If you listed the most popular ab exercises, there would be some familiar contenders like crunches, planks, and leg raises, no doubt. But one dark horse in the race is the Russian twist.
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You’ll see it performed by bodybuilders, fitness influencers, “functional fitness” athletes who wear toe-gripping shoes that look like gloves, group-fitness worshipers, and cardio enthusiasts.
One reason why it’s so regularly used is that it lets you really feel you abdominal muscles working, almost irrespective of how well the exercise is actually performed. You can do it “wrong” and still feel some kind of burn because you’re bending and twisting. A better reason why it’s so popular is because it targets nearly every muscle in your core, including the rarely targeted oblique muscles.
Here’s how to make sure you do the Russian twist the right way to get that deep burn in your abs and obliques, not your lower back.
How to Do the Russian Twist
The Russian twist is performed seated on the ground and looks quite simple, but there are some very important steps that often get overlooked. These small changes will make a big difference.
Step One — Find Your Feet
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Sit on the ground, bend your knees, and point your feet up to dig your heels into the ground. Bring your feet and heels close to your glutes and hips, which will be your fulcrum to move your upper body. Having your feet closer to your hips is going to give you more stability. Hold your hands together in front of your chest.
Form Tip: Keep your feet flexed and pointed up during the entire movement. Pointing your feet is going to do two things: First, it’s going to keep your weight shifted backward through your hips and into the ground, giving you more stability. Second, it’s going to help engage your hamstrings, which will then help to tuck your pelvis under during the movement. This helps engage more of your lower lower abs and internal oblique muscles instead of your hip flexors. (1)
Step Two — Tuck Your Chin and Roll Back
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Imagine you’re trying to hold an orange between your chin and upper chest. Tuck your chin down to hold it in place. This will stack your rib cage over your pelvis, so you can flex your abs and maintain core tension. It will also encourage your upper back to round so your lats can “wrap” around your ribs. If you try twisting your body while keeping a tall posture with your shoulders down and back, you’ll have the mobility of an elephant on a tightrope.
Be sure to roll back, not just lean back. If you quickly lean back from your hips, you’re likely going to extend your spine and lose the stable position you worked to get into. Instead, imagine you’re about to do a backwards roll and “uncurl” yourself into position. Allow your center of mass to be drawn backwards and use your feet to engage your hamstrings for stability.
Form Tip: How far should you roll back? If you’re laying on the floor, you’ve gone too far. If you can’t feel your heels digging hard into the floor, you probably haven’t rolled back far enough. Aim for a five or six out of 10 effort to hold the position.
Step Three — Look Over Your Shoulder
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With control, twist as much of your torso as possible to one side. If you’re doing it right, it should feel like someone karate chopped you in the outside part of your obliques (muscles on the sides of your abs). Then, rotate all the way to the other side. Alternate back and forth between sides with each repetition.
Form Tip: Look over your shoulder behind you, trying to get your shoulders to 12 and six on an imaginary clock. Each person will have a slightly different range of motion depending on their mobility and strength, so work within your own comfortable range.
Russian Twist Mistakes to Avoid
Make sure that when you’re performing the Russian twist, it looks good and feels good. Don’t let your technique slip as you fatigue and don’t grind through painful, improper form. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for.
Extending Your Back
If your chin and rib cage aren’t tucked when you roll back into position, then you may end up in extension with your abs are in a lengthened position. The more extended you are, the more lengthened your abs will be. This shifts stress away from your targeted ab muscles.
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When a muscle contracts, it shortens, so although you might “feel” your ab muscles working, you’re not setting yourself up for success to properly train and strengthen them since they won’t be able to effectively shorten or fully contract.
Avoid it: Don’t roll back quite as far. That way, you can maintain a better chin and ribcage tuck. Focus on making the exercise harder by using a full rotation, not by trying to lean as far back as possible.
Not Actually Rotating
This one is one of the most common problems. Some people swing their arms from side to side like a malfunctioning lawn sprinkler, but they’re not rotating their torso or shoulders.
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With this misapplied “technique,” you might feel some tension in your abdominals because they are simply resisting rotation, but there’s not much working in the obliques because they’re not moving through any real range of motion.
Avoid it: Keep your hands as close to your body as possible. You can use them to help guide the rotation to each side, but the farther your hands move away from your center, the more your arms will want to swing. Until you master the movement, keep your hands close.
Kicking Your Legs Out
When your legs are extended too far, it’s more difficult to shift your center of mass back while keeping your hips tucked under properly. This means there’s less load, tension, work sent through your abdominal muscles and obliques, and you’ll most likely feel the burn in your hip flexors and the top part of your quads (thighs).
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Straight legs also make it difficult to drive your heels into the ground, which will limit your hamstring engagement and affect your abdominal activation.
Avoid it: Pay attention to your entire lower body. Bend your knees, pulling your feet and heels back towards your glutes and hips. Point your feet and dig your heels into the ground. This will help to engage your hamstrings and lengthen your quads and hip flexors so they can’t take over.
How to Progress the Russian Twist
One general goal of training is to gradually progress each movement or exercise for consistent improvement. However, almost anyone can make an exercise “feel” more challenging. You need to make sure you’re are making it harder in a productive way.
Arms-Extended Russian Twist
Reaching your arms forward, away from your body’s center, is going to create a longer lever with increased challenge for your entire core. When you rotate, don’t let your arms take over or move separately from your torso.
Be sure to fully rotate by looking over your shoulders. The altered leverage is going to add more relative load for increased challenge, especially in the end ranges of motion.
Dumbbell Russian Twist
Adding resistance is the most common way to make a bodyweight ab exercise more challenging. By using a dumbbell, or a single weight plate, you increase the force needed to rotate your torso. Be sure to continue using a full range of motion, aiming your shoulders in a 12 and six position.
Begin holding the weight close to your chest. As you gain strength, you can hold the weight farther from your body, in the arms-extended position, before going heavier. This lets you squeeze more overall progression from relatively lighter weights.
Decline Russian Twist
Using a decline bench will shift more of your weight backwards because of the steeper angle working against gravity. Even though your legs are securely hooked into the bench, you should still actively try to dig your heels in to get your hips tucked under.
The increased angle of the decline bench should also allow each individual to get more range of motion towards the end of each rep.
Benefits of the Russian Twist
Many ab exercises train your central core muscles — the abdominals above your hips. The Russian twist incorporates rotation, which not only recruits additional muscles but creates more stimulus for a variety of results.
Ab training alone won’t deliver a great set of abs. You need to pay attention to calories and nutrition, too. But incorporating the Russian twist into your ab workout can give some attention to your oblique muscles, while hitting your main “6-pack” abs with a serious growth stimulus. Training your abs for muscle growth won’t create a blocky-looking stomach area, but it will play a role in creating a classic washboard look.
Athletic Ab Strength
Rotational movements are sometimes overlooked when it comes to building a strong, powerful core. (2) Training your abs with rotation, like the Russian twist, can help to build inter-muscular coordination that can carryover to the field, while building general core strength and stability that can help support heavy lifting.
Muscles Worked by Russian Twist
The Russian twist works more than just “your abs.” It emphasizes your oblique muscles, while calling much of your entire upper body into play.
The obliques are the muscles on the sides of your abs that frame the six-pack. They run diagonally at an oblique angle, which is where they get their name. More accurately, there are two types of oblique muscles on each side of your body — the internal obliques and the external obliques. The internal obliques are found deeper in your core, while the external obliques are more visible.
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When twisting your body, the external obliques are responsible for contralateral rotation — the external oblique on your left helps you rotate to the right, and vice versa. These are the prime mover in the beginning part of each rep. Once you have rotated past the midpoint, the internal oblique is recruited for ipsilateral rotation — the internal obliques on your right help you complete rotation to the right. The internal obliques are not often trained, so don’t be surprised if you feel a deep burn at the end range of each twist.
The classic six-pack is actually a series of muscles known as the rectus abdominis. During the Russian twist, the rectus works to brace down and resist movement, because they’re primarily involved in traditional flexion exercises like crunches or sit-ups. This muscle works isometrically to keep your upper body stacked and stable during the twist.
Like the film Inception where there’s a dream within a dream, the transverse abdominis is essentially a set of abs under another set of abs. It is a thin sheet of muscle found underneath the rectus abdominis. The transverse abdominis, or TVA, primarily works isometrically to maintain postural tension. It also increases abdominal wall pressure to stabilize the spine and pelvis when moving, including during rotation. (3)
As their name suggests, the hip flexors are primarily involved in creating flexion (bending) at your hips. Reaching the top portion of that hip flexion, with your legs bent at an angle to your upper body, is when you can create a posterior pelvic tilt to target the lower abdominal muscles. (4)
The erector spinae, or spinal erectors, are deep muscles on your back that sit underneath the more well-known back muscles like the lats, rhomboids, and trapezius. The erector spinae extends your upper body backwards and creates lateral (side to side) flexion. During the Russian twist, they are involved more toward the end of each twist as your body reaches its peak range of motion.
How to Program the Russian Twist
The Russian twist isn’t just some random ab exercise. Because it trains your core in a unique way, with rotation instead of more traditional flexion, it can play a key role in your workouts.
This bodyweight ab exercise fits efficiently into a abdominal circuit performed at the end of any workout. Combine this with timed sets — performing continuous repetitions in a given time instead of counting individual reps — and you’ve got a winning pair.
