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The Most Neglected Muscle Group for Runners

author image Henry Halse
Henry Halse is a Philadelphia-based personal trainer, speaker, and writer. He's trained a wide variety of people, from couch potatoes to professional athletes, and helped them realize their own strength, determination and self-confidence. Henry has also written for various fitness and lifestyle publications, including Women’s Health, AskMen and Prevention.
The Most Neglected Muscle Group for Runners
Runners: Don't leave your abs out of your strength-training routine! Photo Credit Adobe Stock/JacobLund

We love abs. We like looking at them. We want to see them on other people (especially celebrities), and we want other people to see ours. However, abs do much more than just look good. For a runner, they‘re one of the most important muscle groups because they help you breathe, rotate and use power generated from your arms and legs.

For runners, abs are more than just sexy — they're functional!
For runners, abs are more than just sexy — they're functional! Photo Credit Adobe Stock/baranq

The Benefits of Strong Abs

Here’s a little anatomy lesson. For starters, you have four different ab muscles:

  • Rectus Abdominis — the muscle you see when you look at a six-pack
  • External Obliques — start at the front of your abdomen and wrap around almost to the spine
  • Internal Obliques — lie underneath the external obliques and also wrap around from the front almost to the spine
  • Transverse Abdominis — the deepest layer of your abs, which also wrap around from the front to the back

You can’t really see your internal obliques or transverse abdominis, but they are as important as any of the other layers of your abs. And all four are vital for runners. Here’s why:

1. Strong Abs Help You Breathe Better

When you take a deep breath in, your diaphragm pushes your organs down and forward. But your abs stop them from going too far forward. Without strong abs, your diaphragm won’t work as well, and it’ll be more challenging to inhale.

Your abs also help you exhale forcefully, which, as any runner knows, is vital. When you can exhale more air out of your lungs, you can inhale more air, which means more oxygen for your muscles.

2. Strong Abs Improve Your Stride

In fact, of the four ab muscles, three are dedicated to helping you rotate. When you walk or run, you rotate (even if just slightly) as your arms and legs swing in opposite directions.

If you have weak ab muscles and don’t know how to rotate when you run, you’ll look very stiff and won’t be very efficient. When you learn how to use your abs to rotate, your stride will look very fluid and graceful, and you’ll be able to run faster while being less susceptible to injury.

3. Abs Control Your Movement

Your abs are constantly working as you run. Not only do you need to rotate when you run, but you have to stop rotating, then rotate in the opposite direction. The abs on the left side pull your upper body to the left. Then the abs on the right side stop your rotation and move you back to the right. They go back and forth in this rhythm to propel you forward.

Your abs help you put all of your momentum in a forward direction, as opposed to side to side. To show you how much your abs are really working, try running with your hands behind your back. Without the help of your arms, your abs have to work overtime to keep you moving forward.

4. Your Abs Are Your Powerhouse

Spanning from your ribs to your hips, your abs connect your upper body to your lower body and hold everything together. And your core (of which your abs are a part) is your powerhouse.

You see, even if your arms legs are really powerful and produce tons of energy to help power you through a run, if you can’t use your abs to breathe or rotate properly, you’ll get tired quickly and have to stop. Also, if your abs aren’t strong enough to translate all that awesome back and forth between your lower body and your upper body, you’re missing out on a lot of power.

Grab your running buddy and work on your abs together.
Grab your running buddy and work on your abs together. Photo Credit michaelpuche/iStock/Getty Images

4 Ab Exercises Every Runner Needs

So you know why strong abs are vital to your runs, but how do you train your abs to help you go further faster? Incorporate these four ab exercises into your weekly strength training routine and see how your running improves.

1. 90/90 Breathing

Not only is breathing fundamental to running, it’s fundamental to everyday life. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on the floor with your heels on a bench, couch or even a wall. If you use a wall, put your heels on the wall with your toes off. Pull your heels down toward the floor and lift your butt off the ground slightly.

Your head should be flat on the ground. If this is uncomfortable, use a small pillow under your head. Take a deep breath through your nose, and then blow all of the air out of your mouth. Keep exhaling until there is absolutely no air left in your lungs. Pause for two seconds then breathe in. Repeat this five times.

During this drill, you should exhale with enough force to you feel your abs working. Your exhale should last at least eight seconds, and the inhale should be three or four seconds.

2. Dead Bug

Now that you know how to use your abs while breathing, it’s time to use them while moving. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on the floor with your arms pointed straight up and your knees pointing up. Breathe out and press your lower back into the ground. If this is very difficult, just stay here.

If you feel comfortable, reach your right arm overhead and your left leg out straight. Go slowly, and as soon as your lower back starts to come off the ground, return to the starting position. Switch sides and do the same thing. Complete 10 reps without your lower back coming off the ground.

3. Bicycle Crunch

Next, step things up by adding some rotation. HOW TO DO IT: Start in the dead bug position and press your lower back into the ground. Put your hands behind your head. The goal is to keep your lower back on the ground at all times.

Rotate your upper body until your left elbow touches your right knee. At the same time, reach your left leg out straight. Then switch sides. Go slowly and make sure that your lower back stays on the ground. Do 10 reps on each side.

4. Standing Rotation

Now you can move on to an advanced exercise to give your abs more rotational strength. For this exercise, you’ll need a resistance band or a cable machine. HOW TO DO IT: Set the band or cable at chest height. Grab it with both hands and face perpendicular to it. Keeping your arms straight and feet in place, pull the cable or band across your body by rotating your torso. Do 10 reps slowly, and then switch sides.

What Do YOU Think?

Now you know what your abs do, how they help you run and how to train them, you have everything you need to become a better, more efficient runner. It’s important to understand that the abs do more than just look good. They help you breathe, rotate and use power from your arms and legs — all of which can make or break your running performance!

Did you know all of these things before? Which ones surprised you? As a runner, do you incorporate strength training into your routine regularly? Do you do any ab-specific exercises? Which ones are your favorites? Will you try any of the four moves listed above? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments section below!

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