It's a prevalent myth that requires frequent debunking in the weight room: Spot reduction simply doesn't work. In other words, you can train a specific area until the cows come home, but the fat won't leave that region due to those efforts. Instead, you have to use more energy than you consume for your body to mobilize fat stores. And when it does, the specific areas that are accessed are beyond your control.
Savvy exercisers know that if they want to lose fat from specific areas (the sides of the abdomen, a.k.a. the "love handles," for example), aerobic exercise with reasonable caloric intake is the way to go. However, this doesn't mean there is no reason to train body regions where fat has accumulated. Developing the underlying musculature brings numerous benefits, so spot-specific resistance training definitely has its place. Case in point: Exercises designed to target the abdominal muscles of your side.
Granted, working your side abdominals won't burn away your love handles. But it will develop muscle that will have its chance to shine when the fat comes off. What is more, these muscles are important anatomical players during many sporting endeavors and also play a vital role in physical activities of daily living. Consequently, targeting them with strength training is a win-win proposition.
There are two muscles situated on the side of your midsection. The external oblique originates on the lower portion of your rib cage and runs diagonally down to the front of your body to insert on the middle hip. The internal oblique runs diagonally down in the opposite direction, so these two muscles comprise an X-like configuration on the side of your torso. This design allows them to contribute to a number of different spinal movements.
If both internal and external obliques of both sides concentrically contract (develop enough tension to overcome opposition and shorten) simultaneously, the spine will curl forward (flex). This means the obliques assist the rectus abdominis (the front abdominal muscle) when we perform crunches. The obliques on one side of the body can also concentrically contract exclusively. In this case, the spine would curl to that specific side (laterally flex). Finally, if the external oblique on one side concentrically contracts in conjunction with the internal oblique on the other, the spine will rotate. For example, active shortening of the right external oblique and left internal oblique provides the powerful torso rotation that a right-handed tennis player would need to generate a killer forehand.
Spinal rotation is a necessary part of many athletic challenges, but during physical activities of daily living, it's wise to avoid this movement because twisting the spine places considerable stress on intervertebral discs. For example, if you're sitting in the front seat of your car and want to bring an item from the backseat forward, you're much better off getting out of the car and accomplishing the task with your spine staying neutral (especially if the item is heavy). On the other hand, lateral flexion (or, more precisely, opposition of such) is an important part of our daily regime. For example, every time we hold an object in one hand without an equal load being held in the other hand, our opposite-side obliques must develop tension isometrically to prevent our spine from laterally flexing in the opposite direction. If you think about all the times you carry unbalanced heavy items like suitcases or bags of groceries without succumbing to the load and bending to one side, you'll appreciate why strong obliques are a must. After all, weak muscles fatigue faster and when spinal muscles are no longer capable of performing their duties with maximal integrity, instability and injury are sure to follow.
Lateral flexion and rotation are the spinal movements exclusively attributable to active shortening of the obliques, so training these muscles involves applying loads that make it difficult to perform these maneuvers. For example, if you hold a dumbbell in your left hand and allow it to slowly pull your torso down to that side, your right-side internal and external oblique will have acted eccentrically (developed enough tension to slow the rate of descent that gravity is causing) to allow that movement to occur. Once end-range lateral flexion is achieved, those same obliques will then act concentrically when you return your spine to neutral and continue into lateral flexion in the opposite direction. These dumbbell side bends would provide an effective way to target your right-side obliques, so after completing a set in this manner, you would switch the weight to your right hand to work your opposite side.
Trunk rotations (twists) can also be performed to train your obliques, but many people get this one wrong. If you place a bar on your shoulders and twist in a standing position, gravity is pulling the bar down, so opposition to rotation is not present. However, if you perform the same maneuver seated with your feet fixed and torso angled back at 45 degrees, you will be rotating your spine against the pull of gravity. You can also choose to rotate in this manner as you perform abdominal crunches. This allows you to target the rectus abdominis and obliques without having to do two different exercises.
Fred Dimenna, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant is a two-time Natural Mr. United States and a WNBF drug-free professional bodybuilder. Visit him at www.freddimenna.com or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org