6 Surprisingly Tough Exercises to Build Core Strength and Stability for Everyday Athletes

Most research suggests that doing active isometric work to build core strength and stability is far more effective and safer than crunches or sit-ups.

Three Things to Know About Building Core Strength and Stability

  1. Isometric “bracing” builds more strength and stability
  2. The bracing is harder than it looks and requires concentration and body awareness
  3. Planks and Hollows are the among the most efficient in building core strength and stability.
Most research suggests that doing active isometric work to build core strength and stability is far more effective and safer than crunches or sit-ups. 

For everyday endurance athletes, a strong core is the key to creating forward movement. 

We have to have a stable core (your trunk from hips to shoulders) in order to move our legs and arms forward. 

Here are six exercises that build core strength and stability targeted specifically for endurance athletes.

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“Bracing” is an active isometric strength tool to build core strength

The idea of “bracing” is squeezing your core as if you were going to get punched really, really hard in the gut.

Michael Boyle, in his book Functional Training for Sports, used something similar called a draw-in.

The work engages all the muscles in your core, including stabilizers like obliques.

You really have to squeeze your gut, and you can’t breathe much!

The longer you are able to hold your core under tension, the more strength – and definition – you gain.

As you push your spine into the mat – “brace” or “draw-in,” you are creating an active isometric hold that will fatigue your muscle more and build core strength.

Six bracing exercises to build core strength

1. McGill Crunch

Dr. Stuart McGill created this exercise as a treatment for lower back pain. 

Here’s how to do a McGill Crunch to increase core strength and stability. 

Lie on your back with one leg extended and one with the foot by the glute.

Place your hands beneath the curve of your spine. Inhale and brace your belly and press your hands into the floor for eight seconds. Repeat 10 times.

An alternative, if your hands don’t feel comfortable under the hollow of your back, is to place them on your chest.

2. Hollows

This is a similar movement to a McGill Crunch. 

It also isometrically stresses your belly and obliques. 

Here’s how to do a Hollow

Lie on your back. Lift up your arms and knees. 

Press your lower back into the floor so that your hips roll up and your butt comes off the mat. 

You can also hold a weight in your hands. 

3. Super Hero

Superheroes are a great tool to create core strength focused on your back.

Here’s how you do one. 

Lie on your belly with your arms extended over your head. Inhale and brace your belly.

Press your belly button down into the floor while raising your hands and feet off the ground.

4. Elbow plank

Here’s how to do elbow planks. 

Lie on your belly with your elbows under your shoulders and hands on the floor in front of you.

Lift your hips off the ground and keep your body straight like you would for a usual plank.

This time, though, brace your belly and hold for eight seconds.

This is a great way to build core strength by focusing on the entire front and back core.

Dr. Glenn Wright, associate professor of exercise science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, says planks develop the core muscles in the way they were intended to be strengthened.

“A lot of strength trainers realized that the main function of the abs is to stop, not start motion, and the plank came out of what the abs are asked to do, which is to resist the spine from moving, such as when fighting off an opponent, and strengthening the lower back.”

5. Side plank

Side planks are an excellent way to work on side stabilization as you build core strength and stability.

Here’s how to do them.

Lie on your side with your hips stacked on top of each other.

Your elbow should be under your shoulder.

Raise your hip off the ground, again, like you would for any side plank.

This time, though, also brace your belly by squeezing and hold for eight seconds. You can take a breath after bracing and repeat.

To modify, keep a knee on the ground.

For an additional challenge, raise your top foot off the ground!

6. Bird Dog

Doing Bird Dogs slowly and under control is way more challenging that it seems.

Here’s how to do a Bird Dog. 

Get on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.

Reach your right hand toward the front wall as far as you can without twisting your body.

Reach your left heel toward the back wall as far as you can.

When you are fully extended, brace your core, then relax.

For an additional challenge, bring your right elbow and meet your left knee while it comes off the ground. Repeat 10 times. Switch sides.

Maintain good form in core strength exercises

The key to doing this work is doing it slowly and correctly.

I’ve had clients tell me how difficult the work can be!

Be forewarned, though, that Superman and Bird Dog can wake up muscles in your back that would rather stay sleeping!

If you’ve had some back issues in the past, start with three or four Bird Dogs and really focus on form.

Want to know more about what you can achieve? 

My purpose with Simple Endurance Coaching is to help everyday endurance athletes achieve their goals with more strength, endurance, and mobility. 

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Paul Warloski is a: 

  • USA Cycling Level 3 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer