What are the best core strengthening exercises for an OCR racer? First, let’s define what the core is. Your core is more than just abs. It also includes your hips, glutes, lower back, and hip flexors.
“Picture your body as the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Kevin Donoghue, Spartan Pro Team Member, certified Spartan SGX coach, and 25-time Spartan Race Masters Champion. “It has two towers—one representing your lower extremities, the other your upper half. The suspension cables between them represent your core.” The two towers, no matter how tall and strong, can’t support the bridge in between without strong suspension cables. Enter your core. They’re the support cables for your entire body.
Solid core strength, developed by a good set of core strengthening exercises, enables the muscles in your hips, pelvis, lower back, and abdomen to work as a team. This improves balance, agility and power. “With adequate core support the Spartan athlete can also navigate treacherous downhills with greater explosion, speed, and sure footing without wasting energy,” says Donoghue. “Core strength is necessary to succeed at every obstacle.”
Essential Core-Strengthening Exercises Every Spartan Needs
Here are four common obstacles encountered in a Spartan race, and Donoghue’s recommended core strengthening exercises to help you conquer them with ease. Integrate these into your regular training and you’ll improve your course skills—and your race times.
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The Obstacle: Bucket Carry
Carrying a bucket filled with gravel, sand, or dirt in front of your body with both hands requires a core of steel, especially when you’re required to haul that bucket over boulders, up mountainsides, or down into gullies. You need the right core strengthening exercises to support the work demand.
“This puts a tremendous load on the lower back, and your core has to be strong to support your spine,” says Donoghue. Aside from filling a bucket and toting it around your neighborhood, Donoghue recommends these exercises:
For this classic staple from the lore of core strengthening exercises, lie face-down on the floor with your arms and legs extended, thumbs pointed toward the ceiling. Keeping your head neutral, exhale and lift all your limbs up a few inches and hold for up to 30 seconds. Lower, rest a beat, then repeat 2 to 3 more times. Aim to lift higher with each repetition.
Hollow Body Hold
Lie face-up with your legs together, arms along your sides, and press your lower back into the floor to engage your abs. Hold that pelvic position as you lift your legs a few inches off the floor, then raise your head, shoulders, and upper back off the ground, reaching your hands for your heels. Hold and breathe for 20 to 30 seconds, then lower to the start. Repeat up to 3 times and progress by adding more time to each hold, or by extending your arms overhead alongside your ears to intensify the move. Add the hollow hold to your next core circuit to create a killer six pack workout.
The Obstacle: Rope Climb
Climbing up a rope is no easy task, but when you’re wet, cold, and exhausted it becomes almost unthinkable. Here, the core strengthening exercises you practice can save your arms from burnout and can propel you up the rope in seconds rather than minutes.
“The two most common rope-climbing techniques—the J-hook and the S-hook—require you to raise your knees as high as possible before locking onto the rope,” says Donoghue. To develop this kind of hip and ab strength, he recommends these moves:
Hanging Knee Raise
Hang straight from a pull-up bar with your legs together. Without using momentum, lift your knees to hip height or just above and hold briefly, then lower slowly to the start. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Lie face-up on the floor and hold onto a stable object behind you, such as the leg of a rig or squat rack, elbows bent. Lift your knees over your hips, legs bent 90 degrees, and press your lower back into the floor. Slowly lift your hips off the floor, bringing your knees toward your elbows as far as you can. Pause, then slowly lower to the start. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 slow reps. Target your lower abdominals and throw this into your next core/six-pack workout.
The Obstacle: Barbwire Crawl
Navigating the mud and rocks underneath this obstacle—which often affords racers less than a foot of headroom—is beyond challenging, especially when the traverse travels up a hill.
“One widely used strategy to conquer this obstacle is a side roll,” says Donoghue, for which he recommends a hollow body roll in both directions. As for crawling forward or ducking underneath the wire, “animal movements such as the bear and ape offer the perfect dynamic foundation to gain vital core strength.”
Hollow Body Roll
Lie on your side with your arms and legs extended and together. Contract your side body to lift your arms and legs off the floor a couple of inches and brace your core. Remain tight as you roll onto your back then onto your other side with control, contracting your opposite side body as you turn over. Continue, alternating sides, for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side.
Crouch on the floor with your hips low, hands placed flat in front of you between your feet. Reach across your body and place both hands on the ground outside your foot, then hop your feet the same direction, pivoting over your hands and landing lightly on the other side. Continue one direction for 20 yards, then go the other way for 20 yards. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
The Obstacle: Multi-Rig
When you encounter a multi-rig and you have to be able to hold on for dear life while navigating through space, stabilizing your body and controlling unnecessary movement that could result in a muddy dunking.
“This is where core anti-rotation and stabilization comes in,” says Donoghue. “These kinds of exercises keep you from twisting, turning, or bending when you don’t want to.”
Lie face-up on the floor with your knees over your hips, legs bent 90 degrees, and your arms straight up from your shoulders. Press your lower back into the floor and keep it there as you slowly lower one leg and the opposite arm toward the floor. Hold for a few breaths, then return to the start. Continue, alternating sides for a total of 20 reps. Do 2 to 3 sets. Add this movement to your next six-pack workout in order to build your core.
One-Arm Chest Press
Lie face-up on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor for stability, and hold one dumbbell straight up over your shoulder, palm facing forward. Slowly bend your elbow and lower the weight down until your arm makes a 90-degree angle or the inside head of the weight almost touches your shoulder. Press back to the top forcefully, coming to full extension without locking out. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps on each arm.