It’s no secret that specifically training your core can carry over into stronger lifts and more muscle growth. Your core muscles transmit force throughout your body and keep you strong and stable — targeting it for training will only make you better at those things. That, in turn, will make you an overall better lifter and athlete.
There’s one problem, though: most general core training focuses on movement in the sagittal plane. In other words, athletes are so often moving back and forth or up and down rather than engaging in lateral exercises that can help make your lifts more efficient, strengthen your body holistically, and improve resilience against injury.
Enter oblique exercises: moves designed to target the sides of your torso to make your entire core stronger, more resilient, and more efficient transmitters of force. This article will teach you how to perform 15 of the best oblique exercises, examine the anatomy of your core, and show you how training your obliques can help boost your lifting numbers across the board.
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You don’t need to look like you’re building solid obliques to be doing it right. Pallof presses are an anti-rotation movement, which means they test you as you fight the urge to shift from side to side. One significant aspect of Pallof presses is that they’re very versatile. You can perform them with cables or with resistance bands so that you can do them virtually anywhere.
Anchor a resistance band to a squat rack (or another sturdy base). Ensure that the band is level with your chest. Clasp the bands in both hands and hold them against your chest. Take a step away from the anchor point, so the band is taut. Slowly press the band away from your best, keeping your arms straight. Hold this position for a beat, and then lower the band back to your chest.
The dead bug is a tremendously effective core-strengthening exercise all on its own. The kettlebell or dumbbell pullover is awesome at building back, chest, and core strength and stability. Put them together and what do you get? A tremendously effective obliques workout that will strengthen your entire core while it’s at it.
Lay on your back, holding a kettlebell by the handle with both hands. Bend your legs 90 degrees and lift them off of the floor. Lift the kettlebell so it’s hovering above your head with your arms fully extended. Simultaneously extend one leg and lower the kettlebell to the floor. Reverse the motion and repeat on the other side. That’s one rep.
Want to develop some serious overhead strength and stability and also fire up your obliques? Overhead suitcase carries are some of the most efficient unilateral exercises for building full-body strength, rather than targeting one particular area. Your obliques are vital in mastering this move. You will need to keep the sides of your torso engaged the entire time to maintain the weight’s position and movement integrity.
You can choose your implement — a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a barbell — depending on your experience and comfort level with this kind of exercise. Either way, you’ll set up like you were about to perform a unilateral overhead press.
Set your feet hip-width apart and clean your implement to your shoulder. Keep your palm facing your body. Press the weight up and overhead, packing your shoulder down into its socket as you do with Turkish get-ups. Keep your neck, torso, and shoulders neutral as you walk in a straight line. Keep your core tight and breathe.
You’ve done it repeatedly at the airport, but possibly not at the gym. The suitcase deadlift is an excellent addition to pretty much any strength-building regimen — especially if you’re trying to put your obliques center stage. You can move a lot of weight with these, and it’ll give you that dash of unilateral pulling that your program might be missing.
Set up next to your implement of choice (generally a kettlebell or dumbbell). Stand with your typical conventional deadlift stance, with the bell just outside the midfoot of your right foot. Hinge at the hips and grasp the bell without tilting your shoulders, hips, or torso.
Drive your feet into the ground and stand up. Try to keep the same position you would if you were holding weights in both hands instead of just one throughout the lift. That will fire up your anti-rotation muscles (AKA, your obliques). Complete your reps and repeat on the opposite side.
You don’t have to be Peter Parker to train like him. Adding a little bit of variety into your push-up will specifically target your obliques while making the rest of your body a lot stronger, too. Just make sure your hips don’t shift from side to side throughout the movement for maximum benefit.
Assume a regular push-up position. Without tilting or shifting your hips, transfer your lower body’s weight into your right foot. As you’re descending slowly into your pushup, bend your left knee and use your core to crunch your left knee up toward your left elbow. Hold briefly for a moment at the bottom, then reverse the movement on the way up. Repeat on the other side.
If you’re looking to up the ante on your isometric core training, going unilateral (and off-balance) is a great way to do it. Tilt your planks to the side to target your obliques, improve your balance, and build yourself a rock-solid core.
