Improve your core strength

Improve your core strength

Weil, Wendy Weinberg

The best way to develop and maintain your flexibility and core strength is with a series of exercises using an oversized ball, known by various names such as stability, yoga, gymnic, exercise, physio and balance balls.

In recent years, it has been determined that one of the most important keys to preventing shoulder injuries is developing and maintaining your core strength. The “core” refers to your trunk muscles-specifically, the back, abdominals and hips.

Most dryland exercises work on the rotator cuff, shoulder and anterior muscles, which are rarely weak. Lower extremity strengthening using weights, plyometric drills and cross-training with running or biking can be quite beneficial in building explosive power for starts, turns, sprints and breaststroke. However, the majority of the force produced in swimming is done with the trunk and shoulders.

Most swimmers rely too much on their shoulders, which can lead to problems with capsular laxity and rotator cuff tendinitis, more commonly known as “swimmer’s shoulder.”

Other factors such as poor posture, lack of flexibility, poor stroke mechanics, breathing only to one side, and especially lack of upper back strength contribute to shoulder problems. (Please refer to the May/June and July/August 2001 issues of SWIM Magazine for more information on shoulder injuries.)

The best way to strengthen the core is with a series of exercises using an oversized ball. These balls are known by various names (stability, yoga, gymnic, exercise, physio, balance) and originated in the physical therapy profession. The unstable contour forces the body to use the postural and core muscles.

Strengthening the hip, back, abdominal and posterior shoulder muscles can help prevent shoulder injuries, as you achieve better alignment in the water and rely less on the rotator cuff muscles. For those swimmers who have trouble getting their arms in a streamlined position, there are several stretches that can increase flexibility in the shoulders without causing laxity.

Stability Balls

Stability balls are sized according to your height, and are sold in metric measurements. They are available at most sporting goods stores and can also be ordered by mail or through the internet. The following sizing chart shows the three main sizes:

* 55 cm (22-23 inches) for 5 feet to 5 feet 5 inches

* 65 cm (25-26 inches) for 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 10 inches

* 75 cm (29-30 inches) for 5 feet 11 inches and taller

Balls are best inflated with an air compressor or high-pressure inflator, and sometimes take two inflations over 24 hours to reach full size. They should be moderately firm, but should give 2-3 inches with knee pressure.

Stability balls should not lose air, but they will stretch out slightly and soften over time. They should be used indoors on a smooth or carpeted area, or a yoga mat. If you use the balls on hard surfaces, such as wood or ceramic, the balls will slide and it will be much harder to stabilize your feet.

You should certainly not use the balls on a rough or concrete surface for the simple reason that the ball could pop! Also, do not store the balls in direct sunlight or near a heat or light source. And if stored in a cold area, the balls could lose air.

Preparing to Exercise

When using the stability balls, be sure to wear a T-shirt-if not, your bare skin will stick to the ball and hinder movement. You should also wear good, stable athletic shoes-you’ll have a difficult time doing the exercises if you’re barefoot or wearing sandals!

Some other helpful hints: never have keys or sharp objects in your pockets when you are on the ball; also, remove your belt from your pants, as the buckle could puncture the ball!

Stretches on the ball can be done daily. If your shoulders are tight, I would recommend doing the stretches two to three times a day.

Strengthening and core stabilization exercises should be done no more than once a day, three to five times a week. They should be done as part of a dryland program prior to swim practices. Full body stretches should also be done before using the ball.

The stretches done on the ball are primarily for shoulder flexion, the chest and pectoral muscles, and the back. Start with 8-10 repetitions of each exercise (that’s on each side if it is an alternating arm/leg exercise). Progress to 15-20 repetitions of each. Don’t rush the movements, and hold at least 1-2 seconds in the finish position.

If you start substituting with muscles other than the target muscles, you are either cheating or fatigued-or both! The most common substitution muscles are the biceps, triceps, deltoid and neck muscles. These muscles are not targeted in any of the exercises shown, except the push-ups, and are usually very strong among swimmers.

As the exercises become easier, you can add wrist (1-2 pounds) and ankle (2-4 pounds) weights to increase the intensity of the program.

Exercise #1 (3 positions)

Supine Shoulder and Back Stretch A. Flexion

Sit on the ball and walk your legs forward as you lean back until your back and head are resting on the ball. Raise your arms until your hands are pointing toward the ceiling, then push your shoulder blades down into the ball. Keeping your shoulder blades flat, continue to bring your arms over your head until you feel a stretch in your shoulders (and lower back). Your thumbs should point down and the elbows should be straight. Increase the stretch by bringing in one arm at a time toward your ear. Hold 20-60 seconds. (You may experience some discomfort initially with this stretch.)

B. Pectorals

After you have stretched out in flexion, slide your elbows down toward the ball until they are almost level with your shoulders, and with elbows bent at 90 degrees. Let your upper arms drop down toward the floor to stretch your chest muscles. You don’t have to keep the arms in a static position, and you may move the elbows slightly up and down toward your waist and head. Hold 15-30 seconds or longer.

C. Pectorals

After Position “B” has loosened you up, straighten out your elbows to increase the stretch. Again, you may move your arms up and down slightly in line with the floor to find the optimal stretch. Hold until the muscles have released, or about 20-40 seconds.

CORE STRENGTHENING: Exercise #2 (right) Superman-Lower Trapezius

Start kneeling on the floor with the ball in front of you, feet flexed, so the toes are on the surface. Your arms are extended to the front of the ball. Push out with your legs, straightening your knees as you reach forward and up with your arms. In the finish position, your elbows are straight, the arms are in line with the body, and your head is between your arms. Thumbs are angled up slightly. If you bend your head to the side, your ear should touch your arm. You are in a streamlined position, and you should feel this just below your shoulder blades. Return to a kneeling position before you start the next repetition. Start: no weight. Goal: 1-2 pounds.

