A handful of exercises fit this bill, and they’ve been described here before:
The 2017 inductee to this short list is the “Diagonal Chop.” It is, to date, the best running-specific, deep-abdominal activator.
The Diagonal Chop
A reverse crunch is less common–but arguably more running-specific. This exercise works on an upward curl of the pelvis (and with it, the legs) toward the head, while the upper trunk and arms stay flat and motionless. The utility of the reverse crunch is that it is running-specific: we want the abdominals to help facilitate the upward and forward knee and hip drive while running.
The Diagonal Chop combines these two exercises into one. In doing so, it uses a neurological phenomenon called irradiation to improve deep abdominal muscle activation. Irradiation occurs when you use a stronger, more active muscle to ‘wake up’ an adjacent muscle. This is what happens with the combined crunches in the Diagonal Chop.
And that’s it. The Diagonal Chop, using the upper-body motion common in a crunch, then takes running specific elements of rotation, hip flexion, and pelvic elevation into the best three-dimensional abdominal activator out there.
The central benefit of the Diagonal Chop is deep abdominal activation. By definition, activation occurs when we can consciously ‘feel the burn’ of a particular muscle group. This is a motor-control phenomenon necessary for the brain to rapidly and easily access that muscle group.
The specific group we wish to activate includes a muscle called the transverse abdominus, thought of as the most important deep (beneath the main mover) abdominal in the body. The transverse abs both hold the spine and pelvis firmly in place, when necessary, but also help to actively elevate the pelvis. When the abs help the pelvis elevate, it makes the knee and hip lift much easier and more powerfully.
The alternative to deep core activation is compensation, or worse, disuse. Failure to adequately activate the deep core muscles typically results in the body trying to use non-endurance, non-stabilizing muscles for the task. Examples of compensatory trunk stabilizing muscles include the rectus abdominus (the ‘six-pack muscle’) and the psoas (which ideally works in combination with the deep core to flex the hip). In short, compensatory-muscle recruitment results in decreased power, endurance, and overall efficiency. This is obviously not a good combination.
Like Short and Long does for the glutes, the Diagonal Chop is a crucial activator for the abdominals. Once activated, the whole system works better, including:
When and How
The Diagonal Chop is a powerful activator that is best done pre-run, to ensure the abdominals are awake and ready to fire. Additionally, the Diagonal Chop is a good starter for any other core or strength routine. Once ‘awake,’ most conventional ab exercises–including sit-ups, bicycles, and planks–are more effective (stronger, more burn).
In fact, the Diagonal Chop was so effective when used with our high-school track team that most kids would perform it on their own, immediately pre-race, as a clutch performance enhancer. As few as five repetitions per side–feeling a strong, widespread burn–is enough to get things firing and make a huge impact on the speed, strength, and economy of your run!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Okay, it’s time to try the Diagonal Chop. Go ahead and do it, and then report back here in the comments section with your thoughts on it! Thanks.
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Joe Uhan writes about the hip-hinge position for efficient running.