Ditch Your Crunches

Doing hundreds of stomach crunches may chisel your six-pack, but it won’t do much for your triathlon performance. Here’s why.

Doing hundreds of stomach crunches may chisel your six-pack, but it won’t do much for your triathlon performance. Here’s why.

Leading up to her gutsy Kona win last year, Chrissie Wellington used a comprehensive strength program that included full-body movements to train the entire core, according to her coach, legendary Ironman champion Dave Scott. “When people think of core, they think abs,” Scott said in a Competitor Radio podcast. But, he says, the whole core really includes about 26 muscles—everything from the lower part of the chest down to the thighs. The main reason triathletes should train the core isn’t to get a ripped stomach; it’s to stabilize the spine.

“When your spine is more stable, you know that when you’re applying pressure at three o’ clock of your pedal stroke and when you’re in the stance phase in the run, you’re not going to get that wobbliness that people get,” Scott said.

A stable core comes into play particularly in late-race running form. As you fatigue, form breakdowns such as a slower cadence or shorter stride length can force you into a compensation pattern, often resulting in your upper body over-rotating. “What keeps Person A from maintaining better form or running faster than Person B is how they each react to the compensations, and how they’re able to control the extra rotation,” says Bryan Hill, physical therapist and owner of Rehab United in San Diego.

The biggest problem with most ab exercises is that they’re done in a supine position, which not only shortens your hips and core—it doesn’t mimic swimming, biking or running. To prevent injury and muscle imbalances, focus on core exercises that lengthen or rotate.

Replace your typical ab exercises with the ones below, as recommended by the sports performance team at Rehab United. Incorporate just five to 10 minutes twice a week to build strength.

Instead of … Crunches 
Pickup and reach
You’re teaching the abs to work in sports-specific positions.
Stand in a split stance, left foot in front, bending front knee slightly. Grab a light dumbbell and reach down in front of your foot at about 45 degrees, then reach up above your shoulder along the same line, like you’re making half of an X. Switch legs. Rotate through the hips and spine to get the full lengthening benefit and to protect the rotator cuff.

Instead of … Plank 
Plank with kicks
You’re maintaining a core position while doing a movement—think aero position or swimming.
Hold a plank with straight arms. While maintaining a solid pelvic position, lift legs straight up (one at a time), then out to the side, then rotate up and over.

Instead of … Leg raises
Try: Kettlebell squat to overhead swing
What makes a muscle grow is lengthening it—and this lengthens overhead.
With a kettlebell, med ball or dumbbell, do a squat and bring the weight down between your legs. As you rise up from the squat, swing the weight overhead. The closer together your hands are, the harder it is.

Instead of … The Rocky Balboa twist
Try: Four-way X-chop
The twist shortens the muscles. The X-chop rotates while lengthening at the same time.
Grab a ball or weight (even a gallon of milk will work fine) and hold it with both hands. Start in split stance. Lunge down as you take the weight from your right hip and come back up as you rotate to your left shoulder overhead. You can switch the forward foot and also switch to loading the shoulder first then lunge into the hip.

RELATED – 55-Minute Workout: Core Work Bike Intervals