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I’m hanging upside down, legs straddled wider than I ever thought possible, hands white-knuckling a 3-inch-wide pole at Milan Pole Dance Studio in Miami. Then I’m flipping over and pulling my torso close to the pole, biceps flexing, legs tucking, right lat pinching against metal.
I loosen fatigued abs and lower my feet to the ground. “Let’s do it one more time,” says the architect of this madness, pole-dancing trainer Johanna Sapakie. I flinch. I’d vastly prefer a gazillion pushups, because pushups don’t bruise my skin like that @#[email protected]$ pole.
“You said you wanted to train like J.Lo,” Sapakie says. And nobody knows Jennifer Lopez’s pole dancing training better than Sapakie. It was Sapakie who introduced Lopez to pole-dancing last year, when Lopez mastered the art of pole dance in about a month for the film Hustlers. So back to the pole I go, battling to keep up with the fitness regimen of J.Lo, who’s so fit at age 50 that she can lift weights with boyfriend Alex Rodriguez one day, then break the internet with her age-defying outfit and gravity-defying routine during the Super Bowl LIV halftime show stage the next. “She’ll practice forever, too,” says Sapakie, a classically trained ballet dancer. “We’d rehearse for 10 hours.”
Just 75 minutes into this two-hour session, I’m sweating through my tank, forearms on fire, core exhausted from the equivalent of 100 hollow body holds. J.Lo’s pole-dancing routine is equal parts gymnastics and strength. The pole is my main adversary. My hands can’t grip it, and it bruises my back, calves, and arms. “Yes the bar hurts!” Sapakie says. She insists I’ll get used to it, the same way I once got used to deadlift bars ripping open my hands. “You’re OK,” she says, “because you learn that you’re building strength.”
I can feel it forging serious core strength too, since the most basic act—climbing the poll and hanging in place—requires me to tense my abs, glutes, and hamstrings while my knees and feet squeeze the bar. Flipping upside-down on the pole (as J.Lo does in Hustlers) almost always starts with that classic ab move, a leg-lift.
Not that Lopez builds her body on stripper poles alone. Two days later, I catch up with David Kirsch, in Manhattan at The Core Club for an hour-long weight room session. He’s who worked with Lopez, Faith Hill, and many other famous 50-somethings. Kirsch’s secret with all celebs: Plank variations that have me moving weight. “They’re incredibly safe,” he says.
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Kirsch’s workouts build plank variations into a variety of devastating circuits. We start with a vicious six-exercise circuit that revs my heart rate more than I’m expecting.
First, I set up near a cable column, facing the cable in a single-arm pushup-position plank, grasp the handle and pull, essentially doing a single-arm lat pulldown from plank position. I do 15 reps on each arm, then Kirsch has me line up with my torso parallel to the cable, again in single-arm plank position, this time twisting away, essentially doing a rear delt fly from plank position.
Kirsch lets me rest, then has me do some plyo split squats and lunges—and then it’s onto more plank variations. He has me set up in a single-arm plank, holding a battle rope in the other hand and doing waves for 30 seconds per side; I do 3 rounds of that and he asks me what I had for lunch. Salmon, I respond. “It’s not coming up, is it?” he asks.
No, but it’s close. We finish with more plank work—because of course! Now I have my feet on sliders, and, while keeping core and glutes tight, I walk forward 5 yards, then back 5 yards. Kirsch immediately pushes me to do pike-ups, using my core to lift my butt high in the air while keeping my legs straight. I do 20 of those, then have to walk laterally in my plank, then it’s 20 more pikeups.
And then it’s over. And by the time I’m done, my glutes and abs are on fire (again). I already use the plank position frequently in my own training, but I’ll pack it into more circuits now, leaving my abs with no mercy. And while I can’t train on a pole every day, I will be integrating leg lifts and other gymnastics-style holds into my training on climbing ropes. They’ll ignite your core, glutes and entire posterior kinetic chain, says Sapakie. No problem with that, especially if it helps me move like J-Lo.
Lessons From Lopez
Here are three workout tips I learned from Lopez’s training.
Push Your Planks
Yes, the plank position is yawn-inducingly boring — and easy. But it has its uses, mainly as a starting position for other exercises. Try holding a plank while doing battle rope waves, or triceps kickbacks, or rear delt raises. Kirsch has me do eight different exercises that start in plank position.
Pole-dancing training amounts to one big core challenge: Abs, glutes, and inner and outer hip muscles all work together to do even the simplest of tasks, helping you hold onto the pole. And before you can learn to move on the pole, you need to learn those holds. You don’t need to practice them on stripper poles, either: If your gym has a climbing rope, spend some time on it, and work basic holds there.
Hit the Circuit
Kirsch’s clients want to be in and out of the gym fast. That’s why he favors fast-paced, hard-hitting circuits, and every circuit stimulates their abs. That’s through the plank position, or through front rack-position kettlebell and dumbbell holds. Work these quick circuits into your workouts, and you’re always hitting your core even when you’re not actually “training abs.”
Get the J-Lo Down
Build core strength, flexibility, and coordination with these moves from Lopez.
Offset-Position Leg Lift
Stand to the left of a pole or climbing rope, grasping it with both hands. Tighten your core and glue your legs together. Squeeze your abs, lifting tucking knees to chest; lower. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 8.
Rotational Cat Cow
Get on all fours, hands directly below your shoulders, knees shoulder-width apart. Lower your belly toward the ground, arching your back, then rotate your torso to the right. Round your back and lower your torso to the left. That’s 1 rep; do 4 reps to each side.
Face a cable column with a moderate weight. Get in pushup position, right hand grasping the handle. Tighten your core and glutes; bend at the elbow and shoulder, pulling the handle to your shoulder. Return it. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 15 per side.
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