In previous articles I describe Best and Worst Lower Body Strength Exercises for Athletes and Best and Worst Upper Body Strength Exercises for Athletes. To set the groundwork and to build on the exercises explained and described in those articles, it is crucial to develop functional core strength—to coordinate movement and transfer power between upper and lower body.
The Core consists of muscles in the trunk of the body that work together to support the spine and initiate power for everyday tasks as well as athletic moves. Of those muscles, the deep muscles of the abdominals and low back are most significant for maintaining strength and stability. A functionally strong core is key to improved athletic performance, injury prevention, and day-to-day living.
As more research has been conducted concerning the function of core muscles during sports, core training has evolved. Research and observations from experts confirm that the most important role of the core is to resist movement, not create it. When the core is able to stabilize the hips and spine during movement, athletes are better able to safely and efficiently transfer power between the lower and upper body for the actions of throwing, kicking, running, and jumping. As far back as the early 1990s, strength coaches began replacing old-school exercises like sit-ups and crunches—which flex the spine—with safer, more functional exercises like Planks and Bridges—which stabilize the spine. Today, sports performance coaches, physical therapists, and even most fitness instructors don’t recommend sit-ups or crunches (or any variation of the two).
Before pointing out the BEST core exercises, let’s look at the WORST exercises—and learn why those movements lack function and can contribute to injury.
WORST Core Exercises for Athletes
Sit-Up and Crunch: (Instead DO Front Plank, Stir the Pot, Supine Core Bracing, and Dead Bug Variations)
According to renowned researcher Dr. Stuart McGill—a professor of spine biomechanics at University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada—a crunch or traditional sit-up generates at least 3,350 newtons (the equivalent of 753 pounds) of compressive force on the spine. While Sit-Ups are clearly the more dangerous of the two—by putting extreme stress on bones, ligaments, and tendons in the neck and back—crunches can be harmful too. The spine is not designed for repetitive flexion (bending forward). Bending the spine again and again can damage spinal disks over time and negatively impact posture. Dr. McGill says, “There are only so many bends in your spine until the discs eventually herniate.”
Sit-Ups and Crunches are not only harmful, particularly to the spine, they also lack function. Those two exercises fail to strengthen deep abdominals that build a strong, force-resisting core. For injury prevention as well as efficient movement during sports, the spine should remain stable—rather than flexed (rounded) as it is during Sit-Ups and Crunches.
Double-Straight-Leg Lift (Instead DO Front Plank, Stir the Pot, Supine Core Bracing, and Dead Bug Variations)
While Double-Straight-leg Lift can be risky—even for athletes with advanced levels of core strength—the exercise is extremely dangerous for those without the strength and ability to properly brace core muscles. A prime mover in the bottom portion of a leg lift is the psoas (hip flexor) muscle, which attaches to the vertebra in the lumbar spine. When hip flexors contract during Double-Straight-Leg Lift, they can pull the spine into hyperextension, putting extreme pressure on spinal discs. From a functional standpoint, consider how abdominals and leg muscles work together in sports. An isometric contraction occurs in deep abdominals, while legs move independently of one another flexing and extending both hips and knees to produce force for actions like sprinting, kicking, and throwing.
Leg Throw-Down: (Instead DO Front Plank, Stir the Pot, Supine Core Bracing, and Dead Bug Variations)
Leg Throw-Down is similar to Double-Straight-Leg Lift, with the difference being that a partner stands behind the person doing the leg lift to “throw” his partner’s lifted legs toward the floor. This exercise is extremely dangerous. Like Double-Straight-Leg Lift, Leg Throw-Down contracts the psoas (hip flexor) muscle, pulling the spine into hyperextension and putting extreme pressure on spinal discs. The added resistance of forcefully throwing legs toward the floor dramatically increases pressure on discs. Even more dangerous is having legs thrown to the side. By adding a twist to an already vulnerable spine position, even the strongest of athletes are at risk for serious injury.
Seated Twist (sometimes called Russian Twist): (Instead DO Side Plank, Partner or Band Core Bracing, Stability Ball Wrestling, and Palof Press)
Because Seated Twist suppresses movement from the hips, the exercise is both nonfunctional and risky. Rotational movements of sports—hitting, throwing, kicking—all require hip rotation for power. Without hip rotation during rotational movement, the spine and back muscles bear more load and the back becomes vulnerable to injury. Before moving on to ANY rotation exercise (safe rotation exercises are Med Ball Lateral Throw and Band or Cable Rotation), athletes should first efficiently develop the core with ANTI-ROTATION exercises (read “BEST Core Exercises for Athletes” that follows) to learn how to stabilize hips and spine at end ranges of movement.
