Pillar of Fitness

Toughen your midsection, and hardy arms and legs are sure to follow

Every summer, Ma Nature issues her orders: Hit the waves, follow the trail. Heed the call and you'll be rewarded with strong limbs and spacious lungs. Given summer's inherently high level of activity, you might be tempted to think of the season as one big excuse to skip your sit-ups. Big mistake. The most important part of your body is your lower trunk, and it can always use some extra attention.

Experts who preach that "your trunk is your core" are as common as infomercial ab machines. But what often gets glossed over is that a healthy trunk means more than a corrugated tummy. A strong center section is made up of equally strong lower back and abdominal muscles, and it depends on sturdy hips for support. Bolstering these elements provides a trim and stable base from which your limbs can work, thus affecting virtually everything you do. The torso is also where the body twists and bends, obviously, and so requires stretching. And if performing as spectacularly as beach volleyball pro Holly McPeak while flashing a similarly chiseled midriff isn't incentive enough, consider: A strong trunk makes you far less prone to back injuries. No small perk, considering that 70 percent of Americans experience back pain.

To most effectively strengthen and stretch your torso, break it down into isolated sections — lower back, stomach, hips — and take up this regular if brief routine. Sure, it'll require hitting the exercise mat and doing crunches, among other things, but you'll relish the benefits. Here's the lowdown on how to tune up the various sections of your torso.

 

Prescriptions
Order Up: A Shot of Creatine with a Carbo Chaser, Please

Unlike supplements that smack of snake-oil claims, creatine has long been accepted by both the medical community and elite athletes as a legitimate way to boost performance. Consumed properly, the naturally occurring amino acid will indeed help recharge your muscles' waning fuel stores, thus boosting your energy during sprints and other bursts of anaerobic activities. Usually. Problem is, while there's proof positive that creatine can be effective, it doesn't work for everybody, and even if it does for you, you can't always count on it.

Nevertheless, there may be a more reliable way to harness creatine's benefits. A recent study of two dozen men at Queen's Medical Center in Nottingham, England, found that taking creatine supplements with carbohydrate drinks or plain-old sugar water increases its absorption by up to 60 percent. The lab coats haven't quite sorted out what's going on inside — British researchers suspect higher insulin levels are to thank — but one thing appears likely: Chase your creatine with carbos and you'll be all the faster for it.

As always with creatine, it's most effective when limited to use until just before an event. The prescription for recreational athletes is to take 20 grams a day for the five days before a race or tough training day, dissolving each dose in an eight-ounce glass of a carbo drink such as Gatorade or even orange juice — the beverage of choice for the participants of the study. Still, it's not inexpensive (about $60 for a three-month supply) and its long-term effects are as yet unknown — both good reasons for holding off on the stuff unless competition calls.

— Sarah Bowen Shea

Lower Back

Bring Back the Jack

Mike Teti, coach of the U.S. men's rowing team, has become something of a reluctant expert on backs. A 12-year national-team rower, Teti competed in three Olympics — and was suffering with herniated discs during two of the Games. "Your lower back acts as a lever in rowing, transferring the force generated by the legs up to the arms," Teti says. "Rowing improperly or training too hard can easily hurt your back." Recently, though, Teti's lower back has remained trouble free, thanks to a simple stretching and strengthening program he developed with team physicians. Teti and his rowers do the following four exercises before and after every water workout.

 

Arm and Leg Salute
Strengthens back extensors. Start on all fours, your back flat and your head in line with your spine. Lift your right arm and left leg simultaneously until they're straightened and parallel to the floor. Hold for five seconds, then lower. After one set, repeat with opposite limbs.

Back Extension
Strengthens back extensors. Position yourself on a hyperextension bench with your lower abdomen against the pad so that your torso can hang down freely. Arms folded across your chest, raise your upper body until your back is in line with your legs — and, contrary to the bench's name, no further. Hold for five seconds and lower slowly, keeping your back plank-straight all the while.

Knee Tuck
Strengthens back extensors, hip flexors. Lie on your back with your legs extended. Lifting your neck slightly, grasp your left knee with your hands and pull it tightly to your chest. Hold for 15 seconds and lower to starting position. Repeat with other leg. Finally, hug both knees to your chest and hold for 15 seconds.

