Whether you are looking for a midsection worthy of being shown on the beach, trying to improve the strength of your swing, or battling bouts of back pain, this approach to core building is the foundation of a well-rounded training program. These five exercises and their variations will help you meet all of your aesthetic, performance, and pain-battling goals.
Optimal core training uses movement and torque in the extremities to activate and increase the stability of your midsection. We activate the core most effectively and efficiently when we keep it still and move our arms or legs at high velocities under load. Sure, sit-ups, crunches, and leg lifts will work your core, but they will also wreak havoc on your neck and back. They don’t train the core properly for volleyball, or any sport. Sorry gym rats and “fitness experts,” sit-ups and crunches are archaic and biomechanically unsafe, and they’re inadequate in successfully building those washboard abs that keep your spine safe and your swing strong.
This routine can be added to any training regimen. My advice is to do the most basic version of each exercise one time through and advance only when you have perfect, pain-free form. Once you have mastered the basic movements, you can go on to the next variation or step. When you have mastered all the variations, begin to do multiple sets of the whole program. Ideally this is a routine that you could run through 3-4 times which can turn into a 20- to 30-minute workout with just five simple exercises. However, in its most basic implementation, this routine can and should be included while preparing for your pregame or pre-training warm-up.
Want a good measure of your core strength? Check out this video of Dr. Jason Reynolds of Body Dynamix showing how to complete the three-minute core-strength test.
If you can do this test, then you probably do not suffer from back pain, have a powerful vertical, and can crush the ball at a high velocity. If you can manage three minutes, try to see how many rounds you can get through. If you fall short of the mark, use the test as a marker of your core-strength improvements. Join the community of plankers and showcase your skills on Instagram or Twitter. #BDXEliteCore @bodydynamixoc and @bdx_chiro will be sure to support you on all of your plank variations!
Exercise 1a: Elbow Plank
The elbow plank is a traditional measure of getting your body into a good neutral position. Your hips should be fully extended, lumbopelvic area relatively neutral, scapula depressed and retracted, and head and neck neutral. Your core should be actively engaged throughout the exercise. Work up to one-minute holds without losing form. Then go on to the variations.
Exercise 1b: Plank Push-Up
Start in an elbow plank position and walk your hands up to a push-up position. Alternate the order of your arms as you push up. The goal is to minimize rotation through the thorax by keeping the core activated. Work up to 10 reps each arm.
Exercise 1c: Plank Push-Up Shoulder Tap
From the top of your high plank, lift one hand off the ground and reach up to touch your opposite shoulder. Try to transfer the weight and load through your body so that nothing moves but your free arm. Re-establish your plank position then alternate arms. Work up to 10 reps each arm.
Exercise 2a: Push-Up Plank Arm Reach
From a high plank, reach out one arm into full shoulder flexion. Reset and repeat with the opposite arm. Do this for up to 10 reps each arm.
Exercise 2b: Push-Up Plank Leg Reach
Reach one leg up and out into full hip extension. Reset and repeat with the opposite leg. Alternate for up to 10 reps each leg.
Exercise 2c: Push-Up Plank with Opposite Arm/Leg Reach
Now reach one arm and the opposite leg up and out into full shoulder flexion and full hip extension. Reset while keeping your core stabilized and activated, and repeat with the opposite extremities. Alternate for up to 10 reps each side.
Exercise 3a: Side Elbow Plank
Move into a side plank. Your legs can be offset with the bottom leg forward or, to make it more challenging, you can stack your feet. Push your hips forward into full hip extension, with your lumbar spine neutral and shoulders square. Work up to a 30-45 second hold on each side. Then go on to the variations.
Exercise 3b: Side Elbow Plank Knee Tuck
From your side plank position, lift your bottom leg, bringing your knee toward your chest. The goal is to transfer the weight and load through your body so that nothing moves but your bottom leg. Return your leg to the starting position. Work up to 10 in a row on each side.
Exercise 3c: Side Plank Lateral Bend on Box
Begin just like a regular side plank, but prop your feet up on a box or bench 6-12” off the ground. Balance here for a moment then add a slight lateral rocking of the hips, moving down toward the floor and back up into side plank. The goal is to create purely lateral motion with the majority of the movement coming from the hips abducting and adducting. From ear to feet keep plumb-line form and maintain engagement in the core. Work up to 10 repetitions on each side.
What is plumb-line form?
Imagine a string with a small weight tied to the end. If you were to hold the string at the top of your head and let the weight fall to the ground, gravity would pull the string perfectly straight. Now imagine that same string going from head to toe while you are in the side plank position. If your posture is perfect, the string would go down through your ear lobe, your shoulder, the center of your hip, behind your knee, and through the ankle joint.
Exercise 4a: Swiss Ball Push-Up Plank
The Swiss ball push-up plank is the same as the basic push-up plank position except you prop your feet up on a Swiss ball to add an element of instability and heighten the activation requirement of the core. The goal is to minimize movement by keeping activation through your core. Work up to one-minute holds; then go on to the variations.
Exercise 4b: Swiss Ball Knee Tuck
From your high plank position on the Swiss ball, activate your core by stabilizing your lumbar spine and pelvis, and then tuck your knees toward your chest utilizing only hip and knee flexion. The range of motion should not include movement of the lumbar spine. Return the feet to full hip extension and repeat. Work up to 10 repetitions.
Exercise 4c: Swiss Ball Hip Rotations
Start in a high plank position on the Swiss ball with the legs slightly wider than before. Activate your core and create isometric adduction with the legs to slightly squeeze the ball. Then with internal and external rotation at the hip, the legs will rotate around the ball slightly. Keep the core engaged and repeat the movement to the other side. Work up to 10 rotations in each direction.
Exercise 4d: Swiss Ball Pike Tuck
From a high plank with your feet on the ball, begin to pike by activating your core to achieve a neutral lumbar spine. Then with a hip-hinging motion, draw in the ball with straight legs to your maximal range of motion. It’s important to flex only at the hip, sparing any motion at the lumbar spine. Work up to 10 repetitions.
Exercise 5a: Gluteal Bridge on Swiss Ball
Start lying flat on the ground with a neutral lumbar spine, feet on top of the Swiss ball. Activate your core and then bridge your lower body into a straightened position by extending your hips and pushing into the Swiss ball with your feet. Keep your body moving in one unit with the glutes and core activated as you return to the ground and repeat this motion. Work up to 10 repetitions.
Exercise 5b: Gluteal Bridge Leg Curl
Perform the same sequence as the gluteal bridge but at the top, draw in your feet and curl the ball toward you. Throughout this motion keep your core and glutes engaged and push your knees and hips toward the ceiling while maintaining a straight line between shoulders, hips, and knees. Return all the way to the floor and repeat the full sequence of gluteal bridge to curl. Work up to 10 repetitions.
Exercise 5c: Gluteal Bridge Single Leg Curl
This time complete the curl with one leg. Keep the free leg in full extension with both knees even throughout the motion. Remember to keep your core as well as your glutes actively engaged. Work up to 10 repetitions on each side.
Originally published in June 2014