Assume a side plank position, either with your left hand planted under your left shoulder or your left forearm planted under your left shoulder. Raise your hips by engaging your obliques. Once you’re settled into that position, raise your top leg. Try to keep it straight (a soft bend in the knee is okay) and maintain your hip position. Avoid collapsing your shoulder and ear toward each other. When you’ve completed your set on one side, rinse and repeat.
With a lot of core movements, you’re going to want to emphasize going slow and steady. But with rotational medicine ball throws, your goal is speed and efficiency of movement and power. Tossing a medicine ball laterally against a wall (or to a partner) has you engage your obliques rapidly. Also, catching the ball as it bounces back to you (or is passed back to you) forces you to engage in anti-rotation work, too, as you slow down the incoming load.
Set up a couple of feet away from a wall, with your feet facing in front of you and your left side facing the wall. Hold the medicine ball at about chest level with your palms facing each other. Stay on the balls of your feet to make sure your whole body stays engaged. Twist your core and rotate on your back foot to launch the ball at the wall. Catch it on the bounce back, come back to starting position, and begin again.
If you’re used to performing jackknifes to increase your core strength, you’ll probably love (or love to hate) this variation. You won’t only be working the heck out of your core muscles — you’ll also be balancing on your side the whole time. This will help recruit maximum muscles and increase the challenge significantly.
Lay on one side of your body with your legs extended and your top arm behind your head. Squeeze your legs together with a soft bend in your knees. Elevate both legs a few inches off the ground at the same time. Stabilize this position, then use your obliques to initiate the movement of your right leg and right arm to “crunch” sideways toward each other above your body.
The Copenhagen plank is an advanced core move that requires excellent adductor (inner thigh) strength and full-body balance. Fortunately, you can start small and develop these skills, too. The journey will be worth it as this plank variation singles out your obliques by taking pretty much any form of compensation or assistance with your feet off the table. It’ll be all about you and your sides.
Find a sturdy box or bench that’s relatively low to the ground (this isn’t the time to break out the 24-inch plyo box). Get into a side plank position and place your top foot is resting on top of the bench. Your bottom foot can float beneath it. As with a rear foot-elevated Bulgarian split squat, it’s okay if it takes some experimentation to find your proper “footing.”
Once the side of your elevated foot feels stable, hold your side plank as long as you can. Avoid sinking your hips, and squeeze both your glutes and quads to keep your low back protected. Keep track of the time you can accomplish and switch sides.
The push-up is already a moving plank (essentially), but adding a side plank to the top of your push-up ups the ante. You’ll become skilled at transferring your weight seamlessly from two hands to one. And you’ll get a tremendous oblique workout that will help bring your lifts to the next level.
Perform a standard push-up. As you drive yourself up, raise one arm off of the ground and twist your torso to that side. Stack the same-side foot on top of your grounded foot, so you’re in a standard side plank position.
Front squats and goblet squats are squat variations that tax the legs and core; your core is braced throughout the movement to keep you from falling forward due to the front-loaded weight. By off-setting the load and making the goblet squat unilateral, you’ll increase the recruitment of your obliques — your body is now resisting lateral movement, too.
Select a dumbbell or a kettlebell and clean it up to the rack position. From there, you can keep your empty hand steady next to you. If balance is a concern, you can drift your arm slightly out to the side or in front of you. Maintain tension in your core and avoid leaning to one side or another as you descend into your goblet squat. Keep a neutral, upright torso the same way you would if both hands were loaded with weights. Sink to the bottom of your squat, rise back up, and repeat.
Kettlebell swings work your entire body, including your core. Only using one hand for your swings makes the move even more effective for targeting your obliques. Your sides will actively work against torque throughout an entire set of dynamic, explosive movements.
Set up a couple of feet behind the kettlebell, with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Hinge at the hips and reach down to grasp the kettlebell with one hand. Keep your grip soft but strong as you hike the bell back behind you.
Keep the bottom of the bell above your knees as you hike it backward. Then, use hip drive to explosively bring the kettlebell back out in front of you, raising it to chest level with the momentum from your hips. Avoid tugging it with your arm, but engage your lats to stabilize the bell and help it transition back down to your next swing.
