It’s often said that you need a strong core. For me, that is vague and unclear. Yes, I agree, but what do you mean by strong core (what muscles are you talking about? Abs? Lower? Upper? Obliques?) and how strong is strong enough? So often, we are left with not enough information to know what step to take next. So this is my attempt to summarize my experience in how to find what core exercises will make a difference in the minimal amount of time.
Why Target Secondary/Support Muscles
As someone who works in operations and focuses on efficiency, I'm always looking for the best way to train. First you have to understand my definition of Primary and Secondary muscles for runners:
Primary muscles - The main target muscle(s) for the exercise. For running, this is your calves, quads and glutes.
Secondary Muscles - The support muscles that ensure stability and efficiency for the primary muscles. For running, there are a lot but one main group is your core muscles
If you want to build up your run secondary muscles, you must find exercises that those muscles are the primary focus for the exercise. You wouldn’t exercise your shoulders and hope your forearms or biceps would significantly improve, you would do forearm or bicep movements to build them up. The same goes for your core. Running will help, but targeted movements are more efficient and effective.
For my blog, I break the core into four sections: lower back, glutes, inner thighs and abdominals. I think of these as stabilizers while you’re running (and walking and basically doing most movements). As you run, your primary muscles grow and adapt faster than your secondary muscles. If you don’t give them additional attention, the power ratio between your primary and secondary muscles will become imbalanced and become the limiting factor to your improvement. This imbalance will also put you at greater risk for injury as the secondary muscles do not have the strength to support the primary muscles.
The idea behind Minimal Strengthening is to find the weakest muscles and target them for 20-30 reps 1-3 times a day (about 1-2 minutes a day) to maximize your strengthening. Remember this strategy is for building up secondary run muscles. You still have to run regularly to get better. This will strengthen your support muscles so you get the most out of your runs.
In my experience, when a muscle goes through development there are a couple of skills/stages:
You learn how to consciously activate that muscle.
You strengthen and gain power in your activation.
You are able to consciously recruit that muscle as support. Said another way, you are able to consciously coordinate groups of muscles together
Your body unconsciously recruits and coordinates all required muscles together. Think plyometric exercises or an elite sprinter, who for each leg, fires all their muscles together to maximize their forward momentum.
As you spend more time doing targeted exercises, those muscles will move through those stages, giving you more support, stability and efficiency for your primary muscles.
Finding the Weakest Support Muscles:
The next step is to figure out what support muscle(s), if any, are currently limiting you or increasing your risk of injury. To start off, this is based on my exercise and my body. Please try these out, listen to your body and use what works for you. If an exercise doesn’t work for you there are factors that you might consider:
You may be using a stronger/different muscle to do the exercise and therefore not feeling the ‘burn’. Reread the exercises to ensure you’re engaging properly.
Because of your past experiences/sports/environment, you may engage this muscle regularly and it doesn’t need to be focused on. Congrats, your time and focus is better spend on a different muscle group.
For each exercise, try doing 30 reps slowly while engaging the target muscle and see how you feel. If the exercise becomes too much, stop. Congratulations, you’ve found a support muscle that may be limiting you or increasing your risk of injury. We’ll add that exercise to your daily exercises.
Lower back - Superman’s
Lay on your stomach on the floor,
Extend your arms in front of you,
Slowly engage your lower back to pull your head/arms and legs off the ground,
At the top give a gentle squeeze of your back muscles, gently shift your weight from one side to the other to help notice how your engagement changes, this puts a little more attention on one side and allows you to learn/practice activating that side. Come back to the center, you can use this recognition to gently squeeze at the top again. This side to side motion only needs to be done for the first few movements.
Slowly release back to the ground.
Your back has muscles that run from head to toe and around your midsection. You want to make sure you are engaging both as you rise off the ground.
I like to visualize that the small of my back is forming a small bowl, this helps remind me to squeeze both my lateral and horizontal back muscles.
I like to rotate my scapula down to help me raise my breast bone to the sky, this also helps activate the middle back.
The horizontal back muscles are complimentary to your abs and crucial to having a strong and stable foundation when running.
The other core muscles are secondary support muscles for this movement, don’t forget to gently activate them as well.
Glutes - Hip Raises
Lay on your back
Bring the bottom of your feet to the floor and your heels close to your bum.
Bring your hands to your side and slow raise your hips and back an inch or two off the ground.
Engage your back which will bring your arms slightly under your back. This is the starting position for this movement.
