to do ater 2 long, strenuous workout is spend an additional 5-10 minutes cooling down, but dont neglect this pat of the workout. Think of it this way: Cooling down can even speed the recovery process Begin the cool-down with 3-5 minutes ofa low-intensity activity, foliowed by another five minutes of static stretching Pretzel Stretch Ina seated position with your left leg extended, place your bent right leg over your straight left leg. Place your left elbow an the outside of your right knee and slowly twist to the right. Reverse your leg and arm positions and repeat on the opposite side. ‘Abdominal Arch Lying on your abdomen, extend your arms overhead with your hands on the floor. Slowly lit your upper body off the floor. As your flexibility improves, lit your upper body high enough so that you support yourself with your elbows. ve > | B Seginner-Level Exercises Reverse Crunch For exercise description, see “M&F Road Map to Great Abs” in this issue. The Squirm m Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor (about 12 inches from your glutes). ® With your arms at your sides and chin tucked into your chest, raise your shoulder blades 2-4 inches off the floor and squeeze your obliques by reaching toward and tapping your left foot with your left hand. m Return to the starting position and repeat for the opposite side. m For a greater challenge, reach your hand under your legs to the opposite foot. Straight-Leg Crunch For exercise description, see “M&F Road Map to Great Abs.” Lying Torso Raise m Lie on your abdomen and place your hands behind your head. m Lift your upper body until your chest is 3-4 inches off the floor. = Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. For a greater challenge, slightly twist during the lift phase. Back Extension m Lie facedown on a back-extension bench (or roman chair) with the ankle supports properly adjusted and your hips on the torso pad. Fold your arms across your chest and lean forward at your waist toward the floor. m Raise your torso to a position slightly higher than parallel to the floor; don’t use momentum. m Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. m For a greater challenge, place your hands behind your head. As your strength increases, consider using additional resistance by placing a free-weight plate behind your head, but use extreme caution. ters-level swimmers to see if these variables were related to swimming performance. Results showed that inverse relationships existed between swimming time and torso flexion, torso extension and shoulder inter- nal rotation strength, and that torso flexion eS strength remained the only significant preaicive variable of swimming time. In other words, strong back and ab muscles correlate with a faster swim time. In addition, prevention of low-back pain (LBP) is an important concern for competitive and recreational ath- letes. LBP affects 60%-80% of American adults at some time during their lives The muscles of the low back and abdomen aid in torso stability and spine support by forming a “muscular corset” for the torso,’ making strengthening the low-back and abdominal muscles important for preventing low-back problems. Although abrupt increases in training intensity or frequency, improper technique and unsuitable sports equipment predis- pose athletes to LBP increasing the strength of the back extensor and abdominal musculature may reduce its incidence and severity.’ You should be con- vinced by now that abdominal and low-back strength is important to peak athletic perfor- mance. For more scien- tific evidence, read other studies that have exam- ined core strength rela- tive to athletic perfor mance.® Your training investment needn't be great: Adding a couple of exercises (you proba- bly already do some of them) and placing them first in your workout for added emphasis may be all that’s required. The programs and exercises are divided into begin- ner’s and advanced rou- tines, so you have all the tools right here to. get started. > Cs ore Training Guidelines m Because athletes have different body types, history of injuries and unique biomechanical attributes, consult your physician, coach, trainer or qualified fitness instructor before beginning a core training program. Never train while injured. Never sacrifice technique to squeeze out a few extra reps or to use more resistance. Deviating from proper technique may lead to mus- cle imbalances and/or injury. m Perform all exercises in a slow and controlled manner. Jerking the weight allows you to take advan- tage of momentum, decreasing the stress on the core muscles. m During all exercises, breathe rhythmically. Never hold your breath. i Avoid exercises that either arch or severely overextend your low back. m While performing each exercise, focus on the muscles you're trying to train. Never pull on your head or neck to accomplish an exercise.