True Core Fitness

True Core Fitness

Certified strength and conditioning specialist and writer Lou Schuler shares an excerpt from his new book The New Rules of Lifting for Abs.

My body was falling apart in the fall of 2008. I had a jacked-up shoulder, a hernia, and a knee injury, all on the right side. At times I could barely walk, much less lift—a very strange circumstance for a guy who writes about fitness for a living.

Around that time I was working with my friend Nick Tumminello, a trainer and owner of Performance University International, a strength and conditioning company. He and I wrote an article about testing core strength. One of the tests was based on the sit-up, using four levels of difficulty:

Level 1: bent-knee sit-up, arms at sides

Level 2: straight-leg sit-up, heels a few inches apart, arms straight, hands touching top of thighs

Level 3: straight-leg sit-up, heels a few inches apart, arms folded across chest

Level 4: straight-leg sit-up, heels a few inches apart, arms extended behind head

You pass each level if you can do a smooth sit-up from a dead stop—head, shoulders, hips, and heels touching the floor—without twisting or raising a leg.

I was happy to pass Level 3, given the mess I’d become, and given the fact that I hardly ever did any sit-ups or crunches in my workouts. Interestingly, a mutual friend of ours, a competitive bodybuilder, couldn’t pass Level 2 without one leg coming off the floor.

I didn’t give the test much thought until recently. My big goal was to rebuild my beat-to-hell body. For that I needed to focus on core fitness, which I did, and which worked even better than I had hoped. I explained what I was doing to world-renowned trainer Alwyn Cosgrove, owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. I learned, to my surprise, that he had come to the same conclusion years before, which changed the way he trained his clients.

That new training paradigm—one that combines joint mobility, core fitness, and overall conditioning with traditional strength training—was the basis of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs, the book I wrote with Cosgrove that is now out in paperback.

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.

Promoting the new by burying the old

By the time NROL for Abs hit bookstores in January 2011, my rebuilding project was more or less complete. Thanks to a combination of mobility work, core training, and good old-fashioned lifting (along with surgery to repair my hernia), I felt better than I had in years, and looked okay by my own standards. (I won’t pretend I’m the best judge of that.)

I had forgotten about those tests of core strength that I described at the beginning. But when the subject came up recently, I decided to give them another shot. It had been at least three years since I’d done my last sit-up.

I got down on the floor, with my legs straight, heels close together, arms extended overhead. My goal: a single sit-up without twisting, jerking, or lifting a leg off the floor. It was so easy I stopped to double-check the article to make sure I was doing it correctly.

I was.

Back down on the floor, I knocked out 10, and probably could’ve done more. The results, I’ll admit, surprised me. Three years’ worth of stability-focused exercises had not only helped me get back qualities I’d lost to injuries, they had improved my ability to do sit-ups, a quality I wasn’t deliberately training.

That is the strongest argument I can make for Alwyn’s approach to core training, and for the program he created for NROL for Abs.

So tell me again why so many people are still doing crunches?

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!