The Russian Twist is a popular core exercise that improves oblique strength and definition. The exercise, typically performed with a medicine ball, involves rotating your torso from side to side while holding a sit-up position with your feet off the ground.
In this position, your abs contract to maintain the sit-up position while your obliques help to rotate your torso. Holding a med ball or plate makes the movement more difficult. The result is a challenging exercise that will leave your abs and obliques burning and fatigued.
However, the traditional Russian Twist isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Here’s why:
The Problem With Russian Twists
In the past, the core was strengthened with exercises that focused on the actions of the muscles. For example, Sit-Ups and Crunches force the abdominals to shorten, and Russian Twists target the obliques by forcing them to contract and shorten to create rotation.
However, we now know that the core’s primary function is to provide stability and prevent itself from moving to protect your lumbar spine (lower back) and maximize power transfer between your lower and upper body. We covered the function of the oblique muscles in detail here.
With Russian Twists, you don’t train your obliques to perform better for the way you use them in sports and daily life. Yes, the move may help them look more defined if you’re lean, but that can be achieved with more effective exercises such as Suitcase Carries or even Deadlifts.
Russian Twists are also typically done with sloppy form—i.e., with significant twisting and/or rounding of the lower back. The lumbar vertebrae are large and thick, and they can handle a lot of vertical force, but they are not designed for a high degree of movement—especially twisting.
For young and healthy athletes, this likely won’t cause a problem in the short term, but it can damage your discs over time and cause or exacerbate lower-back pain.
How to Do Russian Twists the Right Way
Russian Twists shouldn’t be your go-to oblique exercise. Consider them like Bicep Curls for your core. You can do them occasionally to target muscles to improve aesthetics.
That said, you cannot spot treat your love handles—one of the reasons why Russian Twists are so popular. In fact, doing Russian Twists without actually losing weight can increase your waist size because your oblique muscles may get larger on top of or under fat.
You need to rethink the Russian Twist to make it a safer and more beneficial exercise. It shouldn’t be a rotational movement where you twist your lower back. Rather, lock in your core and rotate the weight you’re holding slowly from side to side without twisting.
Maintaining this rigid position will crush your abs and stabilizers while your obliques work to prevent your torso from rotating as you move the weight back and forth—the way your core is intended to function. Finding this stable position and maintaining it is far more effective than flailing around. It makes this an exercise worth performing.
Here are the step-by-step instructions for performing Russian Twists.
Step 1: Assume a sit-up position with your back flat and abs tight. Hold a med ball with both hands in front of your stomach and bend your elbows so the med ball is a few inches in front of you. Raise your feet about 6 inches off the ground and bend your knees.
Step 2: Keeping your core tight, slowly bring the med ball to your right hip. Briefly hold this position before returning it to center.
Step 3: Repeat Step 2 to your left hip. Continue alternating back and forth.
You must be able to maintain the starting position without a weight before adding a load. If you find this difficult, there’s a good chance you need to improve your core strength. Our 27 Best Core Exercises for Athletes is a good place to start.
Don’t flail around. Moving slowly and maintaining control is safer and more beneficial.
Avoid touching the weight to the ground as this almost guarantees that you will overrotate and twist through your lower back. Moving from hip to hip is more than sufficient.
It’s OK to rotate slightly through your upper back, but make sure your lower back stays locked in place.
You can use a med ball, dumbbell, plate or kettlebell for this exercise.
Russian Twist Variations
Rather than getting overly creative, we advocate performing different variations to adjust the difficulty. Here are three variations in order of increasing difficulty.
Russian Twist with Feet Down
This is the easiest version of the Russian Twist. Keeping your feet on the floor increases stability and reduces the demand on your core.
Russian Twist with Elbows Bent
This is the basic variation described above.
Russian Twist With Arms Straight
Straightening your arms positions the weight further away from your body, which increases torque and makes it more challenging on your core.
Russian Twist Workouts
Here are two options for including Russian Twists in your core workouts.
Core Workout With Russian Twists
1) RKC Plank – 3x(4×10 sec.)
2) Russian Twists – 3×5-10 each side
Core Circuit With Russian Twists
1A) Ab Rollouts – 3×5-10
1B) Bird Dog – 3×5 each side
1C) Russian Twists – 3×5-10 each side