Hard Core

The newest trend in fitness focuses on “core conditioning”—training the muscle groups
in the trunk of your body to make you sculpted, stronger, more flexible and, ultimately,
healthier. Here, ET provides an exercise starter kit for your own core training program.

By Stephen Hanks

June 2006

In last July’s first-ever Energy Times Men’s Health Issue, our Personal Trainer department advised guys with ballooning beer bellies on how to start trimming the fat. After all, when carrying excessive body lard—especially around the midsection—can lead to health woes such as type 2 diabetes or even heart problems, it behooves men to embark on at least a beginner’s program of cardiovascular and weight-training exercises. Since we’re confident that ET is your health and nutrition bible, we’re sure you took all of the advice in “Time For a Gut Check” to heart and you’ve gotten yourself into pretty good shape. Now it’s time to move to the next level.

The latest—and in our opinion most sensible—trend on the fitness scene is “core conditioning.” What and where is the core? It’s not just your abdominal muscles (the proverbial “six pack”) or your lower back, but the trunk of your body—defined as everything except for your arms, legs and head. According to Patrick S. Hagerman, EdD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Core Conditioning Illustrated (Alpha/Penguin) the core “is what allows you to move. It’s the part of your body to which everything is attached and from which every movement is controlled. No matter what you are doing—sitting in a chair, pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, playing with your kids or throwing a ball—your core muscles are involved.”

Since most core conditioning exercises (and there are more than 100, combining beginner and advanced routines) involve stretching, repetitive sets and the use of either your own body weight, stability balls (as you can see in the exercises here) or light medicine balls, core training is like cardiovascular exercise and weight training combined. Hagerman says that core conditioning “is about working those muscles that can improve your weight-training workout.” But unlike with weight training “you won’t necessarily see the results of core training in the mirror because most of the muscles you use are deep inside the body and are covered by other bigger muscles.” Think about it—what would you give to strengthen and eliminate the pain in those lower back or hip muscles you can never really pinpoint?

We want to help get your back and your hips and your glutes and your abs—and your whole body—in great shape, so here we offer a few basic core conditioning exercises to get you going. We bet that after a few weeks of doing these routines you’ll be feeling healthy all the way to your core.


DOUBLE CRUNCH

No, it’s not a new protein shake flavor, it’s a combination of an ab crunch and a reverse crunch, and it works both the upper and lower abdominal muscles. It’s also a good exercise for the lower back because the back will maintain your balance when your shoulders and hips leave the floor.

1. Lie down on your back and put your arms straight up in the air. Bring your legs straight up in the air without lifting your hips off the floor and keep the bottom of your feet parallel to the ceiling. Take a breath.

2. As you exhale, point to your feet, roll your shoulder blades up off the floor and roll your hips to lift your butt off the floor. Crunch from both ends by pushing your feet toward the ceiling and trying to touch your toes with your hands. Only your lower and middle back should be touching the floor. Slowly unroll to the starting position and repeat the crunch for at least 40 reps or until you’re gassed.

SIDE BRIDGE

This exercise benefits the abs, lower and upper back muscles, glutes, (butt) and hips. The shoulders also get plenty of work, but don’t use your arms and shoulders to lift yourself up. The glutes and hips should do the work.

1. Lie on the floor on your side, one leg on top of the other. Extend one arm, placing the hand on the mat but as close to the body as feels comfortable. Extend the other arm parallel to the floor or just rest it on your hip.

2. Lift your hips off the floor until your body is in a straight line. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Relax back to the floor, then switch to the other side, alternating until you have done three sets on each side.

FLYING SUPERMAN

This exercise would probably be more pleasant if you were in the air with Lois Lane at your side. It balances the strength of the abdominal muscles and hip flexors, stretches the back and glute muscles and helps your posture.

1. Lie face down on the floor on either
an exercise mat or a soft surface and stretch your arms out over your head.

2. Using your back and glutes for lift, raise your head, arms, shoulders and legs off the floor as high as possible, keeping your legs straight and toes pointed out. Hold the position for at least 30 seconds (up to 60 if you can handle it), then relax back to the floor for about 10-15 seconds before the next repetition. Try to do at least 5 reps and stop if your back muscles feel like they’re starting to cramp up.

INCLINED SUPERMAN

After a few weeks doing this stability ball-based version of the Flying Superman, you may start feeling like “the Man of Steel.” This exercise improves posture while stabilizing muscles of the posterior, upper and lower back, and the shoulders.

1. With your legs straight out, anchor your feet with your toes on the floor and heels against the base of a wall. Face down on the stability ball, position your body so that the top of the ball is at your waist and your head is lower than your hips. Cross your arms at your chest. Your elbows should be close to or touching the floor. Take a breath.

2. As you exhale, roll your back up until your body is straight, while the upper legs and hips remain on the ball. Tighten your back and glute muscles until you’ve lifted your upper body as high as possible. Hold your hands out over your head for 30-60 seconds then return to the start position, rest for 10-15 seconds and repeat for three more sets.

BALL CRUNCH

This variation of the old situp-type crunch utilizes more of the core muscles because it’s tougher to maintain body stability on a ball than on a floor. During this crunch, your hip and glute muscles are working to keep you on top of the ball and you’re using a wider range of motion.

1. Sit on top of a stability ball that is right for your height (5’-1” to 5’-6” use a 55-cm ball, 5’-7” and taller use a 65-cm ball) and keep your feet in front of you. Slowly walk your feet out from the ball (shoulder-width apart) and lie back until the top of the ball is in the curve of your lower back. Cross your arms at your chest. Take a breath.

2. As you exhale, slowly roll your head, shoulders and chest up off the ball until only your lower back is touching the ball. Lower yourself to the starting point and do three sets of 20-30 reps each. Rest 10-15 seconds between sets.

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