On their own, side planks are supremely effective. But when you add a dynamic move to this isometric hold, the exercise gets even more effective (and difficult). Incorporating a unilateral cable row into your side plank will fire up you entire body while training your obliques and back at the same time.
Set a cable pulley to just above ground level — between one and three feet off the ground, depending on whether you’ll perform this exercise on your forearms or your hands. Get in a side plank position, with your face facing the cable pulley, a foot or two away from the cable’s anchor. Grab the pulley with your hand and scoot back further so it’s completely taut. Tighten up your side plank and then row the cable to your chest with your top hand.
You might perform hanging knee raises, which are an excellent addition to so many kinds of programs. But if you’re not also incorporating hanging oblique raises, you’re missing out on the unique benefits of targeting the sides of your core for strength development.
Grasp a pull-up bar with a comfortable, shoulder-width grip. Tuck your tailbone under your pelvis while you’re hanging to engage your core. Once your body is ultimately still, you can begin the move. Curl your knees up toward your right rib cage. Imagine that your knees are trying to touch the outside of your right shoulder to maximize muscle activation. Squeeze at the top and, with slow control, return your legs to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
This move looks slow, but the benefits it offers are anything but humble. Perfecting your kettlebell windmill can translate into a much more confident overhead press, and all manner of overhead carries. This is not to mention that the move’s unilateral, front plane nature makes it great at making your body more resilient under different pressures and movement patterns.
Hold the kettlebell in your right hand, cleaned up to shoulder level. Set up your right foot directly under your hip, with your left foot angled out a little bit. Press the bell overhead and pack your shoulder. Place your empty (left) hand on the outside of your left thigh with your palm facing up.
Initiate the movement by rotating your torso toward the floor, with your left hand tracing down the inside of your left leg. Maintain eye contact with the bell and shift the weight into your right hip.
When you’ve reached your end range of motion, slowly reverse the movement until you’ve returned to standing. Keep your right arm locked but with your elbow slightly soft throughout the movement. Complete your reps, then switch sides.
Your core isn’t just made up of those front-facing muscles you know and love for their six-pack shape (the rectus abdominis). You also have your transverse abdominis, which helps stabilize and support your spine; quadratus lumborum, which helps with spinal stability; and your erector spinae, which — while technically not part of your “core” — are the back muscles responsible for balancing it all out when you have a strong front core.
In addition to all that, you have your oblique muscles. Both your internal and external obliques cross your torso diagonally, but they have a slightly different focus when it comes to supporting your movements.
The external obliques help with hip flexion. These are the muscles that you want to channel whenever you pull your knees up toward your chest. In addition to helping rotate your entire trunk, these fellows assist with passively flexing and rotating your spine.
The internal obliques are essential players in supporting your abdominal wall, keeping your spine stable, and rotating your trunk. These muscles also assist with forced respiration, which you want to support as an athlete who braces and breathes along with loaded lifts.
You’re already training your core — why should you pay specific attention to the sides of your core? There are plenty of reasons, the first being that neglecting your obliques means that you’re not taking full advantage of everything your core has to offer.
If you’re only ever focusing on core flexion or isometric tension in the sagittal plane, how will your core gain full strength? It won’t. By training rotationally, your core will adapt to dealing with forces from multiple angles, thus making your core overall that much stronger.
Your core muscles transmit (and resist) force. How else would your body move as one unit from top to bottom — and side to side — without a strong core and powerful obliques? The stronger your obliques, the more efficiently your body can move against gravity. And the better you can do that, the better you can lift.
Even if the center of your core is strong, training your obliques can help reduce your chances of tweaking something during training. Why? When you don’t unrack the bar perfectly during a heavy squat and the plates ding the side of the squat rack, it’s your obliques that are going to help keep you stable and save the lift.
Strong obliques can absorb that kind of sudden tension without the off-balanced force being channeled right to your shoulders or low back. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and setting yourself up for success by making sure each of your muscles can play their part.
Pretty much every full-body movement requires buy-in from your core. If your torso isn’t prepared to handle a heavy deadlift load, for example, it doesn’t matter how strong your legs and back are. Your lift won’t get off the ground — and even if it does, it’ll be pretty ugly (and possibly an injury risk).
