Your external obliques sit on each side of your abdomen. Beneath them lie your internal obliques, which rest near your hip bones. These muscles control torso rotation and side bending, and assist in abdominal curling. The external obliques perform opposite-side rotation, while the internal obliques are same-side rotators. Whether you love to twist and shout, play tennis or simply look great in a bathing suit, you need these muscles. Fortunately, Joe Pilates had many plans for working them.
Oblique Meet and Greet
To understand your obliques in action, picture this. You come home from work and chirp "Hi honey, I'm home." Your husband, sitting on the couch watching the game, twists to his left and says "Hello my love." He just engaged his right external and left internal oblique. He then rotates his torso toward the end table on the right, and grabs his can of beer. Now, his left external and right internal obliques take over. If these muscles are weak, even these simple movements will hurt his back.
Back to Basics
The Pilates spinal twist forms the basis for all other oblique exercises. Sit upright on your sitz bones -- the appropriately named bones in your butt -- and extend your legs in front of you. If you can't sit upright, place a pillow under your butt. Imagine your spine as a barber pole, and your obliques as the stripes spiraling around the straight central axis. Extend your arms to the side at shoulder height, and inhale to prepare. Exhale, draw your belly in and rotate your torso to the right. Inhale, return to center and repeat on the other side. As you rotate to one side, sink your opposite hip into the floor. This exercise might be a no-no for those with disc problems. Ask your doctor.
Twist Again, But Do It Right
The advanced, sexy Pilates oblique exercises provide many cheating opportunities, but as your 5th grade teacher used to say, "You're only cheating yourself." The problem arises during oblique exercises that simultaneously engage your abs and legs. Pilates instructor-trainer Aliesa George describes the chaos that ensues when your quads wage war against your obliques. If a quad contraction initiates rotation, it lifts the top of your thigh bone, which in turn lifts your hip. A lifted hip minimizes the space your spine has for rotation, and causes you to crank your shoulders and elbows around instead. Your elbows get a great workout. Your obliques get nothing.
Calling it the bicycle maneuver, the American Council on Exercise honored the Pilates crisscross with the distinction of being one of the most effective abdominal exercises, as long as it's done correctly. Despite its many benefits, the crisscross often invites Murphy's Law. Performed supine with your legs lifted and extended, it involves bending one knee, rotating your upper body toward it, then twisting to the other side. The pesky hip-lifting issue might rear its ugly little head during this exercise. As you rotate in one direction, remember to sink your opposing hip into the floor.
Some of the Pilates machines address the side-bending functions of the obliques. The mermaid, for example, performed on the Pilates reformer, looks as pretty as it sounds. Sit on the reformer carriage with your knees bent to the left, and your feet facing the shoulder pads. Hold the foot-bar with your right hand. Reach your left arm overhead, and bend at your waist to the right. The carriage will move away from the foot-bar. Complete one set, then switch sides.
- University of New Mexico: Super Abs Resource Manual
- Pilates Digest: Pilates Mat Exercises to Improve Torso Rotation for Golfers
- Centerworks Pilates: Abs vs. Thighs: Maximizing Effective Pilates Ab Work for Core Conditioning – Oblique’s vs. Quads
- American Council on Exercise: New Study Puts the Crunch on Ineffective Ab Exercises
- Pilates Back-Joint Exercises: Pilates Reformer Exercises for Strength and Flexibility
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.