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Solid to the Core

A push-up to side plank exercise strengthens the body's central, stabilizing muscles

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As a teenager, Katie Kiefer, wellness director at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center (3747 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, 887-5158; 5342 St. Charles Ave., 897-0143; www.nojcc.com), became "obsessed" with out-bench-pressing the guys in her gym's weight room. Logging countless hours of cardio and strength training, Kiefer felt secure in her own muscular superiority — until she took her first Pilates class and got shown up by a septuagenarian.

  "A 70-year-old woman did more than me. She had more flexibility than me," Kiefer recalls. "I struggled so hard in that class."

  Soon after, Kiefer began teaching Pilates classes, earning her Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) certification in the German physical fitness system. Many Pilates exercises target the "core" — a large, central group of muscles that includes the transverse abdominal muscles and stabilizes the body.

  "Anything that is not your arms and legs is your core," Kiefer says. "If you have good core strength and balance, you improve your quality of life. For instance, if you're out walking and you slip on ice, you can bring yourself out of [the fall] if you have good core strength."

  The push-up to side plank Pilates exercise that Kiefer demonstrates here improves balance and strengthens the chest, shoulders and core, as well as secondary muscles like the triceps. ("It gets at what I call the 'hello fat,'" Kiefer says. "It's what jiggles when you wave hello.") People who lack the upper body strength necessary to execute a full push-up may do a modified version with the knees resting on the ground.

  "Avoid having a sway or dip in the back (when doing a push-up)," Kiefer says. "Make sure you go low. The chest should almost touch the ground. When you go into the side plank, keep the hips and shoulders all stacked. Do not let the hips rotate forward, because it throws the entire alignment off."

  Once the body is in full alignment for the side plank, the position should be held for three seconds, to isometrically contract the core and shoulder girdle. After three seconds, do another push-up, then go into another side plank, this time supporting your weight with the opposite hand. Repeat the exercise, alternating between left and right side planks, until you have completed 12 push-ups.

  "Your core stabilizes your whole body. That's why you put your body into it when you fight," Kiefer says. "This is where your strength comes from."

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When doing a push-up, keep wrists directly under the shoulders. Slightly rotate your head up so you are not protracting it. Maintaining a flat back, bring the chest almost to the ground, but don't let the belly touch the ground. Push back up.

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Bring the right hand up and over the body, extending it toward the ceiling. Look at the right hand, stack the feet and hips, and keep the shoulder girdle straight so the body is in full alignment.

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Hold the side plank position for three seconds. Keep the abdominal muscles contracted, and don't forget to breathe. Do another push-up; then repeat the side plank with the opposite hand extended.

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