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Pickleball: Improving Core Strength for Better Play



When I hear players talk about strength on the pickleball courts, the core is always one of the first things that people talk about.


This is one thing that I won’t try to shatter your world on - good core strength is definitely important for a pickleball player. However, I do want to talk exactly why core strength is so important, and how not all methods of strengthening were created equal.


When I hear most folks talk about how they go about improving their core strength, answers usually involve doing activities such as crunches, sit-ups, and planks. These are all definitely valid exercises to strengthen the core.


But are they truly the best exercises to work on if you’re trying to ramp up your pickleball game?


I would actually argue that no, they’re not. Allow me to explain why.


Did you know that when you use a muscle, you’re not engaging every single fiber that makes up that muscle at the same time? The percentage will vary depending on what you’re doing and how intensely you’re doing it, but muscles do not operate under the principle of ‘all or nothing.’


Muscles are also trained to work well under situations that are familiar to them. Think about the last time that you did a crunch. How often do you use movements that are similar to a crunch during your pickleball game? If your answer is more than zero, I’d be very curious to watch how you play. Even though both crunches and pickleball play do involve use of the core, the movements involved are very different, thus muscle fiber recruitment and engagement are going to be quite different.


Now, doing crunches will be better for your core during the game than doing absolutely nothing. However, if you want to get the most benefit for your exercise buck, it’s just not the best way to do it (they also tend not to be a great exercise for people with a history of back pain, but that’s a different soap box entirely).


So, what types of exercises will work on your core in a way that will improve your pickleball game?


In deciphering the answer to this, I’m reminded of an old catchphrase from physical therapy school: You need proximal stability for good distal mobility. In plain English, please? In essence, our core muscles are not primary power generators for our bodies. They’re considered to be stabilizers, which exist primarily to provide us with a solid foundation of control as we interact with the world around us. On the other hand, certain other areas of the body, such as the shoulders and hips, are designed to be major movers and power generators.


If a person has a weak core, the shoulders and hips, which rely on the core for control, are not going to perform nearly as well.


Envision for a moment some basic movements that you do out on the pickleball court. If you’re up at the kitchen line and are bracing yourself to receive a hit, you should feel a slight tightening of your core if you’re really focusing on it. If you rotate your torso or take a whack at a pickleball, you should notice the same things. As we move our arms and legs while playing the game, our core is constantly kicking on to provide us with much needed stability.


Out on the courts, the core does NOT engage in isolation or as a primary powerhouse, as is the case for exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, or planks.


Going by this logic, the best core strengthening exercises that you can do should be as sports-specific as possible. For the pickleball player, this means that proper exercises should incorporate activities such as torso rotations, side-to-side leg movements, backwards movements, and functional shoulder activities, just to name a few examples.


I can’t make specific blanket recommendations on exercises through this blog because every person is going to have different considerations and starting points (and…you know, liability), but there are tons of options out there that will accomplish these goals.

Okay, now that you know the types of exercises that will best improve core strength, how many repetitions should you do?


As a general rule of thumb, lower repetitions of exercises (<10) at a high resistance are good for building raw strength. High repetitions of exercise (a minimum of 20) at a lower resistance are better for building endurance and muscle control.


As you can imagine, endurance and muscle control are going to serve you best during a pickleball game, so that’s what you want.


In summary, good core strength is important for the pickleball player, but not all exercises are created equal. A good exercise should involve engaging the core along with the arms and/or legs, and the goal should be to complete high repetitions at a lower resistance to the point of fatigue (not pain).


As I mentioned above, the right program to strengthen the core may vary from one person to the next, based on a player's current or pre-existing conditions, mobility, movement habits, and starting level of strength and muscle control.


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As the owner of Serendipity Physical Therapy and Wellness, I’m an avid pickleball addict with a goal of keeping pickleball players moving at their best and injury free. I work with players for anything ranging from reducing pain or tightness, to helping with injury prevention and good technique.

If you’re new, you can check out more of my advice and content here: https://www.serendipityptw.com/blog.

If there is anything I can help you with or you have questions, please give me a call at (239) 232-8155, or send me an email at Contact@SerendipityPTW.com. I would love to see how I can help get you moving at your best!

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