Reach the Next Level
Begin and end each workout with two sets of the plank variation you couldn't hold for 60 seconds. Hold as long as you can on each set, rest two minutes, and repeat.
Once you've mastered these variations, try an even harder version, the marching plank. Assume a standard plank position, but with your feet elevated on a bench. Bring one knee toward your chest, without shifting or moving anything else. Return that foot to the bench, and then bring the other knee toward your chest. Continue "marching" for 60 seconds.
When that's easy, try marching planks with your feet against a wall. If you can do that for 60 seconds, record it on video. You'll be a fitness sensation on YouTube.
Part Two: Core Stability + Mobility
If fitness were measured by how good people looked standing still, then competitive bodybuilders would be judged the greatest athletes on the planet. Core stability in a static position like a plank is just one step on the path toward core fitness—an important part, but hardly the only one.
Here's a tougher test: Can you maintain your core stability while also mobilizing the joints above and below your spine? The overhead squat gives you a quick way to find out. If you've seen Olympic weightlifting, you know what the overhead squat looks like. It's based on the snatch, one of the two Olympic lifts. But instead of starting with the weight on the floor, lifting it overhead, and then standing up, you start with the weight overhead and then descend into a squat, keeping your arms and torso straight.
The need for core stability is obvious; if you can't keep your torso upright, you can't perform the exercise. But you also see which joints above and below your core are too dysfunctional to allow a full range of motion.
"The overhead squat helps you identify weaknesses in your hips, knees, and ankles," says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs, which is due out in December. It's also a test of the mobility of your shoulder blades and the strength of the muscles supporting them.
As with the basic plank, you'll need a broom handle or dowel for this test, the overhead squat. Stand in front of a mirror with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the dowel straight above your shoulders with your hands wide (about 11/2 times shoulder width) and your elbows locked. Push your hips back and lower yourself into a squat as you keep the dowel directly above your head, your knees over your toes, and your heels on the floor. Go down as far as you can without changing the position of your lower back, leaning forward, pulling your knees inward, or rising up on your toes. A word to the wise: This test is much harder to complete with perfect form than you think, so don't take it lightly.
Below average You can't bend your knees 90 degrees without leaning forward
Average You can bend your knees more than 90 degrees, but only if your heels come off the floor
Above average You can do a full squat (top of your thighs parallel to the floor) with your heels on the floor and without leaning forward
MH Fit You can perform a perfect overhead squat with a 45-pound Olympic barbell
Reach the Next Level
The test involves moving into the bottom position. But to improve, you need to do the exercise, which means going down into that position and then back up again. Do overhead squats as part of your warmup before each workout. First, work on range of motion with perfect form, trying to go lower each week while keeping your heels on the floor, knees over your toes, and the rod or bar straight over your shoulders. Try for one or two sets of 10 reps. Once you master the form, start adding weight in 10-pound increments.
While you're perfecting your overhead squat, Cosgrove also suggests adding two stability-building core exercises to your program: kneeling lifts and chops. The lifts target your core from the bottom up, while the chops target it from the top down. This combination will strengthen your core, giving you the foundation to improve in all other exercises.
The Power Broker
Josh Koscheck, 32
One round of a UFC bout can zoom by in a violent blur of kicks, punches, and slams. But for the fighter in the octagon, those are the longest five minutes on earth, especially if he's on the carotid-compressing end of a blood choke. Mixed martial arts demands a high-octane blend of strength, speed, agility, power, and stamina. To forge that kind of fitness, Josh Koscheck, emphasizes whole-body exercises that bump up his heart rate to 180 beats a minute. "I need power even when I'm exhausted," says Koscheck, a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who was an NCAA wrestling champion at 174 pounds. "I push my muscles to fatigue, and then bang out more reps." Koscheck sharpens his fighting for four hours a day, but his workout revolves around six 6-minute power circuits. He may do 12 bench presses, 30 seconds of box jumps, 10 single-arm rows per side, 20 sledgehammer tire slams, 60 seconds of battling rope waves, and 60 seconds of running on a treadmill set at a 9 percent incline. Then he'll push a weighted sled for 50 feet...and then rest for 60 seconds. He repeats that five times. "I work out at maximum intensity because that's how it is in a fight. Any weaknesses will be exposed."