I’m sure we’ve all seen that one guy in a gym violently twisting back and forth or even grabbing weights and bending sideways trying to hit their “obliques”. Be honest, you might be this person or even copied these movements yourself, but have you ever thought about or asked “Why?”. As stated above, you were thinking about hitting those obliques or beating up those love handles. Think about it though…do you even know if these these movements actually do anything? Are they appropriate? Are you doing them right? Shit, do they have the potential to cause injury? (Psst, the answer is yes to that last one…)
Here’s the real deal, people do this kind of stuff because they want to build strength in the “side abs” or they want to reduce the fat commonly referenced as the love handle (See Blog post Spot Reduction). Don’t get me wrong I get it, and obviously the intention is there but those old-school abdominal workouts just don’t work the way you wish they did. In all honesty, you have a higher likelihood of causing injury and discomfort than you do of “gettin ripped bro”! With that said here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about your obliques aka side abs
What are the obliques and what do they do?
We actually have two sets of obliques. We have internal obliques and external obliques. For those that do not know they are located on the (lateral) sides of our torso 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.
But for the sake of simplicity let’s pretend that the internal and external obliques are one muscle For the record, they aren’t, but they have very similar responsibilities, the intention here is not to spread misinformation but to maintain a clear picture and get to the point of useful functional information.
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(Keep everything real tight on the inside). This is when you take a deep breath in and contract your abs before a heavy lift(Valsalva breathing video). They help brace your spine and allow you to handle heavier loads with a lower risk of injury.
Where people go wrong training their obliques
People naturally want to train their obliques through the three actions described above especially lateral flexion and rotation. That’s why Side Bends (lateral flexion) and Russian Twists (rotation) are so popular. The fact is, these movements are largely ineffective and incredibly joint abrasive. When considering movements specific to the obliques you want to stick with variations of movement that strengthen that intra abdominal pressure. Thinking “stability” or anti rotational movement is best!
In fact, a simple side plank has been proven to be more effective than side bends when looking at EMG. Check the stats below
- Side plank vs 100lb Side bends
o Internal Oblique Mean 52.4%/Peak 77.6%
o External Oblique Mean 57.73%/Peak73.8%
- 100lb Side Bends
o Internal Oblique Mean 15.6%/Peak 69.9
o External Oblique Mean 33.2%/Peak 108%
What they Actually do
Within reason the obliques are synergists in most movement, but we also need to consider how these muscles truly function when performing a sports skill, lifting weights, or doing daily tasks such as carrying grocery bags…obviously in one trip….one.
If you have not picked up on this by now the obliques don’t do much to move the torso (hence why we are not recommending a tremendous amount of direct “bending”). Instead they resist movement [anti-rotation] to prevent the lumbar spine (lower back) from moving too much. So, when using sports skills like swinging a baseball bat(transverse motion) they help transfer the power you produce with your legs and hips to your upper body. [See blog on planes of motion].
So now you are starting to get a clear picture as to how the obliques truly function and maintain fluid and pain free movement. This being a clear driver or why those “old-school” oblique exercises don’t do much to train this function appropriately. These movement may perpetuate pain by placing stress on the lumbar spine, which it’s not designed to handle direct bending and twisting under direct load. These are not an overnight concern for a traditionally healthy person in the short term, but they add wear and tear over time. If you have back pain, moving like this will likely exacerbate it. One of the worst offenders being the seated twist machine.
Now, your long awaited solution!
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 most people. However, in cases where injury is an issue direct oblique work may be helpful.
Focus on bracing exercises:
So what exercises would we recommend?
As mentioned before simplest oblique exercise is a Side Plank. In this position, the obliques have to work to keep the spine from bending toward the floor.
Farmers Carry (asymetrical load)
The obliques are targeted like crazy in a movement as simple as carrying heavy stuff around.
Hanging Knee raise
In short, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Especially when it comes to training your core stabilizers. While lifting all of the heavy things requires a tremendous amount of trunk strength, that’s only half the battle. So don’t be an abs-hole and include any of this nonsense discussed above! Cut to the chase and educate yourself on proper biomechanics and functional movement. Whether you’re a longtime exercise buff or new to the fitness world, incorporating more core/spinal stability movements for the obliques can help you develop a stronger, more stable, efficient trunk.