A strong core goes a long way in athletes, far beyond the “fit” appearance. In athletes, a strong core equals higher power output, increased ability to balance in an otherwise unnatural posture, better muscle coordination and will increase endurance, so to say athletes should have a strong core is an understatement; athletes need to be strong in the frontal, sagittal and transverse plane.
There are many ways to strengthen the core, and each has a specific function. To start off with, while performing any action with added load to the body, like in the weightroom require a tight core for stabilization. The exercises that probably come to the forefront of our mind are the static core exercises like crunches but core exercises go way beyond that. To preface this, static core exercises are important for development and should not be overlooked, but let's dive into some advanced core exercises that all athletes should be doing in their workouts.
Athletes are almost never in a normal body positioning that requires them to have unilateral balance and strength, or balance and strength on one side of the body so they can overcome the position they find themselves in to get back to an explosive position. Holding a dumbbell in only one hand while the athlete performs a variety of exercise like farmer carries, walking lunges and overhead carries are great core exercises that requires the core to overcome the unilateral load on one side of the body, as well as the core/trunk muscles to fire to stay in an upright, tight position so they do not lose their balance.
Planks are a great core exercise, but we can progress a simple plank into much harder variations, so once you feel a normal plank starts to get too easy, try out one of these variations. Side planks are a tough step up from a normal plank, but to take it even further, lift the top leg up. This is complicated because not only do you need the obliques to fire to keep your hips up while maintaining a straight line, the opposing obliques and transverse abdominis need to contract to keep the leg up in the air. Now if the side plank variation is too easy and an increased challenge is calling your name, get in a normal plank position, but lift one arm straight infront of you and the opposite sided leg. Going back to the unilateral force, this progression of a plank forces the athlete to overcome a weak position due to the weight of the arms and legs in order to maintain stabilization and balance in this position.
Other exercises that are very tough but phenomenal for developing hip flexor/core/overall upper body strength are any hanging exercises. Hanging leg raises, knee raises, knee rotations, toes to bar or L holds are challenging exercises that require an immense amount of core strength because
A) You need to overcome gravity
B) Your lower abdominal muscles need to be strong to initiate the hip anterior rotation
C) You need to be able to stop the swing of the body before the swing occurs, meaning: we need to keep not only our core tight to control our legs on the descent, we need to keep our shoulders locked into position, we need to engage our lats and other muscles in our back
So if you are an athlete looking to get an even stronger core, remember that strengthening our core from a unilateral loaded position helps with balance, stabilization and overcoming a naturally weaker position. Try to incorporate the unilateral approach next time you do a plank. And if you have never tried a hanging core exercise, give it a try, your abs will be on fire by the time you are done! Hope this helps in your journey to seek stronger abs!