An obliques workout to train those elusive side abs
An obliques workout to train those elusive side abs

The Best Oblique Workout for a Stronger Core

Side abs are critical to your overall core strength—don't neglect them.

An obliques workout to train your side abs,

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Your core is more than just a six-pack; it’s a cylinder comprised of muscles that wrap around your entire torso. So while crunches might prepare you for the beach, that exercise won’t necessarily help you perform in the mountains.

Outdoor athletes typically have good abdominal strength when it comes to forward flexion (think sit-ups), but we often overlook the importance of the obliques. Located on each side of the core, these muscles rotate the torso and provide lateral and rotational stability.

Whether you’re a skier, runner, or climber, you could benefit from stronger obliques. “The obliques play a crucial role in all mountain athletics, because we use our bodies in rugged and inconsistent environments where we need to move in multi-planer ways,” says Carolyn Parker, founder of Ripple Effect Athlete Training Center. “Without strong obliques, we underperform on unstable terrain.”

For the mountain athlete, however, training a muscle group in isolation (like using weight machines) is much less effective than performing functional exercises that engage the whole kinetic chain, or all of the muscle groups involved, for a sport-specific movement pattern. Complex exercises that target more than one muscle group bolster the weakest link. Parker says, “We need to look at the core muscles—the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominis, multifidus, rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques—as a complete package.” A mountain athlete herself, she devised this full-body core circuit (for those who are already active and free of injuries) to target the obliques.

Throughout the circuit, let your form be your guide. For each exercise, do as many reps as you can until you begin to lose form due to fatigue, then move on to the next exercise. (Rest between exercises, if needed.)

If this circuit feels approachable, start with one or two rounds twice a week, and add another round every two weeks, up to four rounds. If you find this circuit more difficult, start by doing the first three or four exercises once, and when that begins to feel manageable, add in another exercise every week or two. Quality—i.e., maintaining proper form—is far more important than quantity.

Warm up before you begin, whether via light cardio, dynamic stretching, or incorporating this circuit at the end of your standard workout. 

Standing Weighted Twist

What It Does: Strengthens the abdominal and oblique muscles for core stability.

How to Do It: Hold a medicine ball or weight at chest level, and get into an athletic stance: feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and core engaged. Tighten your core and extend your arms straight out in front of you, maintaining a slight bend in the elbows. From this position, slowly rotate your torso 90 degrees to one side and then the other, while keeping your arms parallel to the ground and your hips level and facing forward throughout the movement.

Push-Up to Side Plank (with Hip Dip)

What It Does: Combines push-up, side plank, and hip lift movements to strengthen the upper body and core.

How to Do It: Start in a standard push-up position with your feet together, your hands shoulder-width apart, and your back flat. Complete a perfect push-up: lower down until you brush the ground, and return to the starting position, while maintaining a rigid plank position (no sagging or lifting the hips).

Transition into a side plank by rotating your hips to the right until they are perpendicular to the ground, with your feet stacked, and raise your free hand to the ceiling in line with the supporting hand on the ground. Lower your hips as far as you can without breaking form and raise them back to a neutral side-plank position.

Then transition back into the pushup position and repeat the exercise—including the pushup—but this time with a left side plank and hip dip.

Side Plank with Rotational Reach

What It Does: Builds strength in the shoulders and core.

How to Do It: Begin in a side-plank position with one hand planted on the ground, the other raised straight toward the ceiling in line with the supporting arm, your feet stacked, and your body in a straight line from feet to head. While maintaining this rigid position (don’t let your hips sag or your butt stick out), lower your raised hand to touch the ground, and lift it back to the starting positing. Repeat on the other side.

If this becomes too easy, hold a dumbbell in the upper hand.

Medicine-Ball Side Throw

(Emily Reed)

What It Does: Strengthens and develops rotational power in the core.

How to Do It: Stand perpendicular to a wall, about two or three feet away. Get into an athletic stance, maintaining core tension, and hold a soft medicine ball in both hands. Extend your arms in front of you at waist level, and quickly rotate your torso to throw the ball into the wall, catching it on rebound and reversing the movement. Repeat on the opposite side.

Medicine-Ball Overhead Throw Sit-Up

What It Does: Strengthens forward flexion of the abs and obliques.

How to Do It: With a partner standing a short distance from your feet, lie on your back on the floor in a sit-up position, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, holding a medicine ball on the ground in line with your head. Keeping your arms overhead, sit up quickly and throw the ball to your partner. Your partner should immediately return the ball, and then you reverse the movement. Once you get the hang of it, have your partner toss the ball off center to either side to train lateral core stability.

If you don’t have a partner, you can bounce the ball off a wall instead, but be prepared for a quick rebound.

GHD Sit-Up Twist

What It Does: Strengthens the glutes, quads, and core in a kinetic chain to develop rotational core stability.

How to Do It: This exercise requires a Glute Hamstring Developer (or another machine that allows you to brace your legs, as in the above photo). But instead of lying face down, you’ll position yourself face up, with your feet hooked behind the support pads. In a sitting position, hold a medicine ball or weight at your chest and lean back until your torso is parallel to the floor but not farther. Hold this position, rotate your torso to each side, and then sit up to the starting position.

Hanging (or Reclined) Windshield Wiper

What It Does: A full-body exercise that strengthens the shoulders, pecs, lats, core, and hip flexors, and trains rotational core control.

How to Do It: This is an advanced exercise that requires a high level of core strength and control, as well as grip strength. (If you’re just starting out, begin with the easier reclined variation and progress to the hanging version.) Hang with straight arms from a pull-up bar, with about three feet of space to either side. Keeping your feet together and your knees as straight as possible, lift your legs directly up in front of you until they are aiming toward the ceiling. (It’s OK to lift your torso and bend your elbows to hold this position.) Slowly lower your legs a full 90 degrees to one side, return to neutral, and repeat again on the other side, all in a single plane of motion—like windshield wipers. Keep your core and shoulders tight to avoid swinging.

Reclined Variation: To perform the s ame exercise on the ground, lie flat on your back with your arms out to either side, palms down for support. Stick your legs straight up into the air, perpendicular to the ground, and slowly move them side to side like a windshield wiper, nearly touching the ground each time. Keep tension in your core and your back flat on the ground throughout the movement. If this is still too difficult, perform the same exercise with your knees bent to 90 degrees.

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