If you've ever gone for a walk, reached over to grab your phone from the nightstand, or swung a stick at a piñata), then you've felt your obliques at work. They are, after all, essential muscles for everyday life, function, and movement.
In a perfect world, the whole core (a group of many muscles) should work like a symphony, says Patricia Ladis, PT, CBBA, founder of WiseBody PT and co-author of The Wise Woman's Guide to Your Healthiest Pregnancy and Birth. "The diaphragm is the conductor, starting the message for the symphony to play by activating the transversus abdominis first and then allowing the proper movers—the obliques and/or rectus abdominis muscle—to engage." For that to happen, you need to train your entire core. Unfortunately, folks tend to focus on the rectus abdominis, the outermost area of the abs responsible for the six-pack, says Jess Sims, a fitness instructor at Peloton. But there is more to your abs than just that outermost, or superficial, layer.
The obliques, for instance, which run diagonally on either side of the waist from the ribs to the hips, are important for overall body function, too. Made up of an inner and outer set, the obliques are actually the largest of the ab muscles. Their function: "to rotate, side-bend, and move the trunk, as well as to help with breathing," Ladis says. The obliques also play a roll in keeping your torso from twisting, to stabilize and, subsequently, protect your spine.
If your obliques are weak or underutilized, other parts of your body will try to compensate, potentially leading to discomfort or pain. The lower back is one area that often takes a big hit. In fact, a Journal of Physical Therapy Science study found that incorporating oblique exercises helped reduce chronic back pain, a condition that affects more than 50 percent of people in the United States.
How to Know If Your Obliques Are Strong Enough
Want to know if your obliques are up to par? Test them by doing bicycle crunches, suggests Ladis. "You should be able to curl your elbow to the outside of your bent knee, truly rotating the body. If you cannot curl past your midline then you do not have adequate control and strength in these muscles." You can also get into a side plank. "If your hips sag down, or your body twists or rotates in one direction it can mean your obliques are not working together and are weak." Improper breathing, breath holding, and ribs flaring out are also signs of oblique weakness, adds Ladis.
Whether yours are holding up their end of the bargain or not, Sims advice is that everyone incorporate exercises that target the obliques into their workout routine, but "especially if you have weakness in rotating your core or preventing it from being rotated." Luckily, there are tons of different options from Russian twists to standing side crunches that get the job done. To help shore up yours, Sims suggests these five oblique-strengtheners.
5 Oblique Exercises to Try at Home
Side Plank With Hip Dips
Lie on your left side with legs stacked on top of each other. Prop yourself up onto your left forearm and bend both knees, keeping them stacked and your hips and shoulders aligned. Squeeze your glutes and engage your core, then lift your left hip up off the ground, hold it for a second, and then lower it back down to the ground. Do 3 sets of 15 reps per side.
To make it harder: Keep the bottom knee off the floor and straighten both legs.
Lie faceup with your right knee bent and left leg straight at a 45 degree-angle. Extend your right arm overhead by the ear and left arm out at a 45-degree angle. Inhale through the nose; as you exhale, press your left hand and forearm into the ground to lift your entire back off the floor, bringing your right hand and left foot to touch. Slowly lower back down. Do 3 sets of 15 reps and repeat on the other side.
To make it harder: Take your left arm off the floor and place your hand on your stomach.
Forearm Plank Reach Out
Come into a forearm plank with elbows stacked under shoulders, palms flat on the ground, and legs extended straight behind you (feet should be slightly wider than hip-width apart). Squeezing your glutes and quads, reach one arm out in front of you. Return to elbow plank position and repeat with the other arm. Continue alternating sides; do 3 sets of 20 reps.
Lie on your left side on the "gushy" part of your left butt cheek with your left arm extended in front of you, legs stacked, and right hand placed lightly on back of head. Press into the ground with your left forearm. Crunch up onto your side as you bend your knees, bringing them in to touch your right elbow. Slowly lower back down. Do 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.
Half-kneeling Wood Chop
Start in a kneeling position with your left knee on the ground and your right knee bent with right foot on the floor. Hold both sides of a moderate-weight dumbbell (think: eating corn on the cob) at your left hip. Inhale; as you exhale, use your core to bring the dumbbell diagonally up and over your right shoulder. Inhale as you reverse the motion, bringing the dumbbell back across and down to the left hip. Do 3 sets of 12 reps (all on one side), then repeat on the other side.