Best Exercises for the Obliques (Side Bends is a 3!)

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Last updated on February 8, 2023

If your goal is to develop a complete, eye-catching physique, you have got to give attention to your obliques. Well developed obliques bring quality to the midsection that draws the eye of the beholder. In this article we compare the most common exercises for the obliques to identify the best move for your time investment in the gym.

Oblique Anatomy

There are two oblique muscles – the external and the internal obliques. However, only the external obliques are visible. But you need to get your body fat level way down for the external obliques to be seen. Unless your percentage is less than 10 percent, they will not be visible.


The main function of the external obliques is lateral flexion of the spine – in other words, bending to the side. The external obliques also involve themselves in torso rotation. The obliques also assist the abdominals in forward flexion.


Both sets of obliques – the external and internal – work together to achieve these functions.


The external obliques originate on the fascia of the rectus abdominis and insert on the Iliac crest on the side of the pelvis.

The Side Bend

The side bend is the best and only way to target the obliques. This movement will both stretch and contract the muscle. However, there are side bends and then there are side bends – not all of them are productive. Let’s take a look at the options to see which version of side bend obliques exercises deserves to be in your workout program.

One Arm Dumbbell Standing Side Bend: Rating = 3

The dumbbell standing side bend is the most popularly seen version of the side bend done in the gym. In the start position, stand with feet shoulder width apart, a dumbbell held in one hand at your side and the other hand on the head or the side of the body. You then bend your torso down to the side where you are holding the dumbbell. This is meant to work the obliques on the side of the torso that is not holding the dumbbell.


When it comes to this exercise, the operating lever is the torso. The pivot point is the middle and lower spine. As a result, the operating lever is parallel to the direction of resistance, which is straight down as a result of the force of gravity. Ideally it should be perpendicular to the resistance. Because it is not, there is virtually no load on the obliques when you do this exercise.


Even in the bottom position of the dumbbell side bend, your torso is still close to parallel to the force of gravity. As a result, at the very best you will get 30 percent of the load on the obliques. The other 70 percent will be wasted!


The big problem with the dumbbell side bend is the direction of resistance. It needs to come from the side rather than straight down.

Two Arm Dumbbell Side Bend: Rating = 2

The two arm dumbbell side bend is an even worse exercise than the single arm version. As well as all of the problems associated with the one arm version, using a dumbbell in either hand is like putting a weight on each side of a balance scale. When you do this, each side will balance out the other side. When you perform this exercise, the downward force will be applied to the trapezius and the intervertebral discs of the spine.


Another major problem with the two armed side bend is that it is impossible to load both the left and right obliques at the same time. That is because they act as agonists and antagonists to one another.


The two armed dumbbell side bend is the worst version of the side bend exercise.

Side Plank: Rating = 3

The side plank is an isometric exercise that is done to work the obliques. However, it has been proven over and over again that isometric exercises will not give you any significant development in any muscle group. Another problem with this particular exercise is that it uses your entire bodyweight. The plank position places a lot of strain on your shoulder joint on the side that is supporting the body. It also puts an excessive amount of sideways force on the knee. In fact, about two thirds of your entire body weight gets loaded on that bottom knee.


The side plank is not only not good for developing your obliques – it is dangerous to your shoulder and knee joints. If you have been doing this exercise, I seriously recommend that you stop!

Cable Side Bends: Rating = 10

When you perform side bends with a cable, you are able to overcome the problem of direction of force that we identified when discussing the dumbbell version of the exercise. The cable places the resistance on an angle to the side of the body. This creates the ideal perpendicular placement of the resistance to the operating lever, which is the torso.


Another benefit of doing the side bend with a cable is that it takes the downward pressure off the spine and the trapezius. As a result, it is a far more efficient loader of the obliques.


The ideal range of motion when you do the cable side bend is not very large. In fact, the spine has limited safe lateral mobility, so you should only bend 15 to 20 degrees. So, you should not use an extreme range of motion when doing your cable side bends.


As you perform the cable side bend, you should bring your torso over in a curved rather than a jack-knife manner. This will be much more spine friendly.

How to the Cable Side Bend

Wrap Up

The Cable Side bend is the best and only exercise you should do for your obliques workout. Other inefficient oblique exercises are Russian Twists, medicine ball twists, and the mountain climber exercise. Do 3 sets of 20-25 reps on each side once per week as part of your midsection workout.

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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