How to Do the Heel Touch for Stronger and More Sculpted Obliques

illustration of a person doing the heel touch exercise against a blue background
The heel touch strengthens your entire core but specifically targets your obliques.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

Crunches and planks can get boring, and if you want to build well-rounded core strength, you need to mix up your routine with heel touches, which specifically target your obliques, aka your side ab muscles.

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Strengthening your obliques is essential for carrying out daily tasks that involve rotating and flexing your torso. Think: bending to the side to reach for something. And that's the exact movement pattern the heel touch trains you to do.

  • ​What are heel touches?​​ Also known as the oblique heel tap, side heel touches or alternate heel touches, it's a body-weight exercise that involves lying on your back with your knees bent and arms by your sides and bending to one side to touch your hand to your heel.
  • What do heel touches work?​ "They work several of your abdominal muscles, including your transverse abdominis, which is your deepest core muscle and is super important for protecting your spine and internal organs," says Jonathan Jordan, certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. "They also hit your upper and lower abs and the rectus abdominis — the six-pack muscles. Most notably, the heel touch targets your oblique muscles, which are responsible for side bending."
  • Who can do this exercise?​​ People of all fitness levels who want to build a strong core can do heel touches.

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Warning

If you have back pain, it is important you get evaluated by a medical professional before starting an exercise program. "They can tell you which muscles are weak and what exercises are best (and safest!) for your issues," Jordan says.

How to Do Heel Touches With Proper Form

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Reps 20
Activity Body-Weight Workout
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your feet shouldn't be too far or too close to your hips; about two hands-width apart from your hips is a good distance.
  2. Straighten your arms and place them by your sides, with your palms facing up.
  3. Contract your core and lift your head and shoulders off the ground.
  4. Don’t crunch up, but keep your neck in line with your body.
  5. Slowly bend to the right, touching your right hand to your right heel.
  6. Pause for a second or two and repeat on the other side.
  7. Do 2 to 3 sets of 20 reps of alternate heel touches.

Watch the Full Tutorial

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4 Heel Touch Exercise Benefits

1. It Strengthens Your Core

The heel touches exercise is first a foremost an abs exercise. It targets your main core muscles, including your transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and obliques, which run along the sides of your torso.

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Your obliques are important for rotational and side bending movements, so strengthening these muscles are important for carrying out daily activities.

2. It Can Prevent Low Back Pain

By doing heel touches to build a strong core, you can also help prevent and reduce low back pain. In fact, a January 2017 review in the Journal of Athletic Training found that core stability exercises can help reduce low back pain more than general exercise.

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"So many people spend the greater part of their days sitting and typing away on devices with less than ideal posture which leads to weak, deactivated core muscles," Jordan says. "When we finally get up and go do the activities we love, such as weight lifting, tennis, golf or even just bending over to pick something up, we can trigger a spinal injury."

Exercises like the heel touch can help shore up your core so that you can do everyday activities more comfortably.

3. It Improves Spinal Flexibility

An added bonus of the side-to-side movement in this exercise is that it improves flexibility and mobility in your spine.

You may find that when initially doing this move, you may not quite be able to touch your heels — which could be due to core weakness or reduced flexibility. As both of these things improve, you will be able to touch your heel with greater ease.

4. It Requires No Equipment

You don't need much space or fancy fitness equipment to do this ab exercise, so you can do them anywhere, any time.

As you perfect this move, you can make it more difficult by using dumbbells or resistance bands, but again, all you need is your body and a comfortable spot to lie on the floor.

3 Heel Touch Form Tips for Better Results

To get the maximum benefits from the heel touch, you need to make sure you're doing them with proper form. It's a fairly simple move, but you want to make sure you aren't straining your neck and are engaging your core throughout this move.

1. Pull Up With Your Core — Not Your Neck

"Make sure you are lifting your head and chest up toward the ceiling versus 'crunching' and rounding toward your chest," Jordan says.

"Keep that thoracic spine in a neutral position or even in a little extension versus flexion," meaning bent backward a tad versus rounded forward. This ensures that you are using your core muscles to do the work and aren't straining your neck.

2. Stop if You Feel Any Pain

"If you feel pain or discomfort in your lower back, or any joints, stop immediately," Jordan says. "These look simple, but they are actually advanced. Lateral flexion — side bending — and rotation can commonly cause injury (such as bulging discs) to worn, compromised spinal joints or cause muscle spasms."

It is always important to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. If something doesn't feel right, stop the exercise immediately and consult your doctor before starting up again.

3. Move Slowly and Deliberately

"Slow it down. Move deliberately and with control, versus hurrying and with momentum," Jordan says.

Moving slowly and with control means the work is coming from your obliques and not your neck or back.

"Don't stress if you can't reach your heels. Start with a range of motion that works for you, and over time, you will safely get deeper," Jordan adds.

3 Heel Touch Variations for an Added Challenge

Once you have mastered the basic heel touch, it is time to challenge yourself. Jordan shares three heel touch variations that will further strengthen your core.

1. Heel Touch With Dumbbells

Using light dumbbells adds another layer of resistance to this exercise, making it more challenging to keep your core contracted and your arms straight and off the ground.

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Reps 20
Body Part Abs
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your feet shouldn't be too far or too close to your hips; about two hands-width apart from your hips is a good distance.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing up. Place your arms straight out by your sides.
  3. Contract your core and lift your head and shoulders off the ground. Don’t crunch up, but keep your neck in line with your body.
  4. Slowly bend and reach to the right, touching your right hand to your right heel.
  5. Pause for a second or two and repeat on the other side.
  6. Do 2 to 3 sets of 20 reps.

Tip

Start with a 3-pound dumbbell, working your way up to a 5-pound dumbbell once you can easily do 20 reps on each side. Don't go over 10 pounds with this exercise.

2. Heel Touch With Resistance Band

This variation levels up the classic move by making it more difficult to bring your hand to touch your heels. Start with a light resistance and progress to using medium and heavy resistance as you get stronger. Just make sure you're still doing the exercise with proper form.

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Reps 20
Body Part Abs
  1. Wrap a resistance band with handles around the leg of a table (or another stable surface) and lie on your back, holding on to each side of the band. Keep your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your arms straight out by your sides, holding firmly to the band.
  3. Contract your core and lift your head and shoulders off the ground.
  4. Don’t crunch up, but keep your neck in line with your body.
  5. Slowly bend and reach to the right, touching your right hand to your right heel.
  6. Pause for a second or two and repeat on the other side.
  7. Do 2 to 3 sets of 20 reps.

3. Spider Plank

The spider plank is a progression of the heel touch. It's a more advanced move because you are working against gravity, which further challenges your core. Make sure you keep your abdominals contracted throughout the entire move.

Reps 20
Body Part Abs
  1. Start in a forearm plank, resting your forearms on the ground with your legs straight behind you.
  2. Keep your core braced and your body in a straight line. Don't let your hips sag down.
  3. Bend your right knee up and tap it to your right elbow. Extend it back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat on the other side and tap your left knee to your left elbow.
  5. Do 2 to 3 sets of 20 reps.

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