Exercise #3 Swimmer-Lower Trapezius and Latissimus Dorsi

Start in Superman finish position. Holding one arm up, bring the other arm back along your body. Keep elbow straight. Your thumb should point up when in front of you and down

when behind you. Lift both arms finish position and rotate slightly toward the back (recovery) arm. You should be looking down, not rotating or lifting your head, Alternate. Start: no weight. Goal: 1-3 pounds.

Exercise #4 Prone Flys-Middle Trapezius

Lie on your stomach with your head and upper chest off the ball and your legs straight behind you (balanced on your toes). Bring your arms out to the side at or slightly lower than shoulder level. Rotate your shoulders so the palms are facing forward. Lift your ar up past shoulder height, pulling your shoulder blades together. Lower to start position. Start: no weight. Goal: 1-4 pounds.

Exercise #6 (below) Prone Back Extension-Spinal Extensors

This exercise helps with starts, turns, breast and fly. Lie on your stomach over the ball and roll a little forward so you are slightly upside down. Place hands behind your head, but don’t interlace them. Lift elbows up and out to the side in start position. Lift your upper body up off the ball, stabilizing with your feet. Hold and slowly return to the start position. Keep your head in line with your body and avoid using your head or arms to lift.

Exercise #5 (left) Prone Rows-Rhomboids

Start in same position as Prone Flys. Dumbbell weights are needed for this exercise. Start with arms hanging off ball and perpendicular to floor, palms facing in. Bring elbows up toward the ceiling. Hold two seconds and lower slowly. Start weight: 2-3 pounds. Goal: 5-10 pounds.

Exercise #7 (right)

Prone Opposite Arm and Leg RaiseLower Trapezius and Gluteals

Lie on your stomach over the ball so it is centered at about waist level. Your hands rest down on the ground in front of you, and your toes are on the floor behind you. Lift one arm out in front into streamlined position (thumb up, elbow straight), and the opposite leg behind you. Keep knee straight and lift from the hip, but not past the plane of the body. If you feel it in your low back, or start to rotate, you are lifting the leg too high. Try to “make your body longer” as you lift. Hold, then repeat on opposite sides. Start: no weight. Go: 1-2 pounds arms and 2-4 pounds legs.

Exercise #8 (below) Prone Push-up from Knees-Deltoid and Abdominals

Don’t do this exercise if you have active tendinitis or bursitis in your shoulders. Lie on your stomach on the ball and walk your hands forward until the ball is under your lower thighs and knees. Keep your back straight and tighten your abdominals. Hands should be wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend elbows and touch forehead, keeping your back straight. Your legs will pivot up.

Exercise #9 (below) Same Side Arm and Leg Extension with Hip Rotation-Lats, Gluteals, Spinal and Hip Rotators

Lie balanced on your stomach on the ball. Fingertips and toes should rest on the floor. Stabilize with one side of your body as you extend one arm behind you, keeping elbow straight (one-armed swimmer exercise). Then lift the leg up on the same side, and finally roll your hip up on the same side until it is almost pointing toward the ceiling. Hold, return to start position and repeat on opposite side. If you flip and roll off the ball, then you are lifting the leg too high or crossing it behind you. The hand reaches toward the foot, and you are in a streamlined position. The ball should not move. To make this exercise more difficult, lift the arm and leg at the same time. An even more advanced progression is to do the swimmer exercise with both arms while you lift the leg and rotate the hip (you are balanced on one foot). Start: no weight. Goal: 2-plus pounds wrists and 2-5 pounds legs.

Exercise #10 (right) Ball Walk to Shins-Deltoid and Abdominals

This is more difficult than the pushup. Lie on your stomach and roll forward on the ball as you walk your hands forward. Keep your back and legs straight. This requires a tremendous amount of abdominal strength to make sure your back doesn’t arch. Walk your hands backward and return to start position.

Exercise #11 (below) Sit-Ups-Abdominals

Sit on ball and walk feet forward until just your lower back is supported on the ball. Start from an almost flat position with hands resting behind head and elbows out to the sides. Tuck chin down to avoid using your neck muscles. Curl up halfway, hold 1-2 seconds and return to start position.

Exercise #12 (right)

Diagonal Sit-Ups-Abdominal Obliques

Start in same position as Exercise #11, but instead of coming straight up, rotate one shoulder toward the opposite knee until you are almost halfway to vertical. Return and repeat on opposite side. Don’t rotate the elbow forward or twist your spine.

Exercise #13 (right) Bridging with Marching LegsGluteals

Start sitting on the ball and walk your legs forward until just your head and shoulders are resting on the ball. Your feet should be slightly spread and directly under your knees. Your arms should be dropped down so your fingertips are resting lightly on the floor. Keep a straight line between your shoulders and knees so that your hips don’t sag. Keeping your pelvis level, lift one knee at a time about a foot off of the floor. Hold and return to repeat on opposite side. Start: no weights on legs. Goal: 2-5 pounds.

Exercise #14 (left) Bridging with Opposite Arm and Leg Raise-Gluteals

Start in the same position as Exercise #13. Straighten out one leg, keeping your pelvis level. The opposite arm raises above your head at the same time. Hold, return to start position and repeat on opposite sides.

Wendy Weinberg Weil won a bronze medal in the 800 meter freestyle at the 1976 Olympics. She has been a physical therapist and athletic trainer for over 20 years, and currently has her own practice in McLean, Va. She also coaches part-time with the FISH swim team, and swims Masters.

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Apr-Jun 2002

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