February 20, 2022
Give your sides some love! When people think about the "core", they usually just consider the rectus abdominis (aka the 6-pack muscle), with exercises like hanging leg raises, planks, and maybe some crunches or sit ups. While there's nothing wrong with those exercises or placing focus on your abs, the core is actually composed of multiple muscle groups that also need attention. One of those is known as the obliques (internal and external obliques).
Having a strong set of obliques is crucial to help with rotation and even more importantly, to resist rotation. But they do more than that, such as enhancing your overall aesthetics.
So, with the obliques top of mind here, we are going to provide you with 9 of the best exercises to build an insanely powerful set of obliques. This article will tell you all you need to know and more:
Pay attention to the information because if you follow the advice in this guide, you're going to look better, perform better, and create a stronger core to decrease injury.
Your obliques are two of four main abdominal muscles:
As mentioned, your rectus abdominis is two independent sets of parallel muscles which run up the middle of your stomach. These are primarily responsible for your spine and core flexion (as with a crunch).
The transverse abdominis basically wraps around your core and acts like a corset, keeping everything nice and tight. When comparing your abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominis is the primary muscle used to create internal abdominal pressure.
Lastly, we have internal and external obliques. Yes, there are actually two sets of obliques, with one set lying beneath the other. We're pretty sure you could guess which one is which, but the internal obliques sit superficial to the external obliques. That being said, when we speak of training the "obliques," we generally refer to the external obliques as that's what we see.
Still, these two sets of muscles always work in unison together. In other words, there aren't "external" oblique exercises, nor are the "internal" oblique exercises. As mentioned, your internal and external obliques will work in unison but in the opposite manner. For example, your left internal oblique and right external oblique will fire together to create the same movement.
That being said, these two sets of muscles run down the entire sides of the lower torso and actually wrap around the sides of the body. The insertion and origin of the external and internal obliques will be opposite since they work in conjunction with the opposing side. For example, the external oblique origin is located on the ribs (anterior side of the body). In contrast, its insertion is located on various spots in the spine (posterior side of the body). However, the internal oblique origin is located further posterior, and its insertion is located farther anteriorly.
Below are the exact locations:
As mentioned several times above, one of the primary functions of the obliques is providing rotational power. However, it does more than just twist. Let's examine the main functions of the obliques as this will help us when looking at what exercises we want to use to train them. Remember, when you are training a muscle, you want to use a most similar movement to its normal function.
1. The Obliques Assist In The Rotation Of The Core
Due to the positioning and structure of the obliques, they are one of the primary core rotational muscles. This means when you are performing motions in the transverse plane (rotating), your obliques are the primary movers. Think of movements like the baseball swing. To do this, the external obliques will work with the contralateral internal obliques. This is just a fancy way of saying the opposite, as in the right external oblique works with the left internal oblique and vice-versa.
When looking at their rotation actions, we see that the internal and external obliques work together as follows;
2. The Obliques Resist Rotation
At the same time, the obliques are responsible for anti-rotation. In fact, perhaps the world's leading expert in core training, Dr. Stu McGil, actually believes anti-rotation should be the primary focus of your core training for performance and health.
This is because our bodies use anti-rotation much more frequently in real life to help stabilize the core and provide a base to work off of. Imagine opening a heavy door with one arm but you didn't resist the pulling motion. Instead of pulling the door towards you, you'd just rotate your body towards it in a rotational manner. Still, this can also play a major role in sports, especially contact sports. A strong core that can resist strong forces will help protect the spine and internal organs from any trauma that could occur.
3. The Obliques Assist In Maintaining Core Stability
Similar to providing anti-rotation, the obliques also provide general core stability. When providing stability, as with anti-rotation, both sets of obliques will fire simultaneously in equal proportions to provide a stabilizing force. This can be done in just about any direction, such as preventing bending over to the side (think carrying a bag in one hand) or keeping the core stiff.
One of the most common examples of this is simply walking. We naturally produce a natural sway from left to right when we walk. This intensity will then pick up the faster we go, and in fact, the core is extremely active during running. To be clear, the obliques aren't the only core muscles that work to provide this stability. In reality, all core muscles will fire to achieve this but the obliques play a significant role, especially with rotational forces.
4. The Obliques Assist In Lateral Bending
The obliques will also assist in lateral bending. Think if you were to lean over to the side and then come back up; this is done primarily by the obliques. In fact, one of the most common core exercises you see is people doing standing lateral crunches (except it's common to see them perform them incorrectly...see below!). Regardless, any type of lateral flexion will rely heavily on the obliques.
