I have seen countless people in various stages of physical fitness perform this exercise. I have even seen trainers recommend this exercise to their clients. Frankly, it just makes me cringe every time I see it. It is the very definition of an average gymbro exercise. It makes it look like you know what you're doing to the untrained eye, but those of us who know better just shake our heads.
Don't get me wrong, I've actually tried to tell people what I'm about to tell you with mixed results. Some have thanked me for the information. Others have looked at me like I'm the imbecile. Well, at least I tried.
So which exercise is it? It's the weighted oblique crunch (or side bend or oblique bend).
An exercise may be popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective, which is the case with the weighted oblique crunch. Here are the top 4 reasons you should remove this old-school exercise from your workout for good (Keep reading. I'll tell you how to properly and optimally build obliques at the end of this post):
1. May Cause Back Problems
If the weighted oblique crunch looks awkward, you are spot on. It IS awkward. You see, lateral spinal flexion (i.e., bending from side to side) puts your spine in a vulnerable position, especially if you are holding a heavy weight. You should abstain from this movement altogether in order to avoid putting undue stress on your back.
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2. Doesn't Train Your Core Right
Your core is designed to resist movement, not create it. The core muscles are anti-movers, which means that their function is to stabilize the spine while the appendages move. Their bracing effect protects your spine and helps transfer power between your lower and upper body (e.g., such as when you swing a bat or throw a ball). The weighted oblique crunch takes you through a very limited range of motion, one that you will likely rarely use in sports or your daily life... except perhaps to stretch when you roll out of bed.
3. Way Too Easy
This exercise is stupidly simple, which may explain why it's so popular (especially with the "gymbro" muscleheads, who love to side crunch with 45 pound plates to show off their "brute strength" ... more like "brute" intellect). However, in reality, moving a weight up and down over a few inches hardly qualifies as a challenging (or very effective) exercise.
4. Will Not Define, Spot Reduce Or Shred
If I had to guess why so many people keep doing this useless exercise, it’s likely because they're either trying to spot reduce their love handles or because they think it will give them more definition in the oblique area.
Well, yes, although weighted side bends will certainly build up your oblique muscles, they are useless for defining them or reducing your love handles. Only your diet can do that (contact me for more information if you're interested in learning how). The irony is that developed oblique muscles just make you look bigger around the waist, which is likely the antithesis of these people's intended goal. Simply put, the bigger your obliques are, the fatter you look. Don't do these!!!
How to Properly and Optimally Build Obliques
So at this point, you're likely wondering what you should do. Well, let me start by saying that developed obliques are undoubtedly one of the most attractive features of a great core when you are lean (with "lean" being the operative word), and fortunately, there are many effective exercises that target these muscles properly and safely.
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1. Heavy Compound Lifts
If you are already doing heavy, compound lifts, like squats and deadlifts every week, you don't need to worry about doing side bends. The squats and deadlifts alone should sufficiently develop your core and obliques without having to do countless crunches of various sorts.
2. Proper Oblique Targeting Exercises
If you remain unsatisfied with your oblique development despite a solid number of weekly squat and deadlift reps in your repertoire, stick to stabilization, rotation and isometric movements. Some sample exercises to strengthen obliques while maintaining a small waist are:
- Twisting Cable Crunches - this is a great isolation exercise for your abs and obliques.
- Air Bikes - According to a study conducted at San Diego State University’s Biomechanics Lab, this is the single most effective exercise you can perform if you want to work your rectus abdomens muscles (i.e., these form the “six-pack” at the front of your abdomen) and the second most effective exercise you can perform if you want to work your oblique muscles.
- One-Arm Dumbbell Farmer's Walk - In this exercise, you hold a dumbbell to your side and walk while keeping your torso upright vs. tilting your torso,. This builds your obliques and increases overall core stability.
- Side Planks - This is the most basic, but highly effective exercise to work the core muscles on the side of your body.
- Pallof Press - this is an anti-rotation exercise. This movement trains the same muscles you use in the weighted oblique crunch, but in a way that’s more functional to sports performance and injury prevention.
And finally, I would be completely remiss if I didn't mention anything about diet. You can build your obliques all day long, but the truth is that if you don't eat the right foods, no one will ever see them. Abs (and obliques) are created in the kitchen!