| By Laszlo Elek

Tennis players have lots to think about when designing a training program. In addition to developing aerobic and anaerobic fitness, they also have to work to strengthen key joints like the ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Small wonder that many players forget to perform enough core work.

However, the core muscles do so much more than simply give you a strong stomach or six-pack abs. The core is also essential for hip and shoulder stability—a key element of all tennis strokes. Having a strong core is what allows your limbs to move effectively and efficiently.

A strong core allows for a smooth transfer of power out from the core through the limbs, with perfect coordination of strength, stability, balance, power and flexibility. The result is that you can run at full speed and execute a perfectly placed passing shot.

A weak core, on the other hand, leads to many injuries in other parts of the body, as the weak link at the center defers dynamic forces out through the limbs, causing problems in the ankles, knees, hips, low back, elbows or shoulders.

It’s a well-established principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and similarly, all muscles have an opposite and opposing muscle group that helps to balance out demands on the body. Weakness in any of these opposing areas can cause problems.

Thus balanced core muscles are vital—however, a lot of core training focuses too much on the abdominal muscles at the expense of the obliques (side muscles) and lower back. It’s therefore quite common to find athletes who have a strong, muscular six-pack, but experience lower back problems—their core is not balanced, and injuries occur as a result.

The transverse abdominis: The body’s corset
A strong core starts with a strong transverse abdominis. This is a deep lying muscle that wraps around your torso from front to back, from the ribs to the pelvis. The muscle fibers of the transverse abdominis run horizontally, forming a corset around the torso, much like a weight lifter’s belt.

The transverse abdominis doesn't actually help to move the spine or the pelvis; instead, it helps with breathing, compresses the internal organs and stabilizes the spine.

Activating the transverse abdominis is simple—either standing or sitting, draw your belly button in towards your spine. Practice this feeling, as you want to be sure to engage the transverse abdominis at the start of any core exercise.

Now you understand the importance of the core, let’s look at the best exercises to perform.

The best abdominal exercises
Research conducted at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University analyzed 13 different abdominal exercises, from traditional crunches to more complicated movements and found significant differences in their effectiveness.

They rated each exercise for the amount of muscle stimulation it produced in both the rectus abdominus (the muscle that runs along the front of the abdomen) and the internal and external obliques (the muscles that extend along the sides of the abdomen).

They then used the traditional crunch as a baseline, giving it a score of 100, and ranked the other exercises as follows:

Rectus abdominus activation:
1. Bicycle Maneuver 248
2.Captain’s Chair 212
3. Exercise Ball Crunch 139
4. Vertical Leg Crunch 129
5. Torso Track 127
6. Long Arm Crunch 119
7. Reverse Crunch 109
8. Crunch with Heel Push 107
9. Ab Roller 105
10. Plank (Hover) 100
11. Traditional Crunch 100
12. Exercise Tubing Pull 92
13. Ab Rocker 21

Internal and external obliques activation:
1. Captain’s Chair 310
2. Bicycle Maneuver 290
3. Reverse Crunch 240
4. Plank (Hover) 230
5. Vertical Leg Crunch 216
6. Exercise Ball Crunch 147
7. Torso Track 145
8. Crunch With Heel Push 126
9. Long Arm Crunch 118
10. Ab Roller 101
11. Traditional Crunch 100
12. Exercise Tubing Pull 77
13. Ab Rocker 74

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the leading exercises are two to three times more effective than the traditional crunch, and up to 10 times more effective than the worst! The ab rocker, popular in many gyms and health clubs, came in dead last in both tests!

Overall, the most effective abdominal exercises are the bicycle maneuver, followed closely by the captain’s chair, with crunches on an exercise ball ranked third overall.

However, it’s also worth noting that while crunches on an exercise ball scored lower than the top two exercises, they also generated significantly less activity in the rectus femoris—a hip stabilizer.

This is important—many so-called abs exercises (such as old fashioned sit ups) generate a lot of activity in the rectus femoris and hip flexors, reducing their effectiveness. The researchers therefore concluded that crunches on an exercise ball may in fact be the best overall abdominal exercise.

When designing your own ab workout, you should therefore look to perform a combination of the following ab exercises:

►Exercise Ball Crunches

►Captain’s Chair

►Bicycle Maneuvers

►Reverse Crunches

Lower back and oblique exercises
As we discussed earlier, many core workouts emphasize abs exercises at the expense of the obliques and low back. In order to get the correct balance, you therefore have to combine the most effective abs exercises with those that work the obliques and lower back.

The three most effective exercises for these areas are those that promote increased endurance in the core—they are thus static exercises:

►The Plank

►The Side Plank

►The Bird Dog

The key with these exercises is to hold the position for an increasing period of time. Aim for two minutes in the plank, one minute each side for the side plank and bird dog.

Performing a combination of ab exercises and obliques/lower back exercises at least three days per week will build a strong core, allowing your other skills to be performed more effectively.

Laszlo Elek

<p>Laszlo Elek is a certified personal trainer (CFT) working out of <a onclick="window.open(this.href,'SportimeNYTennisFitnessMultiSportBasketballHockey','resizable=yes,location=yes,menubar=no,scrollbars=yes,status=yes,toolbar=no,fullscreen=no,dependent=no,status'); return false" href="http://www.sportimeny.com/Syosset-Fitness">Sportime-Syosset</a> who runs tennis specific training programs. He can be reached by phone at (516) 320-1463 or e-mail <a href="mailto:eleklaszlo@optonline.net?subject=Fitness%20%26%20Nutrition%20Colu...@optonline.net </a>to arrange your own tennis specific training program, and start to move your game to the next level.</p>