5. The Obliques Assist In Flexion Of The Spine (Upper Towards Lower)
While rotational and lateral movements are the primary jobs of the obliques (as well as anti-rotation and stability!), they're still involved with flexion. They work with rectus abdominis to flex the spine, specifically by pulling the upper part of the torso towards the lower, as in crunches. However, to really target the flexion of the obliques, utilize flexion of the spine with some rotation; this will really get obliques to fire.
Above we went over how the obliques work and why you need to be doing them. Now let's look at the absolute best exercises you can do to train your obliques. And pay attention as we're going to address all of the functions of the obliques from above.
Let's get one thing straight. Farmer carries are simply one of the very best exercises you can do. Even though they are typically associated with the sport of Strongman, everyone should be doing them. They are one of the best exercises to improve overall muscular strength and improve your conditioning. Plus, you can also load them to hit different training variables such as improving your max strength, anaerobic capacity, or aerobic system.
Still, farmer carries will train every single muscle in your body while also being low impact. A farmer's carry is performed simply by picking up two objects with one in each hand. Next, and this is the technical part, you walk. Yes, that’s really all there is to it. While there are some cues to follow (which we'll discuss below), farmer carries really are that easy to perform, at least from a technical standpoint. That being said, they can be brutal.
We are concerned with the walking aspect because, as we mentioned above, our bodies will want to naturally sway back and forth when we walk. This tendency is only exacerbated when we hold two objects as we now have higher torque swinging through. What this does is it places an even higher demand on your core, including your obliques, to provide stabilization.
Pro Tip: For an even better oblique workout, carry two different-sized objects. This will cause even more instability in your walking.
How To Perform A Farmer Carry:
The next best oblique exercise is another carry; this one is called a suitcase carry. Just like carrying a suitcase, this carry will have you carry one object in one hand at a time. This will cause an even greater stimulus on your obliques as it must fire hard to prevent the body from bending over sideways under the weight of one heavy implement. In fact, this carry may even be better than the farmer's carry for isolating the obliques (but you still should do both!)
How To Perform A Suitcase Carry (basically the same exact thing as a farmer carry!):
The single-arm deadlift simply involves performing a deadlift with only one implement. Doing so will train the obliques in a very similar manner as a suitcase carry as the side not holding anything will be forced to fight the resistance from pulling them sideways. This is accomplished by the obliques firing to maintain stability.
The main difference between the suitcase carry and single-arm side deadlift is that the force is moving forward with a suitcase carry. With the single-arm side deadlift, the force occurs vertically, which could perhaps place more force on the obliques. Regardless, these work in the same manner as they contract to resist movement rather than cause movement. Remember, this is actually the primary function of your core! Flexing and rotating is incredible, but your core is designed to resist movement! This makes these movements authentic functional training… it's just that the function is not-moving.
Regardless, you're still going to get a fantastic full-body workout as well because that's what deadlifts do…they're the king of exercise!s
How To Perform The Single-Arm Side Deadlift:
The Pallof press may be the simplest and most effective exercise that is never done. Named after the physical therapist John Pallof, the Pallof press is easily the best anti-rotation exercise that you can do. It's straightforward and will work your obliques like no other.
To perform the Pallof press, a pulley system works best. However, you could create a similar stimulus using resistance bands as well. The Pallof press has you stand so that your body is in line with the path of resistance. You then grab the puller or band and bring it up to your chest. Next, you push your arms out, which will cause the line to pull, thus lifting the weight. As your arms go out, resistance is applied to them, and the arms begin to act a lever as the force will want to rotate the body back towards the resistance. To counteract this rotation, your obliques will have to fire to resist the rotation. Just remember to do both sides!
How To Perform The Pallof Press:
Woodchoppers are an awesome exercise that kill the obliques AND are incredibly versatile. Hence the name, they mimic chopping wood's motion but actually utilize anti-rotation and downward flexion. The movement will require rotation at the hip and some flexion as you pull the resistance downwards. When you perform the movement, be sure to keep the arms straight out in front of the body. Some trainees will accidentally pull with the arms to move the weight, so let the obliques rotate the torso to move the weight.
How To Perform Woodchoppers:
Variations Of Woodchoppers:
There are also other variations of the woodchopper that you can utilize just to change things up:
After performing normal woodchoppers, these are easy to throw in just to add a different stimulus.
