To get a core as sculpted as these fit AF celebs, it’s going to take more than crunches and sit-ups—which only strengthen the rectus abdominis muscles (aka the washboard muscles). Rather, you’re also going to have to strengthen your internal and external obliques, explains certified personal trainer Dennys Lozada of RSP Nutrition. “The oblique muscles are actually the largest of all your ab muscles, so if you ignore them and focus only on sit-ups and crunches, your core routine is not efficient nor effective.”
The obliques are the muscles responsible for those chiseled V lines. “They are made up of two different muscles, the internal obliques and external obliques, which work together to help you perform a variety of different functions including bending forward, twisting sideways, and rotating to the left or right,” Lozada says.
Strong internal and external obliques are also essential for injury prevention, especially as you get older, Grayson Wickham, physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and founder of Movement Vault tells Health. “They protect your lower back, create stability around your midsection (which helps prevent falls), and allow you to move safely in multiple directions.”
Ready to start strengthening these sexy-looking, injury-preventing obliques? Try the 11 best oblique exercises below, courtesy of top trainers. (No gear? No problem. Most of the moves below are oblique exercises without equipment.)
Standing side crunch
“Not only does this movement target the external obliques, but it also works on hip stability,” says pilates instructor Rachel Piskin, co-founder of ChaiseFitness. And because you have to squeeze your butt to keep your lower body still while performing a rep, you’re also strengthening your glutes.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Lace your fingers behind your head so that your elbows are pointing to the sides. When you’re ready to begin, draw your belly button in toward your spine and make sure your ribs aren’t flaring out. Move your right elbow toward your right hip for a count of four, pause, then lift back up to starting position for a count of four. That’s one rep. Repeat 10 times before switching to the left side.
Slow bicycle crunch
Bicycle crunch, but make it slo-mo. That’s the gist with this twist on a classic oblique ab exercise. “In my opinion, this movement is the ultimate test in core stability and control,” Piskin says.
The goal with this movement is form, not speed. “With each rotation, check your form and think about not only bringing the elbow to the opposite knee but lifting the opposite shoulder off the mat for maximum muscle engagement,” she says.
How to do it: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the ground. Minimize the space between your back and the mat by drawing your belly button toward your spine. Lace your fingers under your head, elbows pointed out.
Lift your head, shoulders, and upper back off the mat. Take four counts to rotate your left elbow to your right knee. Return to the mat on a count of two. That’s one rep. Switch sides, and continue alternating as if you’re very slowly pedaling a bicycle. Aim for 20 total reps.
Standard side plank
Zack Daley, certified personal trainer and training manager at Tone House, swears by this oblique move. “This exercise really activates the internal obliques, and you will also work the rest of your core.”
While you’re performing it, Daley has one major tip: “Don’t let your chest turn toward the ground. Stay open to whichever direction you're facing to reap the true benefits.”
How to do it: Start lying down on your side with one forearm flat on the ground directly under your shoulder and your feet stacked on top of each other. Engage your core to lift your hips off the ground until your body is in a straight line from head to toe. Keep the non-supporting arm up with your hand above or behind your head. Try to hold that straight body position for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.
Side plank with reach through
While the plank is an OG ab-burner, the side plank is basically the definition of an oblique ab exercise. Add the snazzy reach through and you’ll also be targeting the upper back, Piskin says.
How to do it: In right side plank position, extend your left arm with fingers pointed toward the ceiling. Tighten your lower ab muscles and brace your entire core. Rotate your left fingers around your body and touch beneath your right hip. That’s one rep. Do three reps on that side, then switch. Work up to 10 reps per side.
Front plank knee to elbow
“This move is an internal oblique exercise and an external oblique exercise,” Daley says, “but it also works the glutes, hip flexors, and shoulders.”
The goal here is to draw your knee to your elbow on the same side. However, tight hips and/or a weak core will make that difficult to do with good form. If you can’t draw your knee up that high in a controlled manner—aka without rocking your hips side to side—go only as high as you can, he suggests.
How to do it: Start in push-up position, then lower to your forearms so your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Keeping your back flat and your core engaged, draw your left knee up to tap your left elbow. Return your left leg to starting position. That’s one rep. Repeat on the other side, then continue to alternate from left to right for a total of 16 to 20 repetitions.
