I’m knee-deep into a scene right out of X-Men: Mutant Muscle. Jon Jones, the 6'4", 205-pound UFC light-heavyweight champion, is playing the Vise. (Learn more about UFC champ Jon Jones) I'm cast as Mediocre Man. The Vise is sitting across from me with his legs outstretched, corralling mine. A 10-second battle of leg strength commences. My core is braced, my hip and thigh muscles tensed. I'm trying to prevent the Vise from using his trunks to squeeze my twigs shut. It's futile. After 4 seconds, I'm smoked. We repeat this twice and then switch. I try without success to squeeze his legs shut.
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Next, the Vise passes me off to his coach, Phil Nurse, 49, a former European kickboxing champ known as Kru. (That's "teacher" in Thai.) In this scene I am again the victim, this time of an assault on my undertrained core. Kru is standing, his knees slightly bent. I'm inverted, my legs wrapped around Kru's torso. Kru is smiling and counting—slowly—as I do situps. I eke out three before my thrusters flame out.
I'm enduring these indignities at the Wat gym in Manhattan to learn how an elite mixed martial arts fighter strengthens his core. The house specialty is muay Thai—the art of eight limbs. This technique harnesses the striking ability of hands, feet, knees, and forearms (do the math later). All the attacks demand core strength; your hips and abs power knees, kicks, and upper-body strikes—and that's just on offense. On defense, a strong core is even more critical for withstanding punches and kicks and providing stability while grappling.
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"The more tired a guy becomes, the more you see his kicks and knees weaken," Jones says. "Kru's training makes me explosive from my core, no matter how long a fight lasts." I'm expecting Kru to pull out a bamboo rod and smash it on Jones's eight-pack, but instead he grabs some pads and starts to play patty-cake. "I do use some unconventional techniques," Kru says. "It's a combination of old-school muay Thai I learned in Thailand and new drills I created." Kru's East-West alchemy, forged over 30 years, maximizes power and endurance. It's potent stuff. Along with Jones, UFC champion Georges St-Pierre and former champ Frankie Edgar make pilgrimages to the Wat to feel Kru's burn. (To find out what it takes to be a UFC Champion, check out Georges St-Pierre’s Workout.)
Impressive, right? But let's say you have no interest in trading knees and elbows at close range. I'm with you, especially considering what I went through at the Wat. Still, who doesn't want a rock-hard core and hips that are powerful and mobile, not to mention the mutant ability to feel stronger as your workout progresses? Read on for the strength and fitness tips I picked up at the Wat to help guys like you reach your goals. No combat required.
Find your threshold
A fight doesn't end when one guy does 12 kicks or 12 punches. Combat sports are ruled by the clock. That's why you don't count reps or sets at the Wat. Instead, you exercise in 3-or 5-minute intervals to simulate rounds in a fight. "The goal is sustained intensity over time," Kru tells me. It's brutally efficient. Time-based training forces you to go as hard as you can for as long as you can and to find your own maximum work rate. You learn to pace yourself—fast.