Focus on your external obliques for a happy back and trim middle

In order to obtain better abdominal exercise, last month’s article discussed the importance of building stronger abs for stability. 

We discussed the fact that there is no such thing as targeted fat loss. Men and women who collect fat around the middle often believe crunches and sit-ups will develop a trimmer waist, but only larger muscle group exercises, cardiovascular training and proper eating will remove fat.


Most people perform crunches to address the main abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominus, but there is another critical muscle that accomplishes what the RA cannot. The external obliques lie on each side of the rectus abdominus and have the unique responsibility of sideways bending and rotating the trunk.


The external oblique - lateral to our spine - sounds like the “flat tire” we get from eating fast food before we go to bed or the “love handles” we curse. It’s neither. It’s actually an important muscle whose strength is one we rely on to keep us out of back pain. We’ve all heard of others discuss pain from the area around their L4 or L5 disks.  The strengthening of the external oblique helps limit rotation of the trunk in this region, thereby reducing the chance of disk herniation and injury.


Exercises that move the pelvis sideways and upward will access the external obliques, including hanging bent-knee leg raises and oblique crunches. Also, holding a level, stable trunk during push-ups, lat pull-downs and planks equally call on the external obliques.


One more great way to ensure proper abdominal stability is simply stand on one leg (holding on to a wall if you need) and sweep the opposite leg out to the side. If you’re standing on your left leg and sweeping your right, look to make sure your hips are even throughout the movement and that there is no shifting of the pelvis to the left. 

If there is, engage the muscles in your abdominal area by “tightening” your stomach and try the exercise again. The effort you feel should be focused to the hip area and not the back. By feeling the work in the hip, you can rest assured the external obliques are doing their job in the abdominals. 


Jeff Howerton is a trainer and owner of LEAN Personal Training, where he and his trainers work with clients to lose fat, develop lean muscle and implement strategies for healthier living. LEAN (615) 279-1900 or

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