Core Strength for Athletes: A Workout to Improve Performance and Prevent Injury

Monday, January 11, 2016 | By Shane Niemeyer
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Core Strength for Athletes: A Workout to Improve Performance and Prevent Injury

As you take your training into the new year, this is a perfect time to revisit strength training concepts related to the “core”. You have likely heard about the importance of having a strong core. In fact, the term “core” is used so frequently, that it is often misunderstood and poorly represented. For this piece, I am taking this highly complex anatomical landmark and distilling it down to it’s key features. When discussing the core, I am talking about the body without the arms, legs, or head. For me, the core is the anatomy of the pelvis and the trunk including the entire spinal column, thoracic cavity, abdominal cavity, and the pelvic basin.

Almost any motion the body experiences is transmitted through the core system. Anytime you move a limb (in any way), turn your head, or engage in any physical activity, the core is involved to some degree. Your core functions primarily to absorb, redirect and transfer forces throughout the body. While your hips can produce tremendous amounts of force, the spinal column and trunk are more effective at providing stability and transfer of energy instead of generating it.

Benefits of Strength Training

In order to realize your potential as an athlete, and reduce the risk of injuries, you must incorporate strength training into your program. Unfortunately, when you are under pressure or tight on time, strength training is often the first thing to get ejected from your schedule. In reality, however, strength training should be an inextricable component of your performance strategy.

Strength training provides you with benefits that you cannot achieve through aerobic training alone. In fact, the mechanical and repetitive nature of most aerobic training leads to breakdown of tissue and dysfunction at the joints. Too much aerobic training actually pushes the endocrine system into a catabolic state. Conjure a mental projection of any endurance activity, and you will see that at its essence, it is continuous and repetitious. This constant movement, occurring predominantly in one plane and with set/limited range of motion sets the stage for injury to propagate. The human body is designed to move across multiple planes with varied ranges of motion.

Repetitious Movement

Consider cycling, where the hips are fixed atop the saddle, the feet are bound to the pedals and the arms are spatially anchored on the handlebar in various positions. From this highly fixed anatomical position, the rider performs thousands of repetitions in a predetermined path of motion, restricting range through the joints and tissues.

With this image, imagine two riders equal in all things (fitness and equipment) except one of the riders has a strong and stable core system. As a race goes on, the rider with the stronger core will win every time. Why? Because the strengthened athlete can more efficiently transfer power into the pedal transferring that energy into desired momentum without the common power “leaks” that arise over time as various structures buckle or fatigue.

It is very much the same with running. All distance running (particularly anything over 3k) is very repetitive. An athlete with poor postural control and core stability will display more and more “leaks” as an event goes on. Any collapse in postural control or core rigidity is inefficient and represents sub-optimal athletic performance. The same can be said for cross country skiing, rowing, swimming or any other endurance event.

Back Pain

Clean, quality movement is governed by structural efficiency and postural control. When we have a stable hip and core, we are well on our way towards better performance and lower exposure to back injury. Biomechanical models continually demonstrate that strength training significantly reduces injury rates and enhances performance.

Most evidence suggests athletes experience the same, or even higher rates of injury as the general public does. Here are a few interesting fact about back pain:

  • Low back pain is the leading cause of disability across the globe1
  • Half of working Americans reported having back pain within the year.2
  • Hip and back pain is the second most common reason to visit the doctor's office (the leading cause is respiratory infection3
  • Most back pain is mechanical (not acute, or from an accident), but from faulty movement patterns4
  • As many as 85 percent of us will experience at least one episode of back pain in our life, according to the National Institutes of Health and World Health Organization.

Hip and Core Strength Session

Below is a hip and core session that will help get the season off on the right footing.

Always let the repetition scheme guide your selection of load. Never lift more than you are capable of. Always trust your intuition when it comes to exercise. Less is better, particularly at the onset of any strength protocol.

  • I recommend organizing these exercises in “groups” or “circuits” of three or four exercises at a time.
  • Take as little rest as you need between exercises, while still performing them safely and effectively. We should aim to trim the rest to somewhere between :10 and :20 between exercises and 1-2 minutes between “groups” or “circuits”
  • DO NOT draw the navel in (often referred to as the drawing in maneuver or hollowing out) as many of us were taught. Instead, brace the entire trunk by stiffening the anatomy as if bracing for a physical impact. A stable trunk is one that is “super stiff”, which can only be created through bracing the entire trunk. Spine biomechanist Stuart McGill has very eloquently demonstrated this multiple times5.

The Workout:

  1. Introduction
  2. Lateral Crawl- 3 sets of 6 repetitions.
  3. Squat and Press: 3 sets of 8-12 reps, make sure to allow the ankle, knee and hip to articulate.
  4. Prone med ball toss: 3 sets of 8-12 reps, be very careful and mindful here. do not extend too much, and never use too much load.

Take a break of 1 to 2 minutes if need be before the next grouping:

  1. Core contract and hold: 3 sets of 4-6 reps of :10 contract and hold, with :03-:05 rests between.
  2. Walking chest press on cable cross: 4 sets of 6-9 reps per limb. If you do not have access to similar machine, you can use a band or regular pulley and just move one limb at a time, stepping forward once, then back to neutral.
  3. Torso twist with cable or band: 3-4 sets of 9-12 reps. Select the load carefully and never force the range of motion or anatomical position.

Take a break of 1 to 2 minutes if need be before the next grouping:

  1. Walking shoulder abduction with press: 3-4 sets of 6-9 reps per limb on both phases (abduction and adduction).
  2. Bulgarian split squat with rotation: 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Be careful and very controlled throughout.
  3. Vertical med ball toss: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps. Be sure to lead with the chest and do not allow the low back to come off the ground.

Take a break of 1 to 2 minutes if need be before the next grouping:

  1. Suitcase squat: 3-4 sets of 8 reps per hemisphere.
  2. Stir the pot: 3 sets of :40-:60, be sure to change direction.


  1. University of North Carolina 2009, school of medicine
  2. Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl 1985; 11: 1-98.
  3. Goodman D, Burke A, Livingston E. Low Back Pain. JAMA. 2013; 309(16):1738.
  4. Katz JN. Lumbar disc disorders and low-back pain: socioeconomic factors and consequences. J Bone Joint Surg Am, 2006, 88(suppl 2):21-24.
  5. McGill, S. Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention

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