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True Core Fitness

Forget ab training, strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler explains the importance of training your core.

Ab training is easy. Core training is hard.

To me, the sit-up was always kind of a stupid exercise. I couldn’t do it very well, and even in my teens it seemed to punish my lower back in an unnatural way. I switched to the crunch soon enough. It hurt less and seemed to make more sense. After all, if I wanted to develop my biceps, I did exercises that contracted the muscle. Why would the abs be any different?

But for some reason, they were different. Unlike my biceps, my abs didn’t seem to look better or feel better with repeated contractions. Same with all the other ab exercises I used to do. Side crunches, twisting crunches, reverse crunches. Hanging leg raises, Russian twists, cable crunches. By themselves, they didn’t seem to contribute to my quest to get bigger, stronger, and leaner.

Eventually, I learned that the most important role those muscles play, paradoxically, is to prevent movement. The lumbar spine has a very small range of motion when it comes to twisting or bending forward, and is easily injured when you push it to the extremes of that range.

As soon as I tried the program Alwyn created for NROL for Abs, I realized that it’s harder than the standard bunches-of-crunches approach. Not a little harder. It’s a lot harder. It wasn’t just me; countless readers confirmed my experience. A few minutes of core-stabilization exercises, done right, leaves you not just sweating, but doubting your manhood.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you can hold a plank for 60 seconds, and a side plank for 30 seconds per side. Great! That means it’s time for something more challenging. Try a plank with your forearms on a Swiss ball; 30 seconds of that is pretty tough; 60 seconds is a workout. But you’re just getting started. Now do a side plank holding a Swiss ball between your ankles, 30 seconds per side. Then repeat both exercises.

That’s just Phase One of Alwyn’s program. In the next phase you do exercises like rollouts and fallouts, in which you hold your lower back in a neutral position while moving your center of gravity away from your core. It’s the hardest type of core exercise you can do.

Contrast that with bunches of crunches. Do they get harder over time? They wouldn’t be so popular if they did. They get easier. You rarely see anyone in a gym doing ab-flexing exercises in a way that makes you think, “Damn, look at that!” More often, the guys down on the floor crunching away look like they’re just going through the motions.

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