Barbell rollouts are simply the best core exercise there is. And yes, we mean that. Multiple studies have shown that barbell rollouts (or variation) illicit maximal activation for every basically core muscle there is, including the obliques. Obviously, in this manner, the obliques will work in conjunction with the other core muscles to provide maximal stabilization to the core. This is due to the extreme amount of stress placed on the body to keep the hips from falling.
If you have never tried these, be careful. You will wake up the following day and definitely realize you haven't really been training your care as hard as you thought you had been. That's due to the soreness you will have…so go slow!!!!
Further, you can perform this movement from the knees or standing. The "rollout" part is the same as the starting position. Further, one of the great things about barbell rollouts is that you can use more plates to create a greater load. This is because the force needed to roll back will be greater. This makes it extremely easy to apply progressive overload.
How To Perform Barbell Rollouts:
Side crunches are crunches done on your side. Instead of coming forward, your body will move up laterally with your elbow moving towards your head. This is a great isolation exercise for the obliques and works contrary to side bends, making them great complementary exercises.
How To Side Crunches:
Russian twists are one of the most popular oblique exercises, except it's one of the most butchered. Russian twists are great at training the rotational function of the obliques, assuming you're rotating the toro. The number one error is that when people perform Russian twists to train the obliques, they concentrate too much on touching each side with their hand rather than twisting their torso. In other words, they are focusing too much on the wrong variable. While you should feel either side of the ground, you do so by rotating your entire torso, not simply reaching with your hands. If you get that right, you then have yourself a great exercise.
How To Perform Russian Twists:
Russian Twist Variations:
Performing Russian twists as described is a great beginner oblique exercise. However, eventually, you will need to up the intensity. There are two ways to do this:
We talked about these above. Extremely easy, possibly overused, and often poorly executed. However, using them in conjunction with other exercises is a great way to add this stimulus. Let's see how to properly perform side bends.
How To Perform Side Bends:
Oblique training, and core training in general, are often performed incorrectly. First, we'll point out some common errors and then show you how to remedy them.
Error #1 Not Training The Core Frequently Enough:
Related to #2, many people simply don't train the core "frequently" enough. Emphasis on frequent. The core is one of the most used muscles we have, meaning that you would likely get better results by training it with fewer exercises more frequently.; even more than other muscles. Basically, instead of having 4 core exercises on one day, train 1 core exercise during 4 sessions.
Error #2 Having "Core" Days:
As mentioned, not enough frequency is related to having a "core day". The core muscles are just like any other muscle in that "destroying your muscle" isn't a good thing in balancing proper recovery. Further, you are only training them once a week with purpose, leaving an entire week of no stimulus. There are many nuances there as compound lifts are actually great core exercises, but we are talking about specific movements. Regardless, spread your core training throughout the week and utilize two movements with intensity. Then go home. There's no need to obliterate your core.
Error #3 Working In The Same Rep Scheme:
This is one of the least talked about core training errors. When people train their core, it's often with very high reps (15+). Again, your core is a muscle, so would you only train your chest with very light loads? Of course not! There's this idea that only very high volumes for hypertrophy will work for the core muscles when you need to use some strength movements! Therefore, start using some heavy exercises with your oblique training and use the entire rep scheme. Since loads are hard to measure, think about a movement that only allows 6 reps max.
Error #4 Only Using One Motion:
Remember, your core consists of four major muscle groups, including the obliques. Further, each muscle group has more than one function. Therefore, why do people only do some sort of spinal flexion movement like a crunch or sit up, or an anti-flexion movement such as a GHD?
Here's just a shortlist of other movement patterns you need to include:
Now you don't need to hit all of these movement patterns every week, but you should run across at least one exercise to address each pattern every 2 or 3 weeks.
Also, keep in mind that farmer carries, single hand deadlift, and suitcase carries can be performed in your training as total body exercise and not specific “core” exercises. This means that on leg day, you could perform:
Image courtesy of Marcus Filly's Instagram
While many people may do lateral bends, the obliques are often a side-note when training the "core" as the rectus abdominis takes the main stage. While you should definitely still train the 6-pack muscle, you need to share some of that specific ab workout time with the obliques. Training the obliques will have a massive effect on your performance and your physique. If you want to sculpt a thick-set core, this can only be done by giving the oblique muscles some love.
Further, start training the obliques (and your entire core) the way they were designed to function. We listed a range of exercises that cover all patterns and allow heavier loads. Use all of them in a cyclical pattern, and you'll be sporting a mean set of obliques in no time.
More Abdominal Exercise Resources:
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