When it comes to abs training, a lot of people focus almost exclusively on the muscle at the front of their abdomen; the rectus abdominis. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense because that’s the muscle that gives you a six-pack – providing you are lean enough to see it, of course!
However, there is more to a well-develop midsection than your rectus abdominus. Oblique or side crunches train the muscles of your waist, which are every bit as important.
In this article, we explain why and how to do this exercise and provide you with several variations and alternatives to try.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that oblique crunches work your obliques! However, there are some other muscles involved in this exercise:
Internal and external obliques – the internal and external obliques run diagonally across your midsection and are responsible for rotating and laterally flexing your spine. The internal obliques lie beneath the external obliques. Both oblique muscles work together and are basically your waist muscles.
Rectus abdominis – usually just called the abs for short, this long, flat muscle runs from your sternum and lower ribs down to the bottom of your pelvis. While the primary function of your rectus abdominis is flexion of your spine, it also works with your obliques in lateral flexion.
Quadratus lumborum – running from your lowermost ribs to the top of your pelvis, this deep muscle helps your abs and obliques flex your spine laterally.
Transverse abdominis – where the rectus abdominis runs vertically up the front of your stomach, the transverse abdominis encircles it like a muscular weightlifting belt. Situated beneath the other muscles, the TVA contracts inward to stabilize your spine. Increase TVA activation by breathing out forcefully as you contract your abs and obliques.
Get the most from oblique crunches while keeping your injury risk to a minimum by following these step-by-step instructions:
Oblique or side crunches are a useful abs exercise with several notable benefits:
No equipment required – while weighted abs exercises like cable crunches and dumbbell side bends are equally effective, you need access to equipment to do them. Oblique crunches require just your bodyweight and somewhere to lie down, so they’re ideal for home exercisers.
Target your obliques – while side crunches also work your rectus abdominis, the prime mover is your obliques. Well-developed obliques can add a lot to the appearance and function of your midsection, and adding this exercise to your workout program will help you sculpt an even better-looking core.
Easy to learn – oblique crunches are a pretty straightforward exercise that’s easy to master. It’s a useful movement for beginners but, done slowly and deliberately, is also suitable for more advanced exercisers.
While oblique crunches are mostly beneficial, there are a few drawbacks to consider too:
Limited overload – the range of movement and load involved in this exercise means that oblique crunches are not all that hard, and the only way to make them more challenging is to do more reps. High rep abs training is not very time-efficient and won’t do much to increase the strength of your obliques.
Some people just don’t feel this exercise – done correctly, oblique crunches are an effective abs exercise. That said, some people report not really feeling this exercise and find it ineffectual. A strong mind-muscle link is often the difference between success and failure when doing this exercise.
While oblique crunches are a popular and effective exercise, if that’s all you ever do for your waist, this exercise will soon lose some of its potency. Keep your core workouts fresh, interesting, and productive with these oblique crunch variations and alternatives.
Abs exercises using a stability ball are generally more challenging than the same exercise done on the floor. Using a ball increases your range of motion and causes instability, leading to greater muscle fiber recruitment.
The main advantage of dumbbell side bends over oblique crunches is that you can use progressively heavier weights to make them more challenging. However, it is crucial you don’t hold a dumbbell in each hand in an attempt to train both sides of your waist at once. One weight counterbalances the other, turning what should be a good oblique exercise into more of a forearm workout!
If you have mastered the side crunch, the oblique cable crunch is an excellent next choice. Done kneeling or standing, using a cable machine allows you to use more weight and keeps your muscles under constant tension. As with regular side crunches, really flex your obliques hard to maximize the effect of this exercise.
Learn how to do this exercise here.
While the single-arm farmer’s walk looks nothing like a side crunch, it’s actually a very effective oblique exercise. During single-arm farmer’s walks, you’ll need to use your obliques to keep your torso upright.
You are stronger isometrically than you are concentrically or eccentrically, which means you can go really heavy on this exercise, giving your obliques a serious strength-building workout.
Side planks provide your obliques with a good workout, but, like most bodyweight abs exercises, all too soon, they will lose some of their effect, and you’ll need to do them for longer and longer. This side plank variation involves a leg raise which makes them more challenging. You can also do this exercise for reps instead of a predetermined time.
Love deadlifts? Want to hammer your obliques? Then suitcase deadlift is the exercise for you. It involves bracing your abs and using your obliques to maintain an upright torso while doing single-arm deadlifts. It’s a very functional exercise that’s ideal for building full-body strength and stability. The name comes from how this exercise makes you look like you are bending down to pick up a bag or suitcase.
As well as laterally flexing your spine, your obliques are the muscles responsible for spinal rotation. Exercises like cable wood chops, twisting crunches, and Russian twists are all useful oblique exercises. However, for an even more powerful oblique exercise, give landmine full contact twists a try.
This exercise not only works your waist but also trains your arms and shoulders. Oblique exercises don’t come much more functional than this! No landmine? No problem; just use a standard Olympic bar with one end wedged in a corner.
You don’t see a lot of people doing oblique crunches anymore. A lot of trainers and exercisers think that working the obliques will lead to a wide, blocky waist, but that’s simply not true. In fact, working your obliques will contribute to the V-shaped torso that so many exercisers want.
There are lots of exercises you can use to target your obliques, but the side crunch is as good as any. It’s easy to learn, you can do it anywhere, and if you do them slowly and deliberately, contracting your obliques hard at the top of each rep, they’re very effective.
The rectus abdominis might be the most famous abs muscle, but your obliques deserve some love too. Work them without equipment by doing oblique crunches.
Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine, gym owner, and fitness qualifications tutor and assessor. In addition, Patrick is a freelance writer who has authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos. He’s not just an armchair fitness expert; Patrick practices what he preaches! He has competed at a high level in numerous sports, including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, trampolining, powerlifting, and, most recently, stand up paddleboarding. When not lecturing, training, researching, or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus, where he has lived for the last 20-years.
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