Updated: May 9
It’s often said that you need a strong core. For me, that is vague and unclear. Yes, I agree, but what do you mean by strong core (what muscles are you talking about? Abs? Lower? Upper? Obliques?) and how strong is strong enough? So often, we are left with not enough information to know what step to take next. So this is my attempt to summarize my experience in how to find what core exercises will make a difference in the minimal amount of time.
Why Target Secondary/Support Muscles
As someone who works in operations and focuses on efficiency, I'm always looking for the best way to train. First you have to understand my definition of Primary and Secondary muscles for runners:
Primary muscles - The main target muscle(s) for the exercise. For running, this is your calves, quads and glutes.
Secondary Muscles - The support muscles that ensure stability and efficiency for the primary muscles. For running, there are a lot but one main group is your core muscles
If you want to build up your run secondary muscles, you must find exercises that those muscles are the primary focus for the exercise. You wouldn’t exercise your shoulders and hope your forearms or biceps would significantly improve, you would do forearm or bicep movements to build them up. The same goes for your core. Running will help, but targeted movements are more efficient and effective.
For my blog, I break the core into four sections: lower back, glutes, inner thighs and abdominals. I think of these as stabilizers while you’re running (and walking and basically doing most movements). As you run, your primary muscles grow and adapt faster than your secondary muscles. If you don’t give them additional attention, the power ratio between your primary and secondary muscles will become imbalanced and become the limiting factor to your improvement. This imbalance will also put you at greater risk for injury as the secondary muscles do not have the strength to support the primary muscles.
The idea behind Minimal Strengthening is to find the weakest muscles and target them for 20-30 reps 1-3 times a day (about 1-2 minutes a day) to maximize your strengthening. Remember this strategy is for building up secondary run muscles. You still have to run regularly to get better. This will strengthen your support muscles so you get the most out of your runs.
In my experience, when a muscle goes through development there are a couple of skills/stages:
You learn how to consciously activate that muscle.
You strengthen and gain power in your activation.
You are able to consciously recruit that muscle as support. Said another way, you are able to consciously coordinate groups of muscles together
Your body unconsciously recruits and coordinates all required muscles together. Think plyometric exercises or an elite sprinter, who for each leg, fires all their muscles together to maximize their forward momentum.
As you spend more time doing targeted exercises, those muscles will move through those stages, giving you more support, stability and efficiency for your primary muscles.
Finding the Weakest Support Muscles:
The next step is to figure out what support muscle(s), if any, are currently limiting you or increasing your risk of injury. To start off, this is based on my exercise and my body. Please try these out, listen to your body and use what works for you. If an exercise doesn’t work for you there are factors that you might consider:
You may be using a stronger/different muscle to do the exercise and therefore not feeling the ‘burn’. Reread the exercises to ensure you’re engaging properly.
Because of your past experiences/sports/environment, you may engage this muscle regularly and it doesn’t need to be focused on. Congrats, your time and focus is better spend on a different muscle group.
For each exercise, try doing 30 reps slowly while engaging the target muscle and see how you feel. If the exercise becomes too much, stop. Congratulations, you’ve found a support muscle that may be limiting you or increasing your risk of injury. We’ll add that exercise to your daily exercises.
Lower back - Superman’s
Lay on your stomach on the floor,
Extend your arms in front of you,
Slowly engage your lower back to pull your head/arms and legs off the ground,
At the top give a gentle squeeze of your back muscles, gently shift your weight from one side to the other to help notice how your engagement changes, this puts a little more attention on one side and allows you to learn/practice activating that side. Come back to the center, you can use this recognition to gently squeeze at the top again. This side to side motion only needs to be done for the first few movements.
Slowly release back to the ground.
Your back has muscles that run from head to toe and around your midsection. You want to make sure you are engaging both as you rise off the ground.
I like to visualize that the small of my back is forming a small bowl, this helps remind me to squeeze both my lateral and horizontal back muscles.
I like to rotate my scapula down to help me raise my breast bone to the sky, this also helps activate the middle back.
The horizontal back muscles are complimentary to your abs and crucial to having a strong and stable foundation when running.
The other core muscles are secondary support muscles for this movement, don’t forget to gently activate them as well.
Glutes - Hip Raises