By training your obliques and your core more broadly, you’re training your entire body to be able to handle intense loads. So, when you next step under a loaded barbell, you’ll have your core to thank when the move feels a lot more stable and natural.
Many people imagine training their core as something to do without really thinking about it at the end of the “real” workout. But if you want to be super effective with your oblique training, try to treat your core training with the same intention, forethought, and planning as you do the rest of your program.
The set and rep schemes for core training will largely depend on which exercises you choose (see below) and your overall training goals. If you’re looking to grow your oblique muscles, consider training in hypertrophy rep ranges. These can be broad and range from six to 30 reps per set, so think about whether you’re using heavy loads (as with the suitcase deadlift) when considering these options.
This might take a little experimentation for isometric oblique exercises that involve a seconds count rather than a rep range. If you can hold a single leg side plank for 30 seconds with no problem, setting a 30-second range is arbitrary and probably not super effective — you’ll want to go longer than that. If, however, your body is shaking by 30 seconds, then performing three or four sets of 25-30 seconds will be more than sufficient.
If you’re incorporating oblique training into a broader core training program — which, in turn, is part of a broader full-body program — selecting your exercises is essential. You’ll want to respect your body’s recovery needs along the journey.
So, if you find hanging oblique raises to be highly taxing but want to include them in your program, that’s awesome. But you probably don’t want to perform them right before a heavy deadlift or overhead pressing day — both of which require a lot of core strength.
If you train your obliques before one of those intensive days, perhaps select an exercise that requires less intensive recovery. Think, Pallof presses or side plank cable rows.
The same principle that applies to your main lifts applies to oblique training. Generally speaking, you’ll want to do your most mentally and physically taxing exercises first. So if you’re going to do Copenhagen planks, kettlebell dead bug pullovers, and spider push-ups, you probably don’t want to save the Copenhagen planks for last.
Instead, program the Copenhagen planks first since they’re most demanding. You can decide which of the other two moves you want to program next, depending on your skillset and experience level. In other words, if you’re better at pushing and find it less taxing than pulling, perhaps do your spider pushups before your dead bug pullovers.
Apply the same principles when incorporating oblique training with the rest of your core and full-body training. Just as you perform single-joint moves after multi-joint moves, program oblique training concerning the rest of your exercises accordingly.
It’s unlikely that your entire training session will be solely devoted to training your obliques. Still, make sure you’re not just diving right into oblique exercises without some specific movement prep — even if your body is otherwise fully warmed up.
Cycle through some unweighted, stripped-down versions of what you’ll perform for your obliques. Diving into spider pushups? Start with a few regular pushups and across-the-body mountain climbers first. Are you attempting the Copenhagen plank? Move through some side planks and single-leg side planks before doing so.
To approach oblique training effectively, you need to perform your sets with intention. Here are some specific things to keep in mind about training specific parts of your core:
One of the number one downfalls of core training tends to be that many athletes tend to rush through exercises. Performing reps mindlessly usually means moving too quickly — and moving too often rapidly means deteriorated form (see below). But the other benefit of moving slowly is increased time under tension.
Performing oblique exercises slowly will help you increase the challenge of the exercises. This means that you don’t need to complete as many reps to approach failure and give your muscles the stimulus for growth that they need.
If your form isn’t on point, you’re not going to get the benefits you’re looking for. With each movement, make sure that you’re sticking perfectly to the form script. By all means, modify movements if and whenever you need to — but do those variations with proper form, too.
In general, achieving tight forms means keeping an active mind-body connection during each rep. For example, if you’re noticing your hips sinking during a plank, be mindful not to fix it by overcompensating with your legs or hips — do it with your obliques.
It’s fantastic if you want to give hanging oblique raises a try — but if you’re recovering from a shoulder injury, you probably don’t want to be performing intensive overhead movements. Instead, maybe go for unilateral goblet squats or suitcase deadlifts for the time being.
Haven’t done planks since that dreaded junior year gym class you had? Maybe start with some regular side planks instead of Copenhagen planks. Whatever oblique exercises you choose, the most important thing is to be true to what your body needs and what it can do right now.
A holistic approach to training your core involves learning about all aspects of core training — including your obliques. Check out these additional core training articles to get you started when you’re ready to make your strength gains even greater.
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