Looking beyond the six-pack
Core training is a common topic in locker rooms, but few swimmers fully understand the concept. The ripped “six-pack” that makes one the envy of teammates won't come from doing hundreds of sit-ups. A better quality diet and more yardage in the pool will reduce body fat so that toned muscle becomes more visible.
But, let’s move beyond aesthetics. When it comes to the abdomen, the most important question to ask is whether it supports and stabilizes your body during movement, including swimming. Well-designed core training can improve posture and spinal health, reduce the potential for injury, and improve swimming performance.
The abdominal (transverse, rectus abdominals, and obliques) and spinal muscles (erector spinae and multifidis) are the primary muscles in the core. They partner up to stabilize the torso during activity. When conditioned properly, they provide a solid center for movement and can facilitate safe and optimal posture during activity. The spinal muscles protect the spine, keep it in proper alignment, and work with the hip flexors to keep the pelvis level and minimize pressure on the lumbar spine.
Improving Core Strength and Conditioning
If you want a stronger core, forget the ab crunch machine and sit-ups. Spinal flexion exercises can cause excessive wear and tear of the facet joints and vertebral disks, leading to spinal injury. Overloading the abs with heavy weights is even more dangerous. The following types of exercises are a better use of your time and tend to be more effective for most people.
- Stability exercises. Performing exercises that call on the key core muscles to maintain proper alignment is most effective. Examples of stability exercises include planks, side planks, boat pose (or V-sit), supine bicycles, and bird dog. Rotating planks, rock climbers, and inch-worms can be performed by more skilled exercisers.
- Posture work. Maintaining good posture is paramount to an effective core training program. When doing planks, focus on rolling the shoulders down and away from the ears so there is minimal tension in the neck. Pull the belly up instead of letting the lower back sag. The shoulders should be perched over the hands and the head should be in alignment with the rest of the spine (think crown of the head “reaching” for the wall). Swimmers with wrist issues can do the plank while resting on the forearms.
- Rotational and balance work. Rotational throws or swings are ideal swimmer core training exercises to strengthen the internal and external obliques. Performing strength training activities such as bicep curls or lateral raises standing on a BOSU or other unstable surface can challenge core muscles, which work hard to keep the body balanced in unstable situations.
- Pelvis- and spine-stabilizing exercises. The core muscles work with the pelvic muscles to stabilize the lumbar spine. The bridge is an example of an exercise that calls upon the abdominal muscles while utilizing the hip flexors to reduce pressure on the lumbar spine. By learning to “tuck” or level the pelvis while activating abdominal muscles, swimmers can keep a neutral spine during demanding core activities in the pool such as underwater dolphin kicking.
You can easily perform an effective core training workout in less than 15 minutes. This small time investment can yield big gains. Your shoulder muscles won’t be required to work as hard when your strokes are driven by a solid center. Swimming with a neutral spine means less lower back strain and a straighter, more efficient line moving through the water. Core training is guaranteed to deliver winning results. When combined with a healthy diet and plenty of aerobic activity, it might even deliver the ever-coveted ripped abs.