What Are Your Obliques and How Can They Help Your Core?
If you have ever been inside a gym, I can guarantee you have seen people doing their “ab routine” to work on their core. These often include some kind of twist or bend to work on the side of their core, or what is called the obliques. But is that the best way to train your core and your obliques specifically? And how does this transfer to real-life situations?
To answer these questions, we need to start by defining your core and your obliques, then we can dive into how to train your obliques. The core is the body’s connection of our upper and lower extremities and thus the base for all movement. Most are not aware that the core includes everything from the neck down to the pelvic floor. The diagram below shows some of the main muscles of the core.
According to BIRTHFIT principles, a strong core is “one that can maintain task-specific intra-abdominal pressure (or IAP) while coordinating all key players to dynamically complete stability and movement. All movements are translated through the core; therefore, the core needs to stabilize and then transfer load efficiently. This is crucial for adapting to postural changes during pregnancy, supporting the demands of labor, and healing in the postpartum period” (1).
So what does this mean for you? To have a strong core we must first learn how to create IAP (“intra-abdominal pressure”). IAP will change in relation to the load your core needs to handle. In exercise, think about a bodyweight squat needing less intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize your core compared to a weighted (e.g. barbell) squat. Start with diaphragmatic breathing and then establish task-specific IAP through pressurization of the core. This type of breathing and subsequent bracing involves the entire core to create pressure and thus aid in stabilization and strengthening. Other benefits of creating proper IAP include (2):
- Strengthening the whole musculature from pelvic floor to diaphragm
- Improve stability by ensuring that the whole core is working in unison
- Decrease risk of injury
- Decrease risk of experiencing pain (e.g. in back or even shoulders and neck).
During pregnancy, having a strong and stable core is of the utmost importance. Due to the physical and hormonal changes within the body, some muscles may be weakened or stretched to prepare for the process of giving birth. Usually, these muscles would be the hamstrings and glutes (back of the thighs and buttocks), shoulders, back and also the abdominal muscles. During this time, some further benefits of having a stable core include:
- Preventing back pain during pregnancy and postpartum
- Maintaining a healthier posture while the belly is growing
- Preventing incontinence
- Being stronger physically and mentally to get through labour (delivery might also be faster)
- Enabling you to get back to normal activities faster and easier after delivery.
Now that we know more about the core, what are the obliques and why are they important? The obliques are two muscles on each side of the trunk: the internal and external obliques. They are located on the sides of the abdomen and run from the hips all the way to the ribcage. The internal obliques are located under the external obliques, with the muscle fibres running perpendicular to each other (see the photo below) (3,4).
The obliques have three main actions:
- Lateral flexion (sideways bending)
- Rotation (twisting)
- Flexion (rounding)
Furthermore, when the obliques contract they are key players in creating IAP. They help to create tension through the core and are an integral part of building a strong and stable core (5). While most people train their obliques using twists or side bends (rotation and lateral flexion), we also have to think about the functionality of the obliques in real-life situations. More often than not, the obliques are not involved in movement of the torso, but actually in resisting movement (6). Think about carrying heavy bags or supporting the growing belly during pregnancy. In these cases, your obliques help to resist movement and therefore protect the lower back (lumbar spine), which is already put under more pressure during pregnancy due to postural changes.
So what might be a more functional and safer way to train your obliques? Some great movements are strength lifts that involve the entire core such as squats and deadlifts. (Check out the training videos by clicking on the movement!) In these movements, your obliques are required to brace, creating tension (IAP) and force while protecting the spine. Other exercises that work on resisting movement are carries (think Farmer’s Carry, Suitcase Carry) or Pallof Presses (e.g. with a band).
Apart from the above mentioned ways, we recommend working on Functional Progressions taught in our online and in-person courses. You can include side bends into your training. However, we recommend to stay away from other “traditional” exercises that put your body into too much flexion (e.g. sit-ups or twists) and focus on more functional movements.
It is just as important to focus on your core health during the postpartum period. Breath and postural exercises help to ensure that all regions of the core are activated and are working together to return to a strong, stable, and functional core. In the case that you are experiencing ongoing diastasis rectus abdominus (aka. DRA, separation of the rectus abdominus) that does not heal, remember to reduce the amount of stress put on your obliques (7). The core can only be functional and stable once all areas are functioning properly. BIRTHFIT REGIONAL DIRECTORS offer a postpartum series which will teach you appropropriate exercises for this stage.
Give it time throughout the motherhood transition and focus on core strengthening exercises that are healthy and appropriate for whatever phase of life you may be at.
NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer,
Precision Nutrition Level 1,
StrongFirst SFG 1 Kettlebell Instructor,
CrossFit Level 1Function Health Club Vancouver, CANADA Function Health Club Vancouver Blog @fitness_with_janina
1. BIRTHFIT, Coach Seminar Workbook, Version 1.3
2. Lauren Keller, BIRTHFIT, Understanding the Different Breathing Optionshttps://birthfit.com/blog/2018/03/26/understanding-the-different-breathing-options/
3. Pilates Fitness, Why Is It Important to Have Strong Obliques?http://www.pilatesfitness.com.sg/important-strong-obliques/
4. Men’s Health, Beth Bischoff, The 25 Best Exercises to Sculpt Your Obliqueshttps://www.menshealth.com/fitness/g19545807/best-oblique-exercises/
5. Hayden Carpenter, The Best Oblique Workout for a stronger Corehttps://www.outsideonline.com/2385126/oblique-side-abs-workout-exercises
6. Andy Haley, 3 Oblique Workouts That Build a Strong (and Ripped) Corehttps://www.stack.com/a/oblique-workouts
7. Dr. Nichelle Gurule, Why targeted oblique exercises may be too much for a pregnant or postpartum woman, specifically an individual with Diastasis Recti?http://gaiawomenshealth.com/2019/07/23/are-targeted-oblique-exercises-too-much/