Building a strong midsection entails so much more than getting a sculpted six-pack. Ben Greenfield, an Ironman triathlete, coach and the nutrition consultant for X2Performance, fills us in on why core work is key—especially for runners—and reveals his 6 top core exercises for beginning runners.
Why Beginners Need to Focus on Their Cores
So, what are the benefits of a strong core for a runner? "A strong core is crucial for power transfer of your midsection to your arms and legs," says Greenfield. "It helps you maintain proper run posture, which improves efficiency and economy, and facilitates turnover through the hip flexors." What's more? If your core muscles are weak, you won't be able to breathe as deeply, lift as heavily, or move as quickly.
The Core Is More Than Just Abs
Do you think that if you bang out 100 sit-ups a day you'll get a strong core? Think again. While abdominal exercises, like crunches and sit-ups, work the front of your stomach—also known as the rectus abdominis—they only tap into a small percentage of muscle groups in your core. "The core actually goes way beyond these ab muscles, and includes the muscles of your lower back, pelvic floor and hips," explains Greenfield. "Ab work only really hits the front of your midsection."
All told, there are over 15 muscles that make up your core, says Greenfield. "Imagine bending down and picking up a weight, then lifting it over your head. As you do this, you're engaging each of your core muscles. "That's why movement like a squat to overhead press is a far more effective core training exercise than simply sitting on a machine and pressing a weight overhead," says Greenfield.
Do You Need to Work Your Core Daily?
Building a rock-solid core doesn't mean you have to hit the gym on the daily. You can actually tone your midsection while doing everything from running to driving a car to prepping dinner for your family. "Focus on sitting upright with excellent posture in whatever you do," says Greenfield. "Keep your core activated when you're doing daily tasks like cooking or cleaning. The key is to maintain constant core tension."
6 Moves to a Stronger Core
Ready to work that core? Greenfield offers six moves that'll improve your strength and, ideally, make you a better runner. "Beginners should do this routine once, and eventually work up to three times through," he says. "Perform each repetition in a smooth and controlled manner, doing 10 reps of each exercise before moving on to the next move with little or no rest."
Core Move #1: L-Pull-ups
Perform a pull-up with the body shaped like an "L", meaning a 90-degree bend at the hip, with the legs held straight out in front of the body. If you can't do a pull-up, do 10 lat pulldowns followed by 10 hanging, straight leg raises (hang from a bar and raise the legs).
Core Move #2: One-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Hold a weight in one hand and stand tall on one leg. Hinge forward, keeping the back completely straight and allowing a very slight bend in the knees. Your leg that's off the ground should extend behind the body in a "laid out" position. Look forward and keep the rib cage pushed out. Return to the starting position to complete one rep.
Core Move #3: One-Leg, One-Arm Rows
Hinge forward at the waist again, but stabilize yourself with one hand on a bench or other supporting object. One leg should still be out behind you, with your body weight supported on the other leg. Hold a weight in one arm and complete 10 rows, utilizing a "starting-the-lawnmower" motion.
Core Move #4: Split Squat
Hold a weight in each hand and get into a lunging position, with one leg out in front of the body and one leg back behind you. Place the foot of the leg behind you on a bench or other supporting object that is about 3 to 4 feet off the ground. Keep all your body weight over the front leg, bend it to 90 degrees, then move back to the starting position.
Core Move #5: One-Arm Overhead Press
Stand tall, suck the belly button in towards the spine, and press a weight overhead 10 times with one arm. Switch the weight to the other hand and repeat.
Core Move #6: Woodchopper
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a weight with both hands and your outstretched arms in front of the body. Rotate the entire torso to the right while simultaneously squatting down and bringing the weight to the outside of your right shoe. Now stand and rotate the entire torso as far as possible to the left, swinging the weight to the outside of the left shoulder. Remember to keep the arms straight.