Pelvic Rotation
Strengthens back extensors. Starting on all fours with your back flat, tighten your abdominal and gluteal muscles. Slowly arch your back like a cat, tuck your tailbone under, and drop your head. Then let your back slowly sag toward the floor, below the starting position, rotating your tailbone the other direction. Return to the neutral position between reps.


Stomach

"Your abs are the center of your explosiveness," says perennially top-ranked McPeak, which might explain exactly why she raps out as many as, oh, 1,500 various crunches a night — with no rest between different sets. For good measure, she supplements this cheery regimen with three grueling weight and gym-equipment workouts a week. Why the seeming overkill? To hit all of her abdominal muscles, from every angle. "In my sport, there's a lot of twisting and diving," McPeak says, "so you need strength on your sides, as well as the middle of your stomach." McPeak recommends the following exercises to strengthen your entire abdominal region. Her only caveat: Pay close attention to technique. "If you do 1,500 crunches but don't do them right," she asks, "what's the point?

Two-Count Crunch
Strengthens rectus abdominus. Lie on your back, feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. Cup your hands behind your head, point your elbows to the sides, and press the small of your back against the floor. Now, contract your stomach muscles and keep them tight throughout the exercise. On one, raise your head, neck, and shoulders — be sure not to help with your hands. On two, lift your shoulder blades entirely off the floor. Lower halfway on one and to the floor on two.

Side Crunch
Strengthens obliques. Start in a two-count crunch position, but with your knees swiveled to the right side and resting together on the floor. Raise your head, neck, and shoulders, coming up over the left oblique muscle — just under your ribs on the side — then lower slowly. You'll be lucky to lift six inches even at full strength. After one set, switch sides and repeat.

Weight Crunch
Strengthens rectus abdominus. Position yourself for a two-count crunch, but grasp a light weight plate in both hands and extend your arms above your chest. Now raise your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor as far as you can, pushing the weight toward the ceiling. Return to the floor. Start with no more than five pounds.

Ab-Strap Knee Lift
Strengthens lower rectus abdominus. Using a pull-up bar equipped with ab straps, position the straps under your armpits and hang with your legs straight. Without swinging, slowly lift your knees toward your chest as high as you can. Then, if possible — and this is pleasant — give your stomach muscles a quick flex before slowly lowering your legs to the starting position.



Photograph by David Roth

Hips

To see how hard your hips work, says Robert King, a personal trainer at the Vail Athletic Club, hop on a bike with clipless pedals. As you lift your leg, it's your hip flexors that start the motion and your hip extensors that finish it off. Aside from serving as a base for your trunk, your hips initiate lateral rotation, which means they need to be sturdy and flexible if you desire to hunker down over the nose of a longboard or some such thing. They're important enough, in any case, that King designed a workout just for them using the following exercises. Add ankle weights if the strength exercises are too easy, but try them without weights first.

 

Leg Raises
Strengthens hip flexors, quadriceps. Sit upright on the floor, right leg extended in front of you, foot flexed; hug your left knee to your chest, keeping that foot flat on the floor. Now, holding your back erect, lift your right leg a few inches off the floor, and then lower. After a full set, repeat with opposite leg.

Side Leg Raises
Strengthens hip flexors, extensors, abductors. Lie on your left side with your body straight and your head resting on your arm. Lift your right leg sideways toward the ceiling; as you lower it, twist your leg so that your right toes touch the floor in front of your left foot. Raise it again, and then lower it so your right heel touches behind your left foot. After a full set, switch sides and repeat.

Scissors
Strengthens adductors, abdominals. Lie on your back, legs together and pointing toward the ceiling, and position your hands, palms down, under your hips for support. Keeping your back against the floor, as with crunches, slowly open your legs and lower them toward the floor. Scissor your legs back together.

Hip Flexor Stretch
Stretches hip flexors, abductors. Lie on your back, with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Cross your left ankle in front of your right knee. Clasp your hands behind your right knee and gently pull it toward you, using it as a lever to stretch your left hip. Be sure to keep your right leg bent. Hold for 45 seconds. Repeat on other side.