Back Hyperextensions (Instead DO Bridge, Half-Airplane, and Super Hero)
Hyperextending the spine can compress lumbar discs, impinge nerves, and lead to disc herniation.
Suitcase Sit-Up (sometimes called V-Up or Jackknife) (Instead DO Front Plank, Stir the Pot, Supine Core Bracing, and Dead Bug Variations)
Suitcase Sit-Up combines the dangers of both standard Sit-Up (repetitive flexion of the spine causing stress on bones, ligaments, and tendons in neck and back) and Double-Straight-Leg Lift (contraction of hip flexor muscles in ways that pull the spine into hyperextension).
BEST Core Exercises for Athletes
It is vital to emphasize the most significant role of the core: To resist dangerous and non-functional movement throughout the spine in order to safely transfer power from lower to upper body and to protect the back from injury. A well-trained core is the foundation for balance, strength, speed, agility, power, and almost every other athletic component in sports. When athletes consistently and properly perform the core exercises that follow, they can depend on strong, supportive trunks to transfer energy while decreasing the risks of low-back injuries and deceleration injuries to lower extremities (such as knee ACL injuries and meniscal tears).
Functional core exercises can be identified by the following categories:
- Anti-Extension Exercises train muscles to prevent over-extension of the lumber spine (arching too far backward). Examples of exercises that train muscles to prevent over-extension of the lumbar spine are Plank, Stir the Pot, Supine Core Bracing, and Dead Bug (see below).
- Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises train muscles to prevent flexing (bending) from the side. Examples of exercises that train muscles to prevent lateral flexion are Side Plank, Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry, and Single-Leg Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Exchange (see below).
- Anti-Rotation Exercises train muscles to prevent rotation through the mid-section. Examples of exercises that train muscles to prevent rotation are Standing Partner or Band or Cable Core Bracing, Stability Ball Wrestling, and Palof Press (see below).
- Anti-Flexion Exercises train muscles to prevent flexion (bending forward). Examples of exercises that train muscles to prevent flexion of the spine are Bridge, Super Hero, and Half-Airplane (see below).
Front Plank This well-known functional core exercise engages muscles that support the spine and hips as well as the scapula (shoulder blades). Athletes who perform Front Plank consistently and with precision, lower their risks for back and shoulder injuries while increasing power production and the ability to win battles involving contact with opposing players.
Note: I often see coaches, personal trainers, fitness instructors, and some strength coaches cue athletes to position hips and chest too low, which results in an overly extended spine and neglects muscles that support shoulder stabilization. Also, Front Plank is misused by requiring ridiculously long sets—upwards of 2 minutes or more. Inappropriate durations lack crossover to sports performance and can result in back pain and injury.
Notes and Cues for Front Plank:
- On a mat, place elbows directly under the shoulders and press forearms into the floor, resulting in a slightly rounded upper back and protracted shoulder blades. (Envision shoulder blades wrapping around the ribcage (Photo above). I cue “no chicken wings” to remind athletes to not let shoulder blades jut out.
- Rather than cueing “flat back and hips down,” which leads athletes to over-extend the spine, I cue “brace the abs as if expecting a punch to the gut” which leads athletes to tighten abdominal and glute muscles and lift hips slightly (photo above).
- Multiple sets of Front Plank for short durations prove to be most effective to build a stable, strong core. Aim for 3 to 5 sets, holding for 10 to 30 seconds each. To properly brace the core much longer than 30 seconds is nearly impossible and when attempted contributes to poor body alignment. Poor body alignment while performing Front Plank does nothing to resist over-extension of the spine—the main purpose of Front Plank.
- For athletes who cannot maintain form for at least 10 seconds at a time, Front Plank from the knees is an appropriate regression (below).
STIR THE POT Once athletes are able to perform a traditional Front Plank for at least 3 sets of 20 to 30 seconds each, they are ready to attempt Stir the Pot.
Notes and Cues for Stir the Pot:
- This exercise, identical in posture to Front Plank, begins with forearms on a stability ball.
- Athletes, with forearms pressing into the ball, rotate the ball in small circles, beginning with 2 circles each direction and working up to 5 circles each direction.
- The instability of the ball along with the circular movement makes stabilizing muscles work harder to prevent over-extension of the spine.
SUPINE CORE BRACING This is the practice of activating muscles surrounding the trunk in order to protect the spine, safely transfer power between upper and lower body, and stand ground against contact.
Notes and Cues for Supine Core Bracing:
- From supine position (lying on back), bend knees, feet flat on the floor. Extend arms straight above chest and even with shoulders. Engage core muscles as if about to take a punch in the gut. Concentrate on tightening mid-abdominal muscles plus muscles around sides and into low back.
