You'd be hard pressed to go into a gym without seeing someone perform some type of oblique workout, rep after rep of twisting and/or side bending exercises to build a ripped stomach. But does this actually work?
It turns out old-school oblique workouts don't do much to increase core strength and might not give you the ripped look you're trying to achieve. Here's what you need to know about your obliques and how to train them correctly.
What are the Obliques
The obliques are actually two muscles: internal obliques and external obliques. They are located on the sides of the abdominals (six-pack muscles) running from the hips to the rib cage. The internal obliques are located directly under the external obliques, and the muscle fibers travel perpendicular to each other.
For all intents and purposes, you can think of the obliques as a single muscle.
The obliques have three primary actions:
Lateral flexion - bending the torso sideways
Rotation - twisting the torso
Flexion - rounding the spine, like during a Sit-Up
Also, the obliques contract to help create intra-abdominal pressure—what happens when you take a deep breath in and tighten your core before a heavy lift. They help brace your spine and allow you to handle heavy loads with a lower risk of injury.
Where People Go Wrong With Oblique Workouts
People naturally want to train their obliques through the three actions listed above—especially lateral flexion and rotation. That's why Side Bends (lateral flexion) and Med Ball Russian Twists (rotation) are so popular.
Although the obliques can move your torso in these actions, you need to consider how they actually function when lifting weights, performing a sports skill or doing something as simple as carrying grocery bags.
"You can really get a hard muscle contraction if you use a dynamic motion like a Side Bend, but it goes back to why you're doing what you're doing," says Dr. John Rusin, strength coach, physical therapist and owner of John Rusin Fitness Systems. "The obliques create a brace at the pillar, more tension in the hips and throughout the torso and link those things up to the rib cage."
The obliques don't do much to move the torso—or the "pillar" as Rusin calls it. Rather, they resist movement to prevent the lumbar spine (lower back) from moving too much. This helps transfer the power you produce with your legs and hips to your upper body during sports skills like swinging a baseball bat.
"A baseball swing is all about keeping your torso in a stable position but transferring force from the ground and your hips through a stable base and out your upper extremities," adds Rusin. "There's not a lot of motion there . . . it's not like your spine is twisting."
So old-school oblique exercises don't do much to train this function. They also emphasize bending and twisting the lumbar spine, which it's not designed to handle. They won't cause much of a problem for a healthy person in the short term, but they add wear and tear over time. And if you have back pain, moving like this will likely exacerbate it. One of the worst offenders is the Seated Twist Machine.
To make matters worse, direct oblique training won't give you a waist-slimming effect—one of the main reasons why many people do oblique workouts in the first place.
"One of two things happens with direct oblique training," says Rusin. "[People] overdo it and end up broken down and hurt, or they get some hypertrophy and their waist actually gets larger. That usually happens to the people who are trying to spot-train fat loss."
Spot training doesn't work. If you want a thinner waist, you need to clean up your diet and burn more calories through your training, not ramp up Dumbbell Side Bends.
How to Properly Train the Obliques
"You need to ask yourself how the best people in the world are training their obliques," advises Rusin. "To answer that question, they're not training their obliques with Side Bends."
He points to CrossFit athletes as great examples. The top CrossFit athletes have ripped obliques (and abs), but they don't do any rotation or side bending. They do heavy and explosive movements like Deadlifts and Olympic lifts, which force their obliques to brace to transfer force and protect their spine.
With this in mind, there are three primary ways to effectively train the obliques:
Want strong obliques? Do heavy lifts. Squats, Deadlifts and their variations are among the best ways to train the obliques. This will be sufficient for aesthetics for most people, although some may want direct oblique training to improve their core strength to help them lift more weight in these exercises.
Focus on Bracing Exercises
The most basic oblique exercise is a Side Plank. In this position, the obliques have to work to keep the spine from bending toward the floor.
To take this up a notch, try Loaded Carries, such as Farmer's Walks or Suitcase Carries.
"Loaded carries are low hanging fruit. It's inherently safe because you're walking in a neutral position," says Rusin. "The obliques are targeted like crazy in a movement as simply as carrying heavy stuff around."
Another excellent oblique exercise is the Barbell Offset Iso Hold. Simply load a barbell with plates on one end and hold it. It might appear easy, but give it a try and your opinion will surely change.
Explosive Rotational Exercises
Athletes should perform explosive rotational exercises such as Med Ball Rotational Throws and Rotational Slams, typically at the beginning of a workout. These drills are designed to increase rotational power by teaching you how to actually rotate. When they are done properly, the obliques will brace to transfer power from your legs and hips to your upper body.
Sample Oblique Workouts
Here are three workouts that actually build stronger obliques. Perform the exercises at the end of a workout, except for the Med Ball Rotational Slams, which should be done after a dynamic warm-up and before your primary strength exercises.
Beginner Oblique Workout
1) Side Plank - 3x30 sec. each side
Intermediate Oblique Workout
1) Dumbbell Suitcase Carry - 3x20 yards each side
2) Rolling Side Plank - 3x6 each side
Advanced Oblique Workout
1) Med Ball Rotational Slams - 3x6 each side
2) Barbell Offset Iso Holds - 4x10 sec. each side
3) Side Plank With Leg Lift - 3x30 sec. each side
- The 27 Best Core Exercises for Athletes
- How to Develop Rotational Power for Sports
- The Ab Rollout: The Best Core Exercise Ever?