Hard 'Core': Keys to a better ab workout

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When most people think of developing their core, they think of doing good old fashioned situps or the modified version called crunches.  Whereas both of those exercises are good in strengthening the abdominal muscles, neither of them has the ability to address the "true muscles of the core." 

The core muscles can be described as any muscle that is connected to, or supports, the spine. Just like the center of the earth is the very point in which much energy and stability comes from, the same is true with our bodies.  Our cores must be developed, but first we must understand what it is and how to properly engage those muscles. 

What muscles make up the core:

o     Upper abs (the six pack)

o     Side abs and obliques (love handles)

o     Deep inner abdominal muscles (the most forgotten and overlooked, but most important)

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Jacksonville Jaguars strong safety Johnathan Cyprien performs a hanging leg lift, one of the workouts he uses to develop a stronger core. (NFL)

Research has shown that a very large majority of professional athletes actually have an underdeveloped core.  This fact has been a major contributor to several of the most common soft tissue injuries, such as lower back strains, hip flexors and groin strains, along with a list of other injuries.  However, these can be prevented. As a former NFL safety and collegiate hurdler, it was extremely important for me to develop my core to improve my performance and decrease my chances of injury.  Below are some of the exercises, along with tips, that I recommend individuals perform to take their health and performances to the next level:

1.    Draw-In: This describes what is happening with your belly button. As you are drawing in your abs you are contracting and sucking in your stomach as you try and have your belly button touch your spine. This is a foundational focus and centerpiece prior to any abdominal exercise.

2.    2-1-2 Repetition: This is the tempo in which you perform exercises. The "2" describes how many seconds it should take you to perform the contracting exercise. The "1" second is how long you contract and hold the position at the top of each exercise. The last "2" describes the tempo of returning to the start position. Slow and steady is the key versus fast and rolling.

3.    Breathe: One of the basic essentials of our bodies is oxygen. We need it to live and we need it to perform any exercise properly. The ideal breathing pattern should be to breathe out when contracting or performing the exercises, and to breathe in when returning to the starting position.

4.    Mental Rep: This speaks to the mental focus and attention of each repetition. As you perform each exercise, you want to focus your mind on that area, see it in your mind's eye and visualize those muscles getting stronger.

5.    Instability: Find an unstable surface that you can perform these exercises on. Anytime you perform these exercises on an unstable surface, you force multiple muscles to work together, which in turn causes greater results. Single-leg exercises and pilates also strengthen the core through instability. Below are the most commonly used surfaces to provide instability and greater results.

o     Physioball

o     Bosu Ball

o     Foam Rollers

If you would like to increase your core strength and overall performance, I recommend you do the majority of your abdominal routines from an unstable position. Exercises that include situps, leg ups, crunches and all twist motions should be done from an unstable position. I recommend doing any of these exercises for either a certain amount of straight time  i.e. 30 seconds or greater  or for a specific amount of repetitions. You will definitely see greater results and will be one step closer to your strongest core and greatest performances. I'll see you at the next level.

-Donovin Darius played defensive back for 10 years in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, and was a first round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. He is the founder and CEO of Next Level Training, which is designed to take any athlete to the top of the competitive mountain.

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