- Back should remain in contact with the floor, ensuring that the core is braced properly while resisting over-extension of the spine. Hold 10 to 30 seconds. Once Supine Core Bracing is mastered, athletes are ready to progress to advanced variations (below).
Supine Core Bracing Variations – Follow Notes and Cues for Supine Core Bracing (above) while adding the variations (below).
- Supine Core Bracing
- Supine Core Bracing with Arms Extended Toward Floor
- Supine Core Bracing with One Leg Up (hold 10-15 seconds each side)
- Supine Core Bracing with One Leg Up and Arms Extended Toward Floor
- Band Resisted Supine Core Bracing
- Partner Resisted Supine Core Bracing
DEAD BUG Once athletes understand how to brace their core from a supine position and have mastered Supine Core Bracing Variations (above), they are ready to move on to Dead Bug.
Notes and Cues for Dead Bug:
- Lie supine on the floor, legs raised, knees bent at 90-degree angles and directly over hips. Extend arms above chest, even with shoulders. Brace the core as described with Supine Core Bracing (above).
Dead Bug Variations – Follow the Notes and Cues for Dead Bug (above) while adding the variations (below).
Note: Variations 3-6 are advanced exercises requiring very strong abdominal muscles and proficiency in the practice of core bracing. When the core is not properly braced—resisting extension of the spine—the spine is pulled into hyperextension, putting extreme pressure on spinal discs.
- Dead Bug
- Dead Bug with Arms Extended Toward Floor
- Dead Bug with One Leg Toward Floor
- Dead Bug with Opposite Arm and Leg Toward Floor
- Band Resisted Dead Bug
- Partner Resisted Dead Bug
SIDE PLANK This exercise engages muscles that aid in shoulder stability as well as hip, abdominal, and back muscles that support the spine. Because bodyweight is supported by one arm rather than two, Side Plank can be more demanding than Front Plank and requires precise form for both function and safety.
Note: Like Front Plank, Side Plank is often misused by allowing poor form and requiring sets that last too long.
Notes and Cues for Side Plank:
- Place elbow of one arm directly beneath shoulder, forearm perpendicular to body. Stack legs, then lift hips, keeping body in a straight line from head to heels.
- Press through the forearm and lift through hips to engage shoulder blades (no chicken wing), hips and abs engaged, and avoiding lateral flexion of the spine.
- Multiple sets of Side Plank for short duration have proven most effective to build a stable and powerful core. Aim for 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 30 seconds each. (Note: To properly brace the core for much longer than 30 seconds at a time is nearly impossible and would contribute to poor body alignment while doing nothing to resist over-lateral flexion of the spine—the primary benefit of Side Plank.)
- For athletes who cannot maintain form for at least 10 seconds at a time, Side Plank from the Knees is an appropriate regression (below).
BOTTOMS-UP KETTLEBELL CARRY or SINGLE-LEG BOTTOMS UP KETTLEBELL EXCHANGE Few exercises engage joint stabilizers as well as Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry and Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Exchange. While these two exercises are primarily shoulder and wrist stabilizers, muscle recruitment is also high in back muscles that stabilize the spine as well as deep abdominal muscles—both used for power and support in sports.
Notes and Cues for Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry and Single-Leg Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry:
- To perform Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry walk about 20 yards while engaging core muscles and holding kettlebells as shown (above).
- To Perform Single-Leg Bottoms Up Kettlebell Exchange stand on one leg while engaging core muscles. Grip the kettlebell as shown (above). Exchange the kettlebell from one hand to the other for a total of 6 reps on each leg.
STANDING PARTNER CORE BRACING and BAND or CABLE CORE BRACING I advocate these exercises for improved rotational power as well as reducing risk for injury during rotational movements. The function of the core in rotational exercises is to initiate power and resist movement, and athletes need to be able to prevent rotation before they begin to produce it. Rotational exercises require a braced core, with most of the rotation taking place in the hips. The spine is not meant to twist deeply, a movement that can injure discs, muscles, and tendons in the back. Back problems occur when abdominal and back muscles cannot maintain control over the rotation between the pelvis and spine. (Watch for more about Rotational Exercises in my future article, “Best and Worst Power Exercises for Athletes”.)
Notes and Cues for Partner Core Bracing:
- Partners stand facing one another, knees bent, hips back, shoulders back, and feet a little wider than hip distance. Both partners engage the core by tightening muscles as if expecting a punch to the gut while holding hands in front, palms together and elbows in tight to sides. Partners add 10 seconds of resistance to one another—from right, left, top, and bottom, all while keeping core engaged and elbows tight to sides.