Alternatives

One-Up on Sit-Ups

If crunches make you cringe, consider the Pilates Method to strengthen your trunk. Unlike conventional workouts, reverence for the torso is the very cornerstone of this elaborate system of exercise. "Most programs work from the extremities in," says Carol Appel, a certified instructor in San Francisco. "With Pilates, you focus on developing the abdominals and back first, and then work your way out to the limbs." The full-body technique comprises some 500 precise "movements" using a mat or one of four unique pieces of equipment — including the spooky-sounding reformer (shown above), a contraption whose leather straps and pulleys give it an alarming resemblance to something Torquemada might have employed — to strengthen your muscles through variable resistance. The movements emphasize controlled breathing and require great focus to perfect, which may explain why Pilates disciples are so uptight about how you practice the method. They'll insist that you need a one-on-one session with a certified instructor, about $45 an hour, to work that Pilates magic (call 800-474-5283 for information). But we see no harm in trying the following mat movement at home. Lie on the floor, feet flat directly beneath your knees. Bridge your pelvis off the floor, hold your hips with your hands and place your elbows on the floor. Your ribs, hips, and knees should be in line, your shoulders on the floor. Now inhale and lift one leg, straighten it toward the ceiling, and point your toe. As you exhale slowly, flex your foot and lower your leg to the starting position. Do three reps and repeat with other leg.

 

Basics­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­
Bring Back the Jack

The last time you did jumping jacks was probably in preparation for a rousing game of sixth-grade kickball. Since then, the jack has been outshone by trendier maneuvers, but it remains damn fine exercise. "It's one of those fundamental movements that benefits the everyday athlete," says Radu, New York City's fitness guru for the well-to-do. "It has great cardiovascular results, yet it strengthens the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles..." And so on.
Here's a refresher of your grammar-school form: Arms at your sides and feet together, simultaneously jump your feet out to a stance just wider than your shoulders and bring your palms together above your head. Be sure to stay on the balls of your feet and bend your knees slightly. Jump back to the starting position. For a warm-up, do 40 reps with no rest. For a quick, stand-alone workout, do three sets of 50 to 100 reps. To stave off jumping-jack ennui, widen your stance or scissor your legs forward.

— Daryn Eller

Logistics

Trunk work should complement your existing regimen, so to include it simply divide the exercises laid out on these pages into two workouts. On mat days, you'll do crunches without weights, and stretches — it'll take ten minutes. On gym days, you'll do all of these exercises. They'll take 25 minutes with a short aerobic warm-up. Alternate the two workouts for six consecutive days, and then take one day of rest.

BACK

Mat Day

Do one set of ten pelvic rotations as well as right and left knee tucks. Then do one set of five knee tucks with both legs.

Gym Day

In addition to the stretches, do one set of ten arm and leg salutes, and one set of five back extensions (build to three sets of ten for each exercise).


STOMACH

Mat Day
Do one set of 30 two-count crunches as well as both right and left side crunches (build to three sets of 30 for each exercise).

Gym Day

In addition to the two crunches, do one set of 20 weight crunches and one set of ten ab strap knee-lifts (build to three sets of 30), resting one minute between sets.
 


HIPS


Mat Day
Do one hip flexor stretch on each side.

Gym Day

In addition to the stretch, do one set of 15 leg raises, side leg raises, and scissors (build to one set of 45 for each exercise).

NIA, the Best of Both Hemispheres

Trends

Any western athlete who's sought a little Eastern inspiration to ratchet up his sports performance understands this: Martial arts can teach body awareness, but they're tough. Rookies to Far East disciplines might try starting with a neuromuscular integrative action (NIA) class, a choreographed sampling of martial arts, yoga, dance, and more. It's being touted as the only cardiovascular workout that equally taxes mind and muscles — without candles, chanting, or the droning of a sitar.

Designed to improve balance, coordination, and flexibility, an hourlong NIA class will have you striking yoga's downward facing dog pose one minute, grunting out a round of tae kwon do-inspired punches to amplified Beck riffs the next, and then gracefully segueing into a slow, shoeless shimmy. "Martial arts teach mental focus and discipline but are extremely linear and tend to work in programmed patterns," explains New York City instructor Megan MacArthur. "NIA, on the other hand, helps your body to explore all angles." By which she means that the fresh-air athlete will be more closely mirroring the real motions of outdoor sports.

NIA won't leave you huffing like a step-aerobics class — the workout goes in peaks and valleys — but it will defuse some of that workaday wired feeling. It dovetails nicely with most programs because it's low-impact, and the risk of injury is practically nil. Unless, of course, your neighbor gets carried away trying to toss off a kick-boxing move while you're deep into tai chi.

More Fitness

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Subscribe
Pinterest Icon