Once you’ve got the front plank knee to elbow down, kick it up a notch with the spiderman push-up.
You already know that push-ups are seriously effective for strengthening your triceps, chest, core, and shoulders. Well, this variation lets you target your obliques at the same time, Lozada says.
If you can’t comfortably complete five standard push-ups in a row, try this with your knees on the floor.
How to do it: Start in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders. Bend your elbows as if you’re doing a push-up. As you lower your body toward the floor, lift your right leg off the floor, open up that right hip, and draw your right knee up to touch the outside of your right elbow. Return to push-up position. That’s one rep. Repeat on the left side. Aim to complete three sets of 10 reps.
Banded anti-rotation twist
This movement will force you to twist your core against resistance, Lozada says. Translation: You can get a serious ab burn in mere minutes. As with most resistance band exercises, your best bet is to start with little resistance and progress to a harder band if needed.
How to do it: To set up, grab a resistance band and tie a knot in one end around a vertical post (the inside of a squat rack works well) so it sits just below shoulder height. The more resistance in the band, the harder the exercise will be.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with the right side of your body toward the post. Pull the band in front of you with both hands so that it’s even with the middle of your chest. Take a step or two away from the post to create more tension in the band.
Brace your core, straighten your arms in front of you, and twist your body away from the post. Your hips should stay facing forward; only your core and shoulders are rotating. Pause, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do eight reps on one side, then switch sides.
Single-arm farmer's carry
When you think of functional movements, you probably think about the air squat or the deadlift. But the single-arm farmer's carry is a movement you probably do almost every day: carrying groceries from the car, lugging your briefcase to work, or hauling a duffle bag through the airport.
If you keep the weight close to your body while carrying it—as opposed to swinging it all over the place—you’ll really be targeting your obliques, Lozada says. Bonus: You’ll also be strengthening your grip, forearms, shoulders, traps, and legs.
How to do it: Grab a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the weight at your right hip. Tuck your hips to engage your core. Focusing on keeping your shoulders square and the weight close to your body, walk about 25 yards. Turn around and walk back. Rest as needed and repeat on the oppposite side.
Half moon pose
If you do yoga, chances are there are some oblique-sculpting moves in your flow, says Bethany Lyons, founder and CEO of Lyons Den Power Yoga. The half moon pose is a full-body movement that’ll improve your balance, strengthen your obliques, and tone your thighs and tush too.
How to do it: Get into Warrior II by stepping your feet wide, turning your right leg out 90 degrees, and raising your arms to the sides.
Bend your right knee slightly, then transfer your weight forward onto your right front foot, lifting your left leg in the air. Place your right hand on a block or the floor for support or up the balance ante and have both hands airborne. Engage your legs and core. Lift your eyes toward your top hand. Press your left heel back and flex those toes toward your face, keeping the leg parallel to the floor.
Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Hanging knee raise with twist
Ready for an oblique exercise that’s a little more difficult? If you have a pull-up bar, try a hanging knee raise with a twist, suggests certified strength and conditioning specialist and chiropractor Allen Conrad.
How to do it: Grab the pull-up bar so that your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Start by hanging from the bar with a straight back, engaged core, and legs together. Then, bend your knees and bring them up so that your thighs are parallel with the ground.
Pull down on the bar to engage your lats and shoulders and slowly rotate your torso so that your knees come to the right. Then, windshield wiper them to the left. That's one rep. If you start swinging all over the place, drop from the bar and reset. Aim for 10 total reps.
This movement, which takes place on your knees, is deceivingly hard. But physical therapist Corinne Croce, co-founder of Body Evolved in New York City, says it requires some serious core stabilization. “This move requires that both the internal and external obliques are activated and engaged."
How to do it: Kneeling, grab onto a resistance band that is looped around a column or a cable and hold it at the middle of your chest with both hands. Squeeze your glutes, then press the cable away from your chest so your arms are fully extended. Your core should be tight and engaged; don't let your arms get pulled away from midline. Return to the starting position with control. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 12 reps total.
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