As is the case with all sports, or really any activity at all, core strength is vital for the swimming athlete. Not only does having a strong core improve performance, it also helps to prevent/alleviate pain with swimming. Spondylolysis (and/or Spondylolisthesis as it worsens) is a common cause of low back pain in swimmers. Spondylolysis is caused, or at least exacerbated, by repetitive extension of the lumbar spine (lower back). By strengthening and improving motor control in the core, the muscles learn to resist hyperextension in the lumbar spine and therefore help to reduce the amount of extension loading on the vertebra. Here are a few great exercises for improving core strength/motor control:
Planks: Planks are especially good for a number or reasons. For one thing they hit a variety of muscles: Transverse Abdominis (TrA), Multifidi, Glutes, Quads, etc. Also, planks have a great motor control component by training rigidity in the core which is important since we’re trying to reduce excessive movement!
Begin by lying on your stomach. Next you’re going to prop up on your elbows and toes keeping your core tight and your body as perfectly straight as possible. For maximum results make sure to squeeze your Glutes and Quads. Start with 30 second holds and work your way up to 1 minute holds. Perform 1-3 repetitions.
Side Planks: Side Planks have a lot of the same benefits as regular planks except they place a larger emphasis on the Obliques and Gluteus Medius (the muscle on the outside of your hip).
Begin by lying on your side propped up on your elbow. Lift your hip so that your body is as straight as possible. Make sure to tighten your core and lateral hip muscles (the ones on the side of your hip toward the ground). Start with 30 second holds and work your way up to 1 minute holds. Perform 1-3 repetitions.
Dead Bug: Dead Bugs are a favorite exercise of many sports-based training systems partly because they help train the athlete to maintain a stable core (and neutral spine) while actively using the arms and legs at the same time. The correlation between the importance of this skill and the demands of swimming on the core is pretty obvious.
Begin by lying on your back with your hips and knee raised in a “table top” or “90-90” position. Next brace your core to prevent any movement and raise your arms overhead and back down one at a time. The goal is to prevent any movement in your pelvis and/or lower back. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Bird Dogs: Bird Dogs are great exercise to add because they focus on the Glutes and Multifidi (among other muscles) while challenging core stability in a unique way from the other exercises on this list. Bird Dogs have been a long-time favorite of PT’s everywhere for relieving low back pain.
Begin by assuming a quadruped position (hands and knees). Tighten your core and slowly raise one arm and the opposite leg, pause briefly, then return to the starting positions. Do the same with the other arm and leg. The goal is to keep your core still and resist any rotation. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.