Pilates Exercises for Your Obliques

Mermaid stretch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

If you've heard oblique workouts are the way to get a better waistline, you might be wondering how to do one, as in exactly what kinds of exercises work the obliques. We're going to go into that, along with tips on how to make your oblique workouts both safe and effective.

Your Obliques

Before we launch into how to get an oblique workout, however, let's talk about where the oblique muscles are and what they do. That will shed more light on why you want an oblique workout, and how to get one.

The term obliques refers to two sets of abdominal muscles, the internal obliques and the external obliques. Relative to the other abdominal muscles, the obliques are deeper than the rectus abdominis and more surface than the transversus abdominis. The external run a diagonal along your sides from the lower ribs to the tops of the hip bones. The internal obliques are under the external obliques and run on an opposite diagonal and have a few more attachments.

The obliques aid in compressing the abdomen and in forward-bending. They are also the hard workers that help us in side-bending and twisting our torso.

The big reason to include oblique work in your workouts is that same as making sure you have tone and good function in any muscle group—you want the full benefits that muscle group has to offer. In this case, it's the side bending and twisting ability along with abdominal compression and forward bending. But let's be honest, many people want to make extra sure they get their oblique workouts in because toned obliques make for a nice waistline. That's valid. So, on to how you are going to get that oblique workout.

Oblique Workout Exercises

Now that you know what the obliques do, you have some idea of the kind of exercises you need to do to work them. That would be twisting and side-bending exercises and exercises that have those moves along with forward bending and abdominal compression. Easy, right? Let's break that down.

We start with abdominal compression. Basically, that means you are going to pull your abs in. You want some level of full abdominal muscle engagement in all of the exercise we are going to discuss. You need those abs engaged (not necessarily "rock hard" and all that, but pulled up and in with presence) in order to accomplish the moves and protect your spine.

Here are examples of exercises that will address each of the other types of moves, side-bending, and twisting. All of our examples are mat exercises.

Side Bending

  • Mermaid (pictured): this move provides a great stretch and can be used as a warm-up or as a more intense stretch later in your routine.
  • Side Bend

Twisting Upper Body

Rotating the torso opposite stable hips has an internal oblique focus.

Twisting Lower Body

The pelvis rotating opposite a stable torso has an external oblique focus.

Making Bending and Twisting Exercises Effective and Safe

Keep in mind that the obliques work in concert with your other abdominal muscles and really all the muscles of your Pilates powerhouse—abs, back, hips, pelvic floor. It is not recommended to focus just on obliques, but rather obliques in the context of a full-body workout. We want form and function along with a waistline.

You also want to avoid compression of the spine. The idea is to go for length in the spine and not let a side bend or twist shorten or compress it in any way. This is where your Pilates powerhouse and knowing how to pull your abs in a balanced way is important. You might think of side-bending as making a long arc rather than a side crunch. It needs to be long and lifted from underneath.

Remember too that a twist is not a torque or a rock. In other words, to make the twists you do effective and safe, be sure they are lengthening twists done with control. The last thing you want to do is just torque one part of your body against another. Also, when it comes to twisting, there is a tendency to just rock from side to side, or in the case of the upper body twist, to just look where we want to go or only take the shoulders. A real upper body twist takes the whole rig cage around with the head and sternum in a line.

Two other words of caution: One is to keep in mind that too many side-bending exercises, especially when done with weights, have been reported to do what any overdone muscle building exercise will do -- bulk up your muscles, in this case, your sides. That's not what you want from your oblique workouts. Second, please keep in mind that when we lose weight, we lose it all over. Spot reduction of fat is mostly a myth. Therefore, please do your oblique exercises and look forward to a better waistline but don't overdo them thinking they will get rid of love handles. That is weight loss project.

One of the best ways to get your oblique workouts is in a balanced Pilates workout which will always feature twisting and bending exercises unless it is for a population for whom those are contraindicated.

Was this page helpful?