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In the last article, you have been shown how to develop core stability; the ability of the core muscles to effectively stabilize the spine and the joints against internal or external forces or while the body is producing a movement. Once an athlete has a stable core, the next step in core conditioning is to improve core strength, which refers to the ability of the core muscles to produce a high amount of force. Developing core strength is the focus of this article.
To improve performance, a softball player must seek the development of functional strength in the abdominal area. Functional strength can be defined as "usable strength". It is the type of strength that is required in order to be strong and stable while hitting, throwing, fielding, running and pitching. To develop functional strength, you have to perform functional exercises. Functional exercises are ones that involve both movers and stabilizers. Developing strength through conventional abdominal isolation exercises will do very little to increase performance because they are developing "dysfunctional strength". To be functional, the body must be trained as a unit rather than in an isolated manner.
Key Points For Training Core Strength:
- Athletes need to know how to recruit and maintain deep abdominal contraction to stabilize the trunk while producing a movement.
- Useful cues to achieve deep abdominal contraction are "draw the belly button toward the spine" or "pull in the abdominals". You have also to hold it.
- Stabilizers must be engaged prior to recruiting the movers and initiating any movement.
- Low tension is require to develop core stability but core strength need greater tension. Strength is developed when the muscle is placed under great tension.
Core Strength Exercises
Each exercise should be performed three times a week for a 3-6 weeks period before progressing to the next phase. The athletes need to develop a strong core to fully take advantage of the next phase.
Swiss Ball Jacknives: View Exercise
- Lie forward with your shins (front of lower leg) and tops of your feet on the ball, your hands on the floor in front of you, and your head, spine, and legs forming a straight line in the start position.
- Keeping your arms extended, bend your knees and curl up into a tucked position by rolling the ball towards your arms with your toes.
- As you do so, make sure to round your back, tuck your chin into your neck, and bring your knees close to your face.
- Reverse the motion and return to the start position.
- In the start position, your upper body must be kept in a straight line. If your back starts to arch or if you begin to feel lower back discomfort, stop this exercise. This is usually a sign that your abdominals are weakening.
- Do not lock your elbows when your arms are extended.
- Tighten your abs to maintain a neutral spine position
- Do 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Swiss Ball Prone Roll-outs (a.k.a Prayers): View Exercise
- Hands should be placed on the ball with the elbows off the ball to start with.
- Tighten up your abs (engaging deep abdominal muscles) and rollout while the hips are moving forward and the arms are straight.
- Go as far as you can while maintaining neutral spine. Do not let the back arch.
- Return to starting position.
- Think of driving the arms through the ball.
- Do 2 sets of 12 repetitions.
Swiss Ball Pikes: View Exercise
- With the ball placed below the thighs and knees, pike the hips up as high as possible with the legs straight. The ideal is to bring the hips above the head.
- Lower with control.
- As you lift your hips, think of pushing your knees toward towards the ceiling and pressing your feet through the ball.
- This movement requires a lot of upper extremity strength for stabilization.
- Do 2 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Bus Driver: View Exercise
- Using a wobble board (round one that is often used for ankle rehabilitation), assume a push-up position with your hands on the side of the wobble board.
- Think about the board as a steering that you drive.
- Contract the deep stabilizers (pulling in abdominals) and hold the contraction.
- Start turning the board just like if you were driving a car making big turns. Go as far as you can on each side.
- Do 2 sets of 8-10 repetitions on each side.
One-Leg Ball Sit-Ups: View Exercise
- Sit with the back against the swiss ball touching from your shoulders to the buttocks, keeping the knees bent at 90 degrees, one foot on the floor, one foot of the floor and the arms extended in front.
- Slowly curl your trunk, letting your shoulders and upper back lift off the ball until you reach a sitting position. Return slowly to the start position and neutral posture.
- Curl your trunk by pulling the bottom of your rib cage down toward your hips. Avoid pulling on the head or neck.
- Return to neutral posture between each repetition and do it very slowly to force the stabilizers to work.
- Do 2 sets of 8-10 repetitions on each leg slowly.
Swiss Ball Twists: View Exercise
This is a challenging exercise that requires a great deal of strength and stability. It is an excellent exercise to develop rotational strength in the trunk. It might take some time before it is mastered.
- Assume the same starting position as for the pikes or the jackknives.
- Prior to initiating the movement, engage the deep core stabilizers. Hold the contraction during each repetition to ensure a stable core.
- Bring one knee in leaving one foot on the ball in and then extend that leg across your body on the opposite side while maintaining balance.
- While extending your leg across, a certain degree of hip and shoulder rotation is required.
- Return to the initial position and repeat with the opposite leg.
- Expect to fall off the ball several times until you gain control.
- Do 2 sets of 5-8 repetitions on each side.
The exercises presented in this article are certainly much different than traditional abdominal exercises. These are "exercises of choice" because not only they are challenging but they also force the body to develop functional strength. Next time, I will present you exercises to develop core and trunk power.
About The Author
Marc Dagenais, B.Sc., MHK, CSCS, is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Personal Trainer in addition to working as an assistant softball coach for Simon Fraser University. He also runs a website on performance enhancement, training and conditioning for softball - http://www.softballperformance.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.