Individuals typically strive for strong and toned -- rather than thick and “squared” -- oblique muscles. Bodybuilders often avoid training the obliques with weight, as increased development of these muscles eliminates the aesthetic of the desired V-shaped taper. Squaring of the oblique muscles is the result of hypertrophy -- increased bulk -- of the external oblique and the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis, according to Richard Kelley, Texas physician and fitness authority. Various exercises, done without weights, tone these muscles without excessive hypertrophy.
One belief is that the best way to target the obliques is through lateral flexion, or side bends, according to Jennifer Beaton, vice-president of Health and Fitness Western Athletic Clubs. Lateral flexion is often done as a person stands, holding a weight -- a dumbbell or a cable -- on one side and bending in the opposite direction. This exercise is effective for creating lateral strength; however, it can produce a hypertrophic or “muscle-building” result. Although the obliques are actively involved in lateral flexion, they also support rotation, forward flexion and core stability, says Beaton. Exercises, such as cable or band wood-chops or push-pulls, old-fashioned bicycles and mountain climbers combine all three planes of movement, strengthening and toning the obliques and the overall core.
Lower Abdomen Focus
If you layer exercises, focusing on the transverse abdominal muscles, you will get an effective core workout that won’t square obliques, according to Noelle Rox, California Pilates and fitness guru. Many of the Pilates mat exercises effectively create a leaner, flatter midsection and a tinier waist. Rox cues her clients to think of a “skinny waist” as a directive to draw the abdominal muscles not only “in” for stability, but also “up” to create length. Initiating exercises from deeper muscles helps connect and engage the obliques properly, effectively targeting the waist without squaring obliques. Perform a sequence of exercises rather than several repetitions of just one exercise. Focus on moves that work the lower, deeper abdominals before doing specific oblique work, advises Rox. For example, do 10 double-leg lower and lifts combined with 10 bicycle twists.
Pilates exercises typically don’t square obliques, according to Seattle Pilates instructor, Lara Dalch. The entire Pilates system brings the waist in quickly. Dalch recommends exercises such as the corkscrew. Lie on your back with arms lengthened on the mat by your sides. Extend your legs straight to the ceiling with heels together and toes apart. Keeping your heels together, circle both legs to the right, down and around to the left, stopping when you come back to center. Reverse the circle and repeat the cycle three to five times. Abdominals should be pulled in and up and engaged throughout this exercise. Imagine your obliques pulling your legs back toward the center, advises Dalch.
Twists and Lunges
Most exercises utilize the core to some extent. When you squat, row or press, you use the core to stabilize the body, so the intended muscle group is effectively targeted. Exercises, such as traditional crunches, hit the core area directly. Avoid weighted bending exercises. They tend to bulk the obliques. Instead, lie on your back with your hands behind your head, knees bent, alternating opposite elbow to knee. You can also do this move standing for a different approach. Do a torso-twisting exercise combined with a side lunge. Lunge to one side, twisting your torso in the same direction as the lunge.
- Richard Kelley, M.D.; Founder, Physicians Way Medical Weight Management Clinic; Austin, Texas
- Johnny Messina, Trainer; FitOrbit; Sag Harbor, New York
- Jennifer Beaton, Vice President of Fitness Operations; Western Athletic Clubs; San Francisco, California
- Lara Dalch, Health and Nutrition Coach and Pilates Expert; Dalch Wellness; Seattle, Washington
- University of New Mexico: Super Abs Resource Manual
- ExRx.net: Mountain Climber