The Best Core Exercises for Runners

core exercises for runners
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A stable core is a game-changer for any runner. According to experts, it’s the secret to enhancing your performance, reducing lower back pain, and even preventing common running injuries.

And let’s face it, that’s great news because a recent survey of 4,621 runners showed that a whopping 30% of them had suffered from a running-related injury in the past year.

Injuries are tricky to pinpoint, but experts agree that core stability exercises can help keep you in the game. So whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, building a strong core is essential.

Running is an amazing exercise that can bring countless benefits to your body, from boosting cardiovascular endurance to increasing bone density and overall strength.

But unfortunately, running can also take a toll on your body, causing knee and hip pain and other issues. The good news is that there are specific exercises you can do to strengthen your core and lower body, improving your running times and reducing your risk of injury.

In this article, we’ll share with you some of the best core exercises that are scientifically proven to strengthen the rectus abdominis muscle, as well as other muscles of the core. So get ready to take your running to the next level and stay injury-free!

The exercises we’ll explore here are based on a list created by The American Council on Exercise in 2001. The study ranks the best and worst exercises for strengthening the rectus abdominis muscle. The exercises are ranked according to how much rectus abdominis gets activated by the movement.

Remember to also incorporate exercises for the obliques and other core muscles to ensure your entire trunk muscles gain strength.

Please note that due to the unavailability of pictures and descriptions of the exercises from the study online, some of the exercises mentioned here may not match the exact descriptions given in the original study.

The Best Core Exercises for Runners

The Best Core Exercises for Runners

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Supine Bicycle Crunches

Looking for a great ab exercise that targets your rectus abdominis muscle while also mimicking the twisting motion of running? Look no further than the supine bicycle crunch!

According to research, this exercise is one of the most effective moves for strengthening your core.

How to Perform:

  • To perform this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Cross your arms over your chest or place your fingertips on your temples. Avoid pulling on your head during the movement.
  • Next, kick your left leg straight out while bringing your right knee up to your chest.
  • Twist your trunk to meet your left elbow with your right knee. Alternate sides and repeat throughout the set.

Captain’s Chair Leg Raises

Captain’s Chair Leg Raises

Captain’s chair leg raises are most effectively performed with a captain’s chair apparatus, which typically has a back pad and two arms to cushion the elbows during the exercise.

This movement was found to be extremely effective, only surpassed by the bicycle crunch.

How to Perform

  • Place your forearms on the pads, keeping them parallel to the floor. Lean back against the back pad. Allow your legs to hang freely.
  • Then, contract your abdominal muscles and tuck your knees to your chest, or lift your legs up with straight knees for a more challenging variation.
  • Slowly lower your legs back down to complete the repetition.

Swiss Ball Sit Ups

Swiss Ball Sit Ups

The Swiss ball, also known as a physioball or exercise ball, is a simple yet effective tool for strengthening the core.

Performing situps or crunches on a Swiss ball increases the contribution of the abdominal muscles by adding an element of instability.

How to Perform:

  • Sit safely on the Swiss ball, placing your low back as the main point of contact.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and your hands across your chest.
  • Slowly crunch upward, contracting your abdominals. Then, slowly lower yourself back down, reversing the crunch motion to complete the repetition.

Toe Touch Crunches

Ab Exercise #4: Toe Touch Crunches

Toe touch crunches have been a commonly prescribed ab exercise for generations, but they require significant hamstring flexibility and core control.

If you struggle with this exercise at first, don’t give up!

How to Perform:

  • Lie on your back with your legs straight and heels pointed at the ceiling.
  • Straighten your arms, reaching them toward the ceiling.
  • Perform a crunch, attempting to touch your toes with your hands.
  • Slowly lower your trunk back to the ground to complete the repetition.

Torso Track

Torso Track

The Torso Track was a piece of exercise equipment that gained popularity a few years ago, promoted by celebrity trainers to improve abdominal strength.

Although it fell in the middle of the exercises examined in terms of rectus abdominis activation, it can still be an effective tool for working your abs.

How to Perform:

  • Place a pad or extra towel on the ground for your knees. Grasp the handles of the machine, which should be arranged lengthwise on the ground in front of you.
  • Push the handles forward while keeping your back straight. Once you have extended as far as possible, pull the handles back to the starting position to complete the rep.

