SANTA CLARA, California, July 4. EVERY swimmer has done thousands of sit-ups for the highly sought six-pack abs. However, a strong core has never been correlated with a six-pack.
In fact, many elite swimmers do not have a six-pack. Look at Garrett Weber-Gale (GWG) or Cullen Jones, even these elite swimmers don't have a six-pack!
Photo courtesy of Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
This is not a knock at GWG or Cullen, because I'm not suggesting they don't have a strong core, or are lazy.
In fact, these two may have the strongest core of all the Olympians, because sprint freestyle events are believed to place the highest amount of anti-rotational torque on the core!
A six-pack doesn't = strong abs!
Another point, six-packs are not as common in the female gender. This isn't suggesting that females do not have strong core musculature.
A six-pack correlates with genetics (muscle fiber dominance) and percent body fat. For a visible six-pack, an athlete must exhibit less than 10% body fat. This is 10% on an accurate device, I'm talking the gold standard DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptimetry), not a handheld bioimpedance scale from 24-hour fitness.
With an accurate device few women have less than 10% body fat, but this isn't bad or uncommon. An athletic woman is expected to have 12 — 20% body fat. More importantly, 8 — 12% of this body fat is essential fat for normal hormonal regulation. Simply put, women have more fat mass.
On the other hand, guys, sorry to burst your bubble, but your handheld device showing you have 3 percent body fat is far from accurate, typically the amount of guys on a swim team with less than 10% body fat can fit one hand.
In all honesty, many guys (especially pre-adolescent) with a six-pack have weak abs! The media and aesthetics feed into this misconception.
Core strength is essential for sport success, as a strong core helps transmit power between the upper and lower body. Throughout the sporting community, many people feel swimmers have strong abs, but of all the athletes, the strongest abs are held by the….World's Strongest Men (if you consider them athletes)!
Core strength has yet to correlate with preventing low back pain. However, core muscle endurance and stability are essential to prevent low back pain and improve current aches. Therefore, improving core stability, strength, and endurance are paramount in swimming.
Core stability is essential for swimming and every sport. A stable core allows a swimmer a base to “push-off” for force production.
Think about it: are you able to squat more on a stable or an unstable surface?
The answer is obvious, because the ground provides a stable surface.
In swimming, a stable base is not available, but the core must attempt to provide a stable base for the arms to propel the body forward.
Therefore, improving core stability is essential.
I use abdominal bracing. This form of abdominal bracing provides the highest amount of core musculature involvement and causes reciprocal inhabitation (a phenomena when activating some muscles prevents the opposing muscles from activating) of the lumbar paraspnials (typically overactive in those with low back pain), however bracing does increase compressive forces on the spine. These compressive forces are minimal compared to squats and any twisting motion (shear stress); for this reason I find the benefits greater than the risks.
During bracing many swimmers have difficulties breathing, resulting in breath holding. This is a compensation for a weak core, improving this differentiation is essential for core success. Make sure you breathe during the abdominal bracing without moving the low back. If this is not feasible, do the bracing, and then breathe after a static contraction.
Another common compensation is rounding the shoulders, a common flexor reflex. If the shoulders come off the ground, then you are having difficulties differentiating the core and thoracic spine and/or shoulders. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and on the ground; swimmers use their shoulders enough as it is, give them a break!
Where to start?
The best method to learn core stability is by using tactile feedback; therefore, I use the march where the athlete puts their hand under the small of their low back. This feedback gives the swimmer a concrete feeling and maximizes the abdominal contraction (when done correctly), theoretically feeding the nervous system raw data for improvement.
A posterior tilt of the pelvis and core contraction will increase pressure into the hand. Once the highest amount of pressure occurs, cue them not to allow any changes in pressure during the exercise (remember stability is key)!
This is a beginner anti-extension exercise, essential for short-axis strokes, especially underwater kicking as the core must provide a stable base for success.
A more advanced anti-extension exercise is the plank. Many swimmers already do the plank, unfortunately they perform it incorrectly, arching their back and stressing their ligaments and increasing injury risk. Instead, maximally brace the core, glutes, lats, and quads for a full body workout, integrating the whole core. This will increase the work on the core and help improve core endurance. Make this exercise as hard as possible and work on using the arms and legs as points of leverage.
For long-axis strokes, preventing rotational movements is essential. Providing a stable core, preventing axial rotation, has been shown to increase pitching velocity, a similar (not the same) movement as freestyle.
A beginner anti-rotational movement is the straight leg raise. Once again, an exercise commonly used, but typically incorrectly. Brace your abs and ensure lumbar spine stability! Don't let the back move an inch.
Lie on your back with one knee straight and the other bent. Lift the straight leg (keeping the knee straight) and then slowly lower it down.
An intermediate core exercise is the anti-rotation with band. Simply tie a resistance band to a fence, walkout as far as possible, and then pull the band away from your body with your core braced. The band will attempt to rotate your body towards the fence. Keep your core braced and prevent any deviation! Keep your hips and chest forward during the whole movement.
Core stability, strength, and endurance are essential for swimming. Once stability is mastered finding challenging exercises is essential (especially for sprinters). Make sure you find appropriate exercises for each swimmer, challenging them, but allowing them to stabilize their spine.
Next time we will look at core muscle timing with breathing, hip movement, and shoulder motions. This differentiation is essential for swimming success and pain-free movement!
G. John Mullen is the owner of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.