Timed sets let you just focus on the quality of your work, and the clock will save you at the end. Good options are to use either 30 second of work with 30 of rest or 40 seconds of work with 20 seconds rest. Pick three to five exercises, including the Russian twist, and do two to four rounds at least twice per week.
Unweighted to Light Weight, Moderate to High Repetition
If you’re performing the Russian twist as a standalone exercise, not part of a circuit, you can burn your core using two to three sets of 15 to 25 reps. Remember that turning both to the left and right counts as one rep. You’ll reduce your workload if you count “right, one, left, two, right, three, left, four,” etc.
Russian Twist Variations
Once you’ve gotten a handle on the basic Russian twist, you can upgrade the exercise to hit your abs with more difficult movements.
When paired with a specialized fat loss diet, this progression can be a key player in developing abs that look and feel like they have been carved from rich mahogany. As you rotate to look over your right shoulder, pull your right knee in towards your chest. But the major key is to not touch your elbow and knee together, as if you were doing a classic bicycle crunch.
To get a full range of motion using full hip flexion, your left elbow should pass your right knee as you twist. Keep the opposite foot braced and hooked into the floor. You have to go slow with this one because it involves some coordination. Try taking three seconds to reach each rotation and hold the end position for a brief pause.
Overhead Russian Twist
This movement is similar to the basic dumbbell Russian twist, but brings the arms in an overhead motion to further change the leverage and recruit the shoulders, serratus, and upper back muscles.
Don’t sacrifice range of motion. Bring the weight from one side of your body, to a straight-arm overhead position, to the opposite side of your body.
Standing Russian Twist
Sometimes called a full contact twist, this standing movement is one of the more athletic variations because it’s performed in a standing position and involves your entire lower body.
Use a barbell in a landmine unit to allow a smooth rotation from side to side. This exercise can be done with your feet stationary while moving the weight from hip to hip or, as a more advanced variation, pivoting on the balls of your feet and moving the weight from mid-thigh to mid-thigh.
Will training my obliques make me look fatter?
No, only body fat can do that. Training any muscle, even your abdominals and obliques, will build lean muscle which improves your physique and your performance.
What some people call “love handles” is actually body fat stored generally around the oblique region. Body fat is stored throughout your body in a genetically determined manner and training the muscle underneath that stored fat will not increase those fat levels. If it did, than anyone who trained their triceps with weights would be at risk of creating jiggly “batwings” instead of building muscular arms.
Can I lift my feet off the floor to make the exercise harder?
You could lift your feet, but it wouldn’t really be harder in a productive way. The point of having your feet down is to stabilize your hips and more effectively isolate the movement through your abdominal muscles. With your feet up in the air, it’s going to be harder to keep your pelvis tucked and harder to stop your hip flexors taking over, which both reduce ab activation. It will also be harder to achieve the end ranges of motion because your hips aren’t locked in place and your entire body will be moving as you twist.
Is using a medicine ball a good way to progress the exercise?
It can be, when it’s done right. A medicine ball (just like a dumbbell or weight plate) does add load, which is a straightforward way to increase the intensity of any exercise. But the added load shouldn’t distract you from the main technique objective, which is fully rotating your body, not just moving the ball from side to side.
If you use a medicine ball, tap it just behind each hip as you twist to either side. This cue will remind you to use a longer range of motion.
C’mon and Do the Twist
When you design your next ab workout, don’t overfocus on crunch variations and planks. Rotational exercises like the Russian twist target underappreciated muscles like the obliques and help to develop serious core power. Once you learn to perform the movement correctly, you’ll be on the way to creating a stronger core with a complete and well-developed set of abs.
- Workman, Chad & Docherty, David & Parfrey, Kevin & Behm, David. (2008). Influence of Pelvis Position on the Activation of Abdominal and Hip Flexor Muscles. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 22. 1563-9. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181739981.
- Stephens, J; Bacon, E; Evans, C; Locke, S; and McCulloch, R (2021) “ANTI-ROTATIONAL AND ROTATIONAL ABDOMINAL EXERCISES AND THE CONCURRENT MUSCLE ACTIVATION: A METHODOLOGY STUDY,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 8: Iss. 9, Article 12.
- Urquhart, D. M., & Hodges, P. W. (2005). Differential activity of regions of transversus abdominis during trunk rotation. European spine journal : official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society, 14(4), 393–400. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-004-0799-9
- Takaki, S., Ms Pt, Kaneoka, K., PhD Md, Okubo, Y., PhD Pt, Otsuka, S., Ms, Tatsumura, M., PhD Md, Shiina, I., PhD Md, & Miyakawa, S., PhD Md (2016). Analysis of muscle activity during active pelvic tilting in sagittal plane. Physical therapy research, 19(1), 50–57. https://doi.org/10.1298/ptr.e9900
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