Abdominal muscle weakness and poor control of the trunk (or “core”) can negatively influence athletic performance and activities of daily living. Poor trunk muscle strength has been associated with injuries in baseball players and several other sports. Also, exercises to improve trunk muscle strength have been shown to improve soccer and distance running performance. Trunk muscle weakness has also been linked to falls in seniors and low back pain in adults and children.
Exercises to strengthen the abdominal muscles and improve coordination of the trunk should be integrated into a comprehensive total body strength training program. Training should never focus on any single muscle or body part. In general, abdominal exercises should start in supported positions, such as supine lying, and progress to more functional positions, such as standing. Exercises are predominately training for muscular endurance with short sustained holds (8 to 10 seconds) and a progressive number of repetitions. As exercises become less challenging, the number of repetitions should be increased or the exercise itself should be progressed to a more challenging position. The five exercises which follow are ordered from the most basic to the most challenging.
Begin in a supine lying position with the arms held straight up and the feet off the floor. The hips and knees should be bent to 90 degrees. Gently flatten the low back into the floor and maintain this abdominal contraction throughout the exercise. Simultaneously raise the right arm overhead and extend the left leg without touching down. Hold this position for several seconds and maintain low back contact with the floor. Reverse the movement back to the starting position. Then, perform the opposite diagonal pattern with the left arm and right leg. You should alternate sides with each repetition. Maintain low back contact with the floor throughout the exercise.
Stability Ball Roll-Outs
Begin in a tall-kneeling position with both hands on the ball. Roll the hands along the ball until the elbows or upper arm contacts the ball. The elbows should remain extended as the hands and hips move together. Engaging the gluteus and abdominal muscles help maintain proper position during the exercise. As you lower the body towards the floor, maintain a neutral spine position and avoid arching the low back. Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.
Side Plank with Rotation
Begin in a side-lying position resting on one elbow. Raise the trunk and knee off the floor until you are fully supported by your elbow and feet. While maintaining the side plank position, reach up and then under and behind the body with the top hand. This will induce trunk rotation and challenge the oblique abdominal muscles. Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.
Half-Kneeling Cable Chop
Assume a half-kneeling position next to a cable column or anchored resistance band. The kneeling position removes contributions from the lower body and increases the demands on the trunk, pelvis and hip musculature. From a balanced and upright kneeling position, pull the cable or band diagonally across the body towards the opposite hip. Maintain a neutral spine and trunk position throughout the exercise. Avoid rotating the body as your arms pull across the body. Resisting this movement is what activates the abdominal muscles. Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.
Lateral Lunge with Press and Reach
This advanced exercise starts from a standing position next to a cable column or anchored resistance band. Holding the handle or band close to the body; initiate the exercise with a lateral lunge. Once the lunge position is attained, slowly press the arms straight out in front of the body. The band or weight will induce a rotational challenge to the trunk muscles. Resisting this movement is what activates the abdominal muscles. Next, slowly raise the arms straight overhead while maintaining the lunge position. Maintain a neutral spine and trunk position throughout the exercise. Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement sequentially back to the starting position.
Closing Thoughts on Abdominal Exercises
Abdominal exercises are one component of a comprehensive exercise program targeting total body muscular strength and physical performance. Abdominal exercises performed in isolation are rarely successful for improving performance or decreasing pain. When developing your program, consider these five trunk muscle exercises. Performing each exercise in a controlled fashion, with a focus on proper technique and muscular endurance will elicit the best results for the long-term.
- Chaudhari AMW, Mckenzie CS, Pan X, Onate JA. Lumbopelvic control and days missed because of injury in professional baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2014;42(11):2734-2740. doi:10.1177/0363546514545861.
- Granacher U, Gollhofer A, Hortoba T, Kressig RW, Muehlbauer T. The importance of trunk muscle strength for balance, functional performance, and fall prevention in seniors: A systematic review. Sports Med. 2013;43:627-641. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0041-1.
- Reed CA, Ford KR, Myer GD, Hewett TE. The Effects of isolated and integrated “core stability” training on athletic performance measures: A systematic review. Sports Med. 2012;42(8):697-706.