5 Mistakes That Make Russian Twists Less Effective (and Potentially Painful)

When it comes to ab exercises like the Russian twist, slow and steady is much more effective.
Image Credit: Georgiy Datsenko/iStock/GettyImages

Few ab exercises fire up your midsection like Russian twists. The popular move — which involves a seated, side-to-side action — targets your transverse abdominis (deep core), rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles) and obliques (sides of your torso), says Sam Becourtney, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments.

Your core muscles at the front of your body (transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis) must work to maintain the upright position while your obliques contract to rotate your trunk, he says.

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But you can only reap the ab-burning benefits of Russian twists if your form is right. When it's not, the exercise becomes less effective and potentially painful. Here, Becourtney points out the most common Russian twist mistakes, plus offers tips on how to tweak your technique.

First, Master Proper Russian Twist Form

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  1. Start by lying on your back on a mat. Flatten your back into the floor and engage your abdominal muscles.
  2. Lift your head, shoulder blades and mid-back off the floor until your body forms a 45-degree angle with the floor. Bend your knees and bring them toward your chest.
  3. Once you're in this V position, actively engage your core further by drawing your bellybutton to your spine.
  4. Maintain this position while slowly rotating your hands from side to side.
  5. Allow your gaze to follow your hands and coordinate your breath with each part of the movement. Exhale as you twist, inhale as you return to center.

Tip

Once you’ve nailed your Russian twist form, you can add resistance (hold a medicine ball, weight plate or dumbbell) for an extra challenge.

Avoid These 5 Worst Russian Twist Mistakes

1. Moving Too Quickly

Speed is not your friend here. By rushing through this movement, you reduce your time under tension, Becourtney says. That means less time when your abs are working.

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And if you rush, you're likely to use momentum instead of muscle. This reduces the amount of tension and, consequently, the exercise's effectiveness, he says.

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Don’t cheat yourself — slow down the movement. “Use a verbal 1-2-3 second count, which should be roughly the time taken to go from one side to the next,” Becourtney says.

2. Arching Your Lower Back

We tend to round our lower back when we feel fatigued. But this makes the move less effective. "If you arch your lower back, you typically lose abdominal engagement," Becourtney says.

And if you do it enough, you may increase the likelihood of back pain or muscle strain over time, he says.

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Fix It

Actively engage your abdominals. “Think about drawing your bellybutton to your spine,” Becourtney says. And if you feel an arch creeping into your lower back, stop and reset your position.

3. Twisting Your Lower Back

Remember, Russian twists are a core exercise, and as such, your back shouldn't be moving a lot (its function is only to help stabilize you).

"If you twist your lower back, you may not be staying rigid enough through the torso," Becourtney says. And over time, excessive rotation of the spine could be dangerous, he says.

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“Focus on moving the ​arms​, and not moving the ​back​ when going side to side,” Becourtney says.

Another great tip: Imagine growing longer and taller, as if a string was pulling you by your head, and this should help you maintain a tight, rigid torso, he says.

4. Leaning Back Too Far

During Russian twists, your spine should remain straight. But if you lean back too far, you're likely to slouch. "Once you start to lean back, it's very hard to reverse this, as momentum will take you further backward," Becourtney says.

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Leaning back too far not only increases your risk of low back pain but also reduces some of the desired abdominal tension, he says.

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“Actively tuck the knees toward your chest in order to maintain the proper V position, which will keep you from falling backward,” he says.

5. Letting Your Knees Move Side to Side

You shouldn't look like you're slalom skiing during Russian twists. "By allowing your knees to move side to side [and relying on momentum], you're taking away from the torso rotation that's supposed to be the focus of this exercise," Becourtney says.

As a result, you lessen your core muscle engagement and render the move easier [read: less effective] for your obliques.

Fix It

Slow down your pace and position your hands closer to your torso to keep the movement closer to your center of gravity, Becourtney says. Crossing your feet can also help, since it decreases the stability demands and makes the exercise slightly easier, he says.

If these tweaks don’t help you control your knees, try putting your feet on the floor, he says. This position is a good place to start and gradually build up strength. With practice, you’ll be able to perform the exercise with your feet off the ground and legs uncrossed.

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