Monday, March 14, 2011

Q & A: Best Exercise for the Obliques, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 on Friday, I'm going to give some exercises I feel are best for training the "obliques."  Now, if you open any kinesiology textbook you can learn the functions of both the internal and external obliques:
  • Internal Obliques:  Lumbar flexion, ipsilateral flexion and ipsilateral rotation (bending of the low back, side bending, and rotation of the same side of the torso). 
  • External Obliques:  Lumbar flexion, ipsilateral flexion, and contralateral rotation (bending of the low back, side bending, and rotation of the opposite side of the torso).
Hence why you see so many people performing side crunches, side-bends, and russian twists to "bring out" their obliques.

However, I feel these commonly performed exercises are one of the worst for developing a strong midsection.  Yes, you may "feel the burn" while doing side crunches, but in my humble opinion they do nothing more than to exacerbate the poor posture we already place ourselves in (from sitting too much), and increase our risk of low back pain.  Also, considering that the biomechanics of the lumbar spine are designed with only about 13 TOTAL degrees of rotation from L1-L5, I don't even see the "Russian Twist" as a wise exercise to perform regularly, with low back health in mind. 

(As a side note, people you see with nice-looking obliques did not achieve those through endless crunches and side bends.  They achieved them through very low body fat levels and/or through great genetics, as discussed in part 1). 

Anyway, I haven't prescribed a single crunch in the last few years of coaching people toward moving, feeling, and looking better. 

As Tony Gentilcore so eloquently put it:

"To be honest, I can think of a host of other things that would be more beneficial than doing crunches:

1. Cirrhosis of the liver
2. A nuclear holocaust
3. Getting kicked in the balls, repeatedly
4. Another Sex and the City movie"

I'm right there with him.  From a results-standpoint, I see it a complete waste of time to perform endless sit-ups and crunches.  From the view of keeping someone's low back healthy, I see it equally futile to include sit-ups in a core routine (especially, as mentioned before, the sit-up places roughly 3300 N of compression on the spine). 

Anyway, now main point.  What are some exercises I'll use to attack the midsection?  First and foremost, there is no "Best" exercise.  Secondly, I almost always use a form of trunk stabilization to develop the midsection, as this is one of the primary functions of our core.  Here are some exercises I've found to be awesome: 

1.  Over-Shoulder Sandbag Carries

Over the past year I've become a huge fan of sandbag carry variations, for a few reasons.
  1. With the legs as the prime movers, and the load on the shoulder, everything in between will be maximally challenged to keep you upright.  If you never knew where your obliques were located (or any abdominal muscle, for that matter) you'll know as soon as you perform these.  
  2. The position of the load essentially allows your core to help create a very efficient buttressing system for weaker joints throughout the body.  
  3. They provide axial loading for the body (important for strengthening bone and connective tissue).
Of course, in order to receive the full benefit, you need to resist shifting of the hips and stand STRAIGHT. 

In the video above I'm carrying a 85lb sandbag.  When I was training for obstacle course races in 2010 (and I'll be doing this again soon as the weather is warming up), I would take the sandbag to a 400m track and walk the distance with sandbag on one shoulder, and then repeat on the other side.  You can carry the sandbag in many different positions (over shoulder, bear hug, zercher carry, overhead, etc.).

The sandbags are very easy to make, too.  In the video I'm simply using a duffel bag filled with pea gravel.

2.  Offset-loaded Farmer Carries and/or Deadlifts

Similar to what I discussed a  Core Training article a while back.

These things are brutal.  Granted, you need to already be fairly proficient at the deadlift to perform this safely. 

Along the same lines, you can perform an offset-loaded farmers walk as Tony is doing in the video below:

We've been doing the same exercise at SAPT for a few years now, but using a small hand towel instead of a "tricep pushdown" rope.  Again, you only reap (and feel) the benefit when you stand perfectly straight.  A bonus is you receive some solid grip training with the variation, too.

3.  Medicine Ball Drills

Medicine ball drills are great to develop rotational power.  See below (Tim Collins of the Kansas City Royals training at Cressey Performance):

4.  Pallof Presses

One of the most versatile, awesome, and useful core exercises out there.  Period.  Tony Gentilcore (along with many others) has already written extensively on this topic, so instead of reinventing the wheel I'll direct you here:

Everything Pallof Press

You honestly need nothing more than the exercises shown above to work on those coveted obliques and begin a successful journey toward a strong midsection that performs optimally and looks good, too.  Personally, I rarely perform more than two "ab" exercises a week and have seen significant development of my midsection in the past few years. 

To reiterate: you can't out-train a poor diet.  No amount of abdominal training, no matter how fancy, will give you those abs of steal if you're irresponsible with your nutrition.  However, when you clean up your act in the kitchen, and work on a few of the exercises above, I guarantee you won't be disappointed with the end result.


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