A guy’s awareness of his muscles has a simple progression. You start with what you see in the mirror: biceps, chest, shoulders, six pack. You quickly realize there’s also some interesting stuff on the other side: lats, traps, triceps. At some point, not long after your legs stop growing, you figure out those muscles respond to training, too.
But the real test of your muscular awareness comes when you start to wonder about all the ones in between, like your obliques. You might notice your own, if you’re lean enough. Or you might see a picture of a shredded fitness model and wonder what’s going on with those fingerlike muscles on the sides of his waist. It’s like the face-hugger from Alien is part of his anatomy.
Whatever your motivation, when you search for exercises that target the obliques, you’ll soon come across the Russian twist. Never mind that it isn’t actually Russian; as fitness historian Terry Todd, Ph.D., once told me, it was first used by British soldiers in the late 19th century. Today the exercise seems more popular than ever, at least in my gym.
You probably know what the Russian twist looks like:
Sit with your torso leaning back at a 45-degree angle, knees bent, and your feet either on the floor or elevated a few inches. In most variations you hold something in front of your chest, usually a medicine ball or weight plate. From that starting position you rotate your shoulders to the left and right.
You can also guess why people use it. An athlete might use Russian twists to develop rotational power for baseball, golf, hockey, or any other sport that involves throwing or striking (which, come to think of it, is pretty much all of them).
Someone who hasn’t heard the news that no exercise can target specific pockets of fat might use it to “get rid of love handles.”
Everyone else has the goal of developing the external obliques, which have a major role in three primary movements: rotating your torso (as in a Russian twist), bending to the side (as in a side bend), and flexing forward (as in a crunch or situp).
So if the Russian twist directly targets the obliques with a movement the muscles are designed to perform, what’s the problem?
“It puts a ton of stress on the lumbar spine,” says strength coach Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. For one thing, your lower back is only able to rotate 10 to 15 degrees. For another, leaning back with your upper body unsupported automatically puts your lumbar spine in a vulnerable position. Twisting from that position increases the risk, especially with a heavier weight.
Fortunately, Robertson says, there are much better exercises to use in your core workouts.
For relatively inexperienced lifters, or anyone who’s dealt with back pain in the recent past, Robertson recommends the Palloff press, which you can see demonstrated by Boston-based trainer Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., in this video. (You should also check out this back-saving workout.)
Attach a band or set a cable pulley to about chest height. Grab the handle or the end of the band with both hands and stand sideways to the machine or attachment point. Push the handle straight out in front of you, pause, pull it back to your chest, and repeat. Do 10 reps, turn and face the opposite direction, and repeat.
“It’s incredibly easy to perform,” Robertson says. “All you have to do is square up and hold that position.” It also makes it easy to feel the contraction of your obliques as they work to prevent your torso from bending and rotating.
Over time, you can try a lot of variations. You can hold each rep for 5 seconds, then 10, then 15. You can also try it half-kneeling, with the knee closest to the machine or attachment point on the floor. Another great option is the vertical Pallof press, invented by Nick Tumminello, a trainer based in Fort Lauderdale.
If your fitness level is more advanced, Robertson recommends the full-contact twist. (See a demonstration of the exercise in this video.)
Set up a barbell in a landmine core trainer, or secure one end in a corner with towels or a sandbag. Hold the other end at a 45-degree angle to the floor with both hands and your arms straight.
Rotate your hips and shoulders to your left, pivoting on both feet, as you lower the bar to about waist height while keeping your arms straight. Your head, torso, hips, and toes will all point to your left.
Pull the bar back to the starting position, pause, and rotate to your right. That’s one rep. Shoot for 4 to 5 reps per set.
“It’s a pretty complex move,” Robertson warns, but he thinks it’s worth a try for those who’re ready for it. “It ties together core and shoulder stability, along with hip mobility and the timing of all the various body segments.”
Most important, it twists the torso the right way, with the oblique muscles acting as a stabilizing force in support of the bigger rotational movements of the hips and shoulders. The lower back hardly moves at all.
Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to Men’s Health. Check out his new book Strong: Nine Workout Programs for Women to Burn Fat, Boost Metabolism, and Build Strength for Life, with coauthor Alwyn Cosgrove.