Notes and Cues for Band or Cable Core Bracing:
- Adjust a cable or band to chest height. Stand perpendicular to the band or cable. Grip the band or cable—one hand clasped around the other—and extend arms straight out from the chest. With knees bent, hips back, shoulders back, and feet a little wider than hip distance, engage the core by tightening muscles as if expecting a punch to the gut. Use core muscles to resist any rotation from spine, shoulders, knees, and hips. Maintain Braced Core Position for 10 to 20 seconds. Rotate 180 degrees and repeat the other side.
STABILITY BALL WRESTLING A variation of Partner Core Bracing, this exercise adds a reactive component to core stabilization. The ability to quickly and efficiently brace core muscles in response to outer stimuli is an important tool to improve balance, agility, and strength against opponents while protecting the spine, knees, and hips from injury.
Notes and Cues for Stability Ball Wrestling:
- Both partners assume Partner Core Bracing position (above), with Partner A holding a Stability Ball in front. Partner B tries to move the Stability Ball in irregular patterns (up, down, right, left) as Partner A resists the movements. Continue for 10 to 20 seconds; then switch positions and repeat.
PALOF PRESS This exercise is a variation of Band or Cable Core Bracing. Simply put, it is a Band Chest Press from Standing Core Bracing position.
Notes and Cues for Palof Press:
- While practicing good core bracing (above) begin by holding the band or cable at the sternum, then press the band or cable straight forward, fully extending arms. With control, return hands to starting position. Perform 8 reps while resisting rotation from spine, shoulders, knees, and hips. Rotate 180 degrees and repeat the other side.
BRIDGE This versatile exercise targets stabilizing muscles in the posterior chain—back, glutes, and hamstrings. With proper cueing, Bridge can also be a core bracing exercise that targets all the muscles that wrap around the mid-section.
Notes and Cues for Bridge:
- Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on floor and hip distance apart in line with ankles, and toes straight ahead or turned out slightly. Place arms at your sides, palms down.
- Tighten muscles around mid-section (as if expecting a punch to the gut), press feet into the floor and lift hips until knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Contract glutes at the top of the movement. Avoid over-extending hips and spine. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Bridge Variations – Keep in mind the notes and cues for Bridge (above) while adding the variations (below).
Note: Unilateral (single-leg) variations are advanced and should only be attempted after bilateral Bridge positions are mastered with good form.
- Single-Leg Bridge
- Bridge from Stability Ball
- Single-Leg Bridge from Stability Ball
- Elevated Bridge from Stability Ball
- Elevated Single-Leg Bridge from Stability Ball
- Elevated Straight-Leg Bridge from Stability Ball
- Elevated Straight-Leg Single-Leg Bridge from Stability Ball
SUPER HERO and HALF-AIRPLANE (from hands and knees or stability ball) I endorse Super Hero and Half-Airplane (from hands and knees or from a stability ball) as exercises to improve strength and endurance in the muscles that connect to and support the spine. These exercises, done from hands and knees or from stability ball, are good to teach athletes neutral spine—aligned spine from head to tail bone. Strength, endurance, and neuromuscular control of back muscles is important to safely perform Hip Hinge and Dead Lift (see “Best and Worst Lower Body Strength Exercises for Athletes”) as well as safe and efficient jumping mechanics, sprinting mechanics, lateral movement, and many other important actions in sports.
Note: Never do Super Hero or Half-Airplane from lying prone on your stomach, a position that forces the spine into hyperextension.
Notes and Cues for Super Hero:
- Kneeling on the floor, hands stacked directly beneath your shoulders and knees directly beneath your hips, push your hips back to engage low back muscles.
- Retract your shoulder blades toward one another to engage the upper back muscles and tighten muscles around mid-section (as if expecting a punch to the gut).
- Extend one leg backward, parallel to floor, checking to ensure hips are level. Extend opposite arm forward, parallel to floor, checking to ensure shoulders are level.
- Hold for 10 to 20 seconds; repeat with opposite arm and leg.
Notes and Cues for Half-Airplane:
Follow cues for Super Hero (above) except extend one arm out to the side (perpendicular to your body) rather than forward.
Note: To choose the correct size stability ball for this exercise, sit on the ball. Knees should bend at about 90 degrees while seated.
Notes and Cues for Super Hero from a Stability Ball:
- Lie across a stability ball, face toward floor, hands and feet on floor, hands directly beneath shoulders.
- Extend one leg backward, parallel to floor. Extend opposite arm forward, parallel to floor, checking to ensure shoulders are level.
- Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, resume original position, then repeat with opposite arm and leg.
- To perform Half-Airplane from a Stability Ball, extend an arm out to the side—perpendicular to body rather than forward.