Abdominal Training: Misconceptions and Solutions


By Keenan Robinson//NBAC Director of Athlete Services

Common abdominal training programs promise increased strength and performance through repeated forward flexion exercises, such as the standard sit up and the v-up. What these programs don’t offer are dynamic, functional movements that stabilize the spine and strengthen the core to facilitate an explosive transfer of power from the legs to the arms, which is the key to increasing velocity and power in any stroke and distance. What’s worse, sessions of speedy crunches before or after practice without a solid foundation of stabilization work can potentially be detrimental to the swimmer, resulting in muscle and postural imbalances that can lead to a variety of injuries.

If it seems frightening to let go of those timeless sit up routines, consider the recent biomechanical studies and evaluations of cadaveric models that showed repeated standard crunches slowly degenerated or caused perforation of the spinal disc – which can irritate the nerve roots of the spinal cord. Moreover, repeated extension and hyperextension of the spine, such as prone supermans, could cause bone damage such as displaced vertebra. Needless to say, these studies encourage moving away from such exercises in favor of more stabilization and resistance of movement exercises in all three planes of motion (sagital, frontal, and transverse).

It should be understood by the coach and athlete that the purpose of the “core” – or more specifically, the rectus abdominals, internal/external oblique’s, diaphragm, transverse abdominis, multifidus, quadratus lumborum, latissmus dorsi, erector spinae, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings – is to stabilize the spine and allow a transfer of power from the legs to the arms. By better understanding this, core strength can be maximized, and an overall safer and more effective trunk training dry land program can be implemented.

Before we get into the movement patterns every swimmer should be training, it is worth mentioning that the shape of the human spine disc is dependent on genetics. Some athletes are able to rotate with little to no risk of injury, whereas others are more suited for repeated bending with minimal risk of injury. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine what our threshold is prior to failure and resultant injury.

Rotary Power Movements: Exercises that allow the swimmer to develop rotary power but prevent the bottom of the rib cage from leaving the pelvis.

Anti-Extension Movements: Exercises that prevent the swimmer from going into hyperextension of the lower back or using the low back extensors as a means to achieve hip extension. By training this movement, we enhance the anterior core muscles’ strength and endurance and preserve the integrity of the spinal anatomy. It is also great for improving the lordotic lumbar curved posture (also known as ‘swayback’) commonly seen in swimmers.

Anti-Lateral Flexion Movements: Tremendous at developing the internal/external obliques as well as the quadratus lumborum and multifidus (lower back). This series of movement patterns are also important in maintaining intervertebral disc health.

Medicine Ball Lifts and Chops
The Medicine Ball Chop develops anti-flexion rotary power while the Medicine Ball Lift develops anti-extension rotatory power, meaning the human body will learn to transfer power in diagonal patterns both forwards and backwards.

Physioball/Ab Roll Out
An excellent exercise is the Physioball Roll Out, which can eventually be progressed to more advanced equipment such as ab rolls and TRXs. Emphasis is on the ability to extend from the glutes and hamstrings to the end range of motion (at or near pelvic neutral, but not beyond) – stabalizing with the anterior musculature – and then returning to the start position using the glutes and hamstrings.

Kettlebell Bottoms-Up Walk
The swimmer focuses on a walking posture in which their torso remains upright, long, and resists any side bending or swaying. Additionally, this exercise gives the benefit of shoulder stability training.

Keep in mind - when developing your core routine for dryland, remember to train the low back to stabilize the spine and allow the extremities to move. Once your athletes have developed great posture along with muscular endurance, the more traditional abs can be implemented into your program in small doses such as during the taper.

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