Slowly engage your glutes and back to push your hips into the air.
Pause at the top and gently squeeze your glutes and back muscles. Slightly shift your weight from one side to the other to help notice how your engagement changes, this puts a little more attention on one side and allows you to learn/practice activating that side. Come back to the center, you can use this recognition to gently squeeze at the top again. This side to side motion only needs to be done for the first few movements.
Lower slowly by relaxing your muscles but not letting go of the engagement, till your back and hips are an inch above your hands.
You can also engage your lower abs in this exercise. One visualization that works for me is to pull my belly button towards my spine.
As you engage your glutes and back you may find that your legs wobble, engage your inner thighs to stabilize this movement so your legs run parallel to the sides of your midsection.
For this exercise and engaging my back, I like to think of my midsection as the letter “C’, where the spine is the opening. When I engage my back (the horizontal back muscles), it's like I’m trying to close the C to create an O.
Inner thighs - Thigh Squeeze
Object for between your legs - I have a volleyball but any ball could work, I have even done this with a pillow or couch cushion.
Sit in a chair or on the couch.
Straighten and engage your lower back and abdominals.
Place your object between your knees.
Gently squeeze the object together and hold for 20 seconds.
Then gently squeeze them together for 1 second and release for 20 reps.
Notice the intensity that you can/do squeeze with and the rate at which that intensity fades as you hold the squeeze. This will give you an indication of how strong your inner thighs are.
If you can engage the inner thighs like this for the entire round, you can try doing this with the object between your ankles.
Notice the difference in the activity when you engage and recruit the other core muscles. What do you notice about engaging your glutes while sitting?
When you’re holding the squeeze together, shift your legs and hips around slightly to see how that changes the engagement. Do you notice any muscles or positions that feel like they could benefit from regular engagement?
I like to do this exercise at the end of the day when I’m watching TV.
Abdominals - Crunches
Find an elevated surface that your calves can comfortably lay on while you are on your back, such as a couch, coffee table or even a chair.
Lay on your back with your calves resting on the elevated surface and pull your bum close to the elevated surface.
Before moving, slightly engage your lower abs, back (horizontal and lateral muscles), glutes and inner thighs. This should feel like slight tension, like a runner poised to start a race.
Pull your belly button towards your spine and your arms across your chest or behind your head supporting where your spine meets your head.
For this movement, bring your lower ribs toward your legs and continue to support this movement with your other core muscles.
Gently squeeze your abs and pull the belly button back toward your spine at the top of the movement.
Slowly relax your muscles while you lower back to the ground. Remember not to release all the tension from your core groups.
Although this is a common exercise, it's important to focus on proper engagement and doing the exercise slowly. It is easy to use other stronger muscles in this position to make it appear like you have strong abs.
With that being said, as the abdominals are the most common core muscle to exercise, it is most likely to be strong and not need targeted exercise.
At the peak of the movement, your mid and lower back should be on the ground, while your shoulders should be off the ground.
Where to go from here
For any movement that didn’t seem easy, try to do that movement for up to 30 reps 1-3 times a day. Observe how they feel after a week, two weeks and three weeks. As the 30 reps becomes easy, you can move onto other exercises.
Make sure you do not over do these exercises at the start. If these muscles have not been worked before, these simple body weight movements can easily be overdone and strain your muscles. Patience and consistency will give you a strong core. Go easy and listen to your body.
These exercises are simple and targeted toward the groups specified. There are other great exercises that require you to engage these muscles. However, exercises like plank, mountain climbs or full sit ups require the engagement and coordination of all these groups together. At first we want to train the groups to activate individually. Then learn to coordinate their recruitment together on these simple exercises. When the activation and recruitment are strong enough you can expand your exercises to something more advanced. Your ability to coordinate and recruit these muscles will be strong enough, so that you maximize the benefit from these advanced exercises. Doing these advanced exercises without the proper recruitment or engagement could result in extra pressure put on other parts of your body that could eventually lead to an injury.
Do targeted exercises to build up the support muscles so your runs are more efficient and your primary run muscles grow faster.
Find the weakest core muscles by doing movements that target those muscles.
Properly engagement your core and do the movements slowly.
For any movement that isn't easy, do them for up to 30 reps, 1-3 times a day until the movement is easy.
Be careful not to overdo or strain the muscles at first if they haven't been worked before.
Having a strong core will support your primary muscles when you run. To further enhance your primary muscle growth, stretching is a great way to keep them limber and prevent injury
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