The Workout I’ll Do for Life

m0317_hf_core_d-6a5daf20-8ae3-4d20-8967-76393a3ce05d
 Photograph by Karan Kapoor

Today is not a legs day, a chest day, or an arms-and-back day. And it’s definitely not an abs day. In fact, it’s never an abs day. Today, like every day I go to the gym, is for a workout with no isolated target and no easily discernible goal. These days the question “What do you do at the gym?” requires an explanation so complex that it’s simple: “I’m just working on my core.” Sure, my shoulders and forearms, chest, and legs flourish in the process, but my target is the core — that crucial chain of muscles that runs from the hip adductors deep inside the inner thighs to the trapezius that climbs the upper back and neck. Core training is the key to a strong, durable body. Or so I’m told, which is why I’ve devoted three days a week for the past three months to doing a version of this workout. But why stop at durability? It’s invincibility I’m gunning for: No wobbling. No imbalances. No injuries. And for a long, long time to come.

Rest assured, I didn’t come up with this myself. In the not-so-distant past I labored, as maybe you have, on bench presses and curls and flyes, the singularly focused form of strength training that worships at the altar of size and targets vanity first. But then Mike saved me from all that. Mike Ryan is what Equinox gyms call a Tier X coach, a seriously qualified and knowledgeable instructor who walks like a martial artist and talks like a physician. Mike has me on a regimen that is useful to anyone envisioning a future in which he’ll want to walk, climb stairs, put on pants, and bathe himself, and also squat and lift and do the occasional box jump. All of which are easier with a beast of a core.

Mike mandates that we start every workout with foam-rolling the trunk — hamstrings, quads, glutes, lats. (The case for this is well-documented and ironclad, so trust me: A muscle that’s loose and ready to fire is a muscle that’s going to get stronger, faster.) Then we do a light dynamic warm-up — pushups, lunges, bear crawls — to get muscles talking to one another and ready to work.

The routine itself is more intelligent than it is macho. I never “crush” anything or push myself to total failure. (At least three of you just tossed this magazine in the trash and questioned the color of my panties. So be it.) “We’re not annihilating, we’re stimulating,” says Mike. “The workout takes you to a threshold, but you’re walking away when you feel like you could keep going. We want something you can sustain for the rest of your life.”

This means basic, compound movements that never isolate one specific muscle. Training the core means targeting a whole chain of muscles that work together: A strict overhead press is a chance to stabilize my torso and press my feet into the floor to push the barbell up. A carry (no matter how I do it, and I do a lot of them — with a kettlebell by my side, overhead, at my chest) is just a walking plank, a chance to lock in my postural stability. Pull­ups are powered more by my pelvic floor and lats than brute arm strength. While I move, Mike ticks off a laundry list of the planes of human motion and multijoint actions that I’m working through — horizontal push and pull, vertical push and pull, keeping my trunk tight to resist lateral movement — but it’s easier to say that now I can move weight powerfully in every direction a human body should be able to, and stay stable doing so. All that without a single reverse biceps curl.

After these sessions, I feel mildly spent and invigorated, relaxed and recharged. And because I’m not pummeling my body, I’m never so sore I have to skip the next workout, either. The aesthetic results aren’t as startling as the photo you see here (though obviously he’s found the time to hit the core). I’m not busting out of my sweater or ripped and ropy like an MMA fighter starving down a weight class, but there is muscle amassing and making itself known. And the gains I’ve made are the kind you can imagine lasting a while: I put on five pounds of lean mass while losing four pounds of fat, bringing my quite typical body fat percentage from 16.3 to 14.5. And that improved ratio is just enough to hack my metabolism, helping my body to process sugar more efficiently (which may be why I’m eating more than I probably should and remaining relatively lean). I’ve built something solid in there, and I can feel its worth on the pull­up bar, where my reps have doubled, and at the kettlebell station. But also in smaller, less remarkable moments — while easily scrambling down a rocky trail, balancing on ice skates, or hauling overloaded grocery bags in a double-suitcase carry with my chest open, glutes engaged, and abs, naturally, fired. It is a core day, after all.