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Lou Schuler: The ‘New Rules’ for sculpting abs

The New Rules

Posted: January 20, 2011 8:20 p.m.
Updated: January 21, 2011 4:55 a.m.

“The New Rules of Lifting for Abs” by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove was released in 2010 and focuses on core exercise training rather than traditional crunches and sit ups.

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When I told a friend Alwyn Cosgrove and I were writing “The New Rules of Lifting for Abs”, the third in our “New Rules of Lifting” series, he laughed.

“Come on!” he said. “How many new rules could there possibly be?”

It took me a moment to figure out how to answer. I had to go back to the beginning to remember why Alwyn and I started the series in the first place.

It was 2004. I was fitness director of Men’s Health magazine. Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove were having great success with Results Fitness, their gym in Newhall.

For years, Alwyn had been my go-to source for great fitness tips, showing readers how to work out more successfully and efficiently.

What I liked most about working with Alwyn — other than the fact he could come up with so many interesting exercises and tips on such short notice — is that he freely admitted being a synthesizer of fitness information, rather than an inventor. He was certified by every fitness organization I’d heard of (and a few I hadn’t), and traveled the world to speak at many of their conferences and seminars.

He approached his field with an open mind. If someone had a better idea, he didn’t try to defend his own. He found a way to work the better idea into the programs he and Rachel put together for their clients.

Over time, I was struck by how different Alwyn’s methods were from what typical men were doing in typical health clubs.

While guys were still grinding out set after set of muscle-isolating exercises for their biceps, triceps, pecs, lats and deltoids, Alwyn used compound exercises almost exclusively, incorporating as many muscles as possible in each movement.

He combined exercises in ways that maximized the amount of work you could accomplish in each part of your workout.

Everyone who did his programs the way he designed them got leaner, simply because the workouts were so challenging and metabolically costly.

When you use more muscle in every movement, you burn more calories every minute you’re in the gym.

When we realized that the most innovative and effective workout methods weren’t widely used by people in gyms, we decided to write the original “New Rules of Lifting,” which came out five years ago.

Those rules included some basic ideas that are universally accepted today: “Exercises that use lots of muscle in coordinated action are better than those that force muscles to work in isolation”; “To build size, you must build strength”; “There is no magic system of exercises, sets and reps.”

But this was news to almost everyone working out in gyms.

As soon as the book came out, we began to get two kinds of feedback. Men told us they’d been working out for years, but never really got results until they started doing Alwyn’s programs. And women said, “Where’s ours?”

We hadn’t meant to leave women out. We just assumed that women wouldn’t want to have anything to do with the type of training we recommended.

Almost every woman I’d ever seen in a weight room had been doing circuits of high-repetition exercises with the lightest weights in the gym.

Alwyn and I both knew that there was no physiological reason for women to lift differently than men.

And Rachel knew this better than either of us.

I remember the first time I visited them at Results Fitness. When I walked in the door, the first thing I saw was Rachel and another female trainer doing a clean-and-press exercise, a variation on the lifts contested in the Olympics.

She and the trainer were smiling and joking around between lifts, but the weight on the bar was more than most men I know would attempt to lift.

So there were plenty of new rules to fill “The New Rules of Lifting for Women,” which came out in January 2008.

They all revolved around our big idea, which is that women will still look like women if they lift like men. They’ll just be better-looking women, with shapelier shoulders and tighter, rounder glutes.

The book was well-received, and neither Alwyn nor I had any immediate plans to add to our series. If it hadn’t been for my injuries in 2008 and 2009, we might’ve left it at two books.

The injuries — a sore shoulder, a tweaked knee and a small but persistent hernia — forced me to change the way I worked out.

Instead of a brief warm-up, followed by 40 to 50 minutes of lifting, I spent the first 10 minutes of each workout working on mobility in an attempt to restore the full range of motion to my shoulders and hips.

Then I spent the next 10 minutes on core training, working all the muscles in my abdomen and hips to shore up the tissues surrounding the area that had herniated.

Only then did I cross over into the weight room and lift.

When I did, my injuries forced me to compromise. I couldn’t lift hard and heavy like I did before the injuries. Instead, I had to lift smarter and more strategically.

This new way of working out produced a wholly unexpected result. I got lighter, leaner and faster.

At age 52, I played baseball in a senior league, the first time I’d played on a team since I was 12. I wasn’t very good, but I didn’t embarrass myself; for the first time in my adult life, I actually looked and moved like an athlete.

That led to my second big surprise: When I told Alwyn about how my injuries had forced me to change the way I worked out, and how the new workouts had completely changed the way my body looked and felt, he told me that he and Rachel had actually been training their clients that way for years.

The emphasis on core training was the linchpin of the new system.

I had always done core exercises, but I’d never trained my mid-body muscles in a systematic, progressive way, with the goal of developing the strength and endurance necessary to stabilize my spine and keep it in a safe, neutral position no matter what challenges I gave it.

To make core training work, we had to start the program with mobility exercises. Fully mobile joints above and below the lumbar area, Alwyn explained, allow the core muscles to do their job in preventing unwanted movements in the lower back and pelvis.

That program is at the heart of “The New Rules of Lifting for Abs.”

The rules are mostly based on research that’s been published in the past several years: “The most important role of the abdominal muscles is to protect your spine”; “You can’t protect your spine by doing exercises that damage it”; “Your spine is already flexed (from too much sitting and hunching), and flexing it more (by doing crunches) just makes it worse.”

Instead of crunches, Alwyn’s new programs start with stabilizing exercises, such as planks and side planks.

The goal of all those exercises is to force your core muscles to develop the strength and endurance to hold your body in increasingly difficult positions.

Let’s start with the basic plank. You get into a modified pushup position and hold it for up to 90 seconds.

When that’s easy, you make it harder by lifting a leg, an arm or one of each — right leg and left arm, followed by left leg and right arm.

When that’s easy, you can elevate your foot or place your feet or hands on an unstable surface, or combine the challenges, such as the Swiss-ball plank with feet elevated and one leg raised.

You can make these exercises infinitely harder as you develop core strength and endurance.

You’re only limited by your imagination. But that’s only the first phase of Alwyn’s program.

In phase two, you develop dynamic stability, meaning you learn to stabilize your core while one or two limbs are in motion. For an exercise called the push-away, start in the pushup position with your hands on something that can slide across whatever surface you’re on. Slide one arm out in front of the other, pull it back and then slide out with the other.

Phase three develops integrated stability, in which you stabilize your core when you have lots of moving parts. For the alligator drag, start in the pushup position with your feet on Valslides, then walk with your hands at least 10 yards.
Turn around and do the same on the way back.

By the time you finish the program, you’ll not only have a strong, stable core, you’ll look and feel more like an athlete.

You don’t need any new rules to understand why that’s a worthy goal. 

Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and author or co-author of many popular books about strength training and nutrition. His newest is The New Rules of Lifting for Abs, with Alwyn Cosgrove (Avery, 2010).

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