There are several exercises I find essential for every athlete to perform on a regular basis in order to maintain stability, balance, and core strength. These exercises are prescribed as part of a home exercise program for many of my patients who are injured, but they should be completed by anyone looking to prevent injuries too. I do these exercises three times per week as part of my core and strength routine. If you look at the exercises performed by elite athletes, some variation of these will undoubtedly be on their list too. Even if you only have 5 minutes and no equipment, these exercises are easy to fit into your schedule.
1. Planks: front and side. Click on the link to see my previous post about plank variations and important technique tips. Planks not only develop a strong core, but they also help develop strong legs and shoulder strength as well. Planks are great for preventing or rehabbing from pain in the low back, hip, knee, or shoulder.
2. Bridges: double leg, single leg, or hamstring curls on a ball. Click on the link to see my previous post about bridges and variations. Bridges are essential for developing hamstring and glute strength. The majority of people spend too much time sitting. Sitting tightens the front of our hips and deactivates the muscles in the backs of our legs. This causes an imbalance in our muscles and results in injury. Additionally, many sports cause our quads to be the dominate muscle group, and athletes that fail to correct this set themselves up for injury. Bridges help reverse these imbalances by strengthening weak muscles and opening the front of the hips.
3 & 4. Side Lying Hip Abduction and Adduction. These exercises are for the muscles on the outside of your hips (abductors) and inside of your hips (adductors). A little hint to help remember which muscle is which is by thinking of the adductors as the muscle group that brings your legs together (ADDuctors ADD your legs together). ABDuctors do the opposite.
Side lying hip abduction: Laying on your side, lift the top leg up slightly behind you about 12-18 inches. Slowly lower and repeat. You should feel this in a muscle called the glute medius (the outer glutes).
This exercise can all be performed in standing. Simply stand on one leg and lift the other leg out to the side and slightly back. This can be a great modification for people who have a hard time getting down onto the floor or if you don't have access to a clean/soft floor to lay on!
Side lying hip adduction: Lay on your side and cross your top leg over your bottom leg. Lift the bottom leg straight up about 6-12 inches. Slowly lower and repeat. You should feel this in a group of muscles called hip adductors (the inner thighs).
The inner and outer hips are very weak in the majority of people due to the lack of side to side movements that we perform. Most people spend their days traveling forwards (walking, running, cycling). This uses the muscles in the front of our body, but we spend very little time using the muscles on the inside and outside of our hips that are essential for stability. Hip abductors and adductors help maintain the alignment of our hips/knees/ankles, keep our pelvis level, and prevent overuse of other nearby muscles such as those in the low back. Our whole body is a chain and if there is one weak link, then another area has to make up for it and that area typically ends up injured. For example, if you have weak hips, your low back or your knees may take the brunt of the force and impact when walking or running and result in injury.
5. Quadruped Alternate Arm and Leg Extension: This exercise is for balance and stability of the core muscles. This exercise strengthens multiple muscle groups including those in the shoulders, abdominals, spine, and glutes. It also creates dynamic stability by moving in diagonals and forcing you to stay upright with minimal points of contact. This is like balancing on one foot for your core!
To perform the exercise, get down on your hands and knees. Lift one arm straight forward at the same time as you lift the opposite leg straight back behind you. Try to keep your spine straight and do not let your hips twist or tilt to one side. Hold for a few seconds, and then perform with the other arm and leg.
Be careful - you might topple over the first time trying this! If it is too hard, change to just lifting one arm up and then the other arm up. After a few of those, then just lift one leg followed by lifting the other leg. When you master that, then try doing the alternate arm and leg together as described above.
If you are injured, the most important thing to remember is do not do an exercise that causes pain. It is okay to feel discomfort in the activated muscles, but you should not provoke the symptoms of your specific injury. For example, if you are having knee pain when you run and it hurts your knee in the same spot when you complete single leg bridges as it does when you try to run, then avoid those until you are feeling better.