To maximize your potential as a runner, it’s important to train your core, the various abdominal muscles that help maintain your form and prevent wasted energy during a long race. Many runners do the minimum, dutifully trying to hold a plank for as long as they can. But there is more to core training than planks, and understanding the various muscle groups that comprise the core will help you approach core training with more confidence. Specifically, we look at the obliques: what they do and how to strengthen them.
What we refer to as the body’s core is actually four sets of muscles: the rectus abdominis (the “six pack” muscles that are most visible from the outside), internal and external obliques, the transversus abdominis (which help stabilize the pelvis and lower back in anticipation of movement) and the sacrospinalis.
We asked Jordan Foley, a strength and conditioning coach with Athletics Canada, for some expert advice on training the muscles of the core. He told us it’s important to train the obliques to help control posture and pelvic position while running. “The oblique muscle group ties the upper body and lower body together while running and mainly functions to control rotation and lateral flexion of the upper body in relation to the lower body,” Foley says. “Because the obliques attach to the pelvis and affect its position, it will also have a large impact on the position of the legs and how they load through the gait cycle.”
Here are three simple exercises you could incorporate into your strength-training routine that effectively tone the obliques. The first one you can do at home. The second and third will likely require access to a gym. Note: always warm up with some light cardio (such as eight to 10 minutes of fast walking or jogging) before performing strengthening exercises.
Pushup to side plank (variation on a side plank)
Start with your belly on the mat, as if you were about to do a pushup. Push up, then in a slow and controlled way, rotate to side plank and hold for 10 seconds. (You can stay in the extended-arm position, or lower to the usual side-plank position with your forearm on the mat.) You’ll feel the contraction in the side closest to the floor.
The Pallof press requires use of your gym’s cable pulley system, but it’s very simple. Stand sideways to the pulley, about a metre away, and put enough resistance on it that you can pull it out with two hands with some effort but without straining. Hold in front of your torso with both hands for three seconds. Extend your arms straight out in front and hold for three seconds. Bring your arms back in front of your chest. Repeat six to eight times, then release the pulley with control. Do two to three sets on each side. You’ll feel the contraction on the side farthest away from the pulley.
Rotational medicine ball throw
Start with an eight-pound medicine ball and increase weight gradually. Stand about a metre and a half out from a solid wall. With knees slightly bent, slowly swing the ball slightly away from the wall, then throw it sideways onto the wall hard enough that you can catch it again. Experiment with how far to stand, ball weight and how hard to throw it. Do three to five reps, and repeat while facing the other way. Do two to three sets on each side. You’ll feel the contraction in the side furthest from the wall.