Straight Arm Crunches

Straight Arm Crunches

The straight arm crunch is a popular variation of the traditional crunch exercise and is used in some common abdominal strength assessments to ensure reliable and valid results.

How to Perform:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands down at your sides with your palms flat on the floor.
  • Perform a crunch by sliding your hands forward on the ground.
  • Once you have lifted your shoulder blades off the ground, return to the starting position.

Reverse Crunches

Reverse Crunch abs

Reverse crunches are an effective way to target the lower portion of your abs while still working the entire rectus abdominis.

How to Perform:

  • Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent.
  • Place your hands down by your sides. Lift your legs and most of your lower back off the ground as you kick your feet toward the ceiling.
  • Then, slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position to complete the rep.

Crunch with Bridge

Ab Exercise #8: Crunch with Bridge

Incorporating multiple muscle groups and movements into a single exercise can increase its effectiveness. The crunch with the bridge is a great example of how you can work your abs and glutes simultaneously.

How to Perform:

  • Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Push your heels gently into the ground as you perform a partial crunch. If this is too challenging, keep your back flat, lift your back off the ground with your heels, return to the ground, and then perform a crunch.
  • Return to the ground and relax your muscles to complete the rep.

Core Wheel Rollouts

Ab Exercise #9: Core Wheel Rollouts

Boxers, wrestlers, and many other exercisers have been using the ab wheel (or core wheel) for years. The core wheel rollout is a challenging exercise that benefits the entire body, not just the rectus abdominis.

How to Perform:

  • Grasp the handles of the wheel with both hands.
  • Place your knees on a padded surface (or your toes if you’re advanced).
  • Roll the wheel forward while keeping your back as flat as possible.
  • Roll the wheel back to the start to complete the rep.

High Plank

High Plank

Planks have long been considered great exercises for core muscles. However, studies have shown that they primarily focus on the rectus abdominis, not the other core muscles.

Despite this, planks are still an effective addition to your workout routine.

How to Perform:

  • Place your hands on the ground directly below your shoulders.
  • Place your toes on the ground, hip-width apart.
  • Protract your shoulders and keep your back straight.
  • Maintain this position for the duration of the exercise.

Crunches

Crunches

Although it is a simple exercise, crunches remain a staple in ab workout programs. While it may not be the most effective exercise for the rectus abdominis, it is still a convenient and effective exercise for strengthening the core.

How to Perform:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Cross your arms over your chest.
  • Curl upward, lifting your shoulder blades off the ground.
  • Return to the starting position to complete one repetition.

Resistance Tubing Crunches

This exercise requires more equipment and setup compared to the others on this list. Thus, if you want a more straightforward movement, this exercise may not be the best choice.

How to Perform:

  • Attach the resistance band to a sturdy surface a few inches above the ground, if possible.
  • Hold the handles of the resistance band at shoulder height while lying on your back.
  • Lift your shoulder blades off the ground while pulling the resistance band with you.
  • Return to the starting position to complete one repetition.

Ab Rocker

Over the years, there have been various designs of the Ab Rocker. At the time of the study, the Ab Rocker was a relatively simple piece of equipment that resembled a bent square.

Although this exercise is not considered the best for targeting the rectus abdominis, it is still a viable option to strengthen your core.

How to Perform:

  • Place your head on the indicated pad.
  • Grasp the horizontal bars with both hands.
  • Contract your abdominal muscles and perform a crunch.
  • Return to the starting position to complete the repetition.

Conclusion

As runners, it’s important to find effective ways to improve our performance. Strengthening the abdominal muscles is crucial for runners, as it contributes to overall health and can enhance your running performance.

If you’re looking to add some variety to your abdominal routine, try incorporating some of these exercises into your workouts today!

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Bennett Richardson, DPT, PT, CSCS
Bennett Richardson, DPT, PT, CSCS

Bennett Richardson is a physical therapist and writer out of Pittsburgh, PA. He has maintained certification as a strength and conditioning coach (CSCS) since 2014. He then went on to earn a BS in exercise science and a doctorate degree in physical therapy, both from Slippery Rock University. In his free time, Bennett likes to read and exercise.

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