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What You Need to Know for Strong External Oblique Muscles (and Back Pain Relief)

In this post: Maybe you’ve never heard of your external oblique muscles. However, if you’ve ever had low back pain, a potbelly, or difficulty bending to the side or twisting; you need to find out now!

a pin for a post about external oblique muscles and how they can relieve low back pain

Most people think there’s only one abdominal muscle. You know the one–the glamour muscle, the six-pack abs muscle, the rectus abdominis.

The truth is, we have four abdominal muscles and all four are just as important. In fact, if any of these abdominal muscles don’t work correctly, your core weakens and the Jenga stack that is your spine topples.

This leads to low back pain.

The good news is, it’s really easy to keep all four of your abdominal muscles healthy. Here’s what you need to know about your external oblique muscles and how to keep them strong.

If you have hip or back pain that’s preventing you from living the life your dreams, I have great news for you–I created a course to teach you how to permanently ditch your pain. Enrollment for Spinal Rejuvenation is currently closed, but I would love to send you a FREE guide to hip pain relief while you wait for this course to open.

Where Are the External Oblique Muscles?

a drawing of the external oblique muscles
Thanks to Kenhub for the image.

The external oblique originates on the external surfaces and bottom edges of the lower eight ribs. You can see this toward the sides of the rib cage.

According to Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards, the insertion for the external obliques is on the “linea alba by means of the broad abdominal aponeurosis from ribs to crest of pubis, inguinal ligament, and the anterior half of the iliac crest along the outer lip.”

Uh huh. Let’s take a moment to break that down.

The linea alba is the line that runs down the middle of your rectus abdominis. It splits your three-pack into a six-pack.

An aponeurosis is a fibrous tissue that takes the place of a tendon. It works similarly to a tendon, but they’re not the same thing.

You may remember that tendons attach muscles to bones. That’s what this aponeurosis does, connecting the external oblique to the crest of the pubis. However, it also connects the external oblique to the linea alba.

The external oblique also inserts on the inguinal ligament and the anterior half of the iliac crest. If you put your fingertips on the front of your pelvis and trace down about halfway, this is where the external oblique insertion starts. As your fingertips move toward your pubis, you are tracing your external oblique insertion.

But Here’s the Best Way to Figure Out Where the Heck This Muscle Is…

My Pilates instructor and guru, Tracy Maxfield, taught me to find the external oblique muscles this way:  To trace the external obliques, your hands start on the front of your rib cage. They slide down toward your pubis. That zone is X-rated. Thus, you get “X-ternal obliques.”

What Do They Do?

Because you have an external oblique muscle on each side of your body, the external obliques can move both unilaterally and bilaterally. This means they can either work separate from each other or together.

When just one of the external obliques is firing, the working muscle will rotate the trunk to the opposite side (with a little help from the opposite side’s internal obliques). It will also bend to the side in the direction of the working muscle.

But, when both external oblique muscles work, the torso bends forward. Plus, these muscles help with forced exhalation.

The external obliques also provide structural support. These important muscles support the spine, especially the low back. Also, the external obliques help hold the other abdominal muscles in their places.

Whew! That’s a lot of work.

But What If They Don’t Work…

If your external obliques don’t work correctly, you can be faced with a number of issues. The most common issue is low back pain.

Without the muscle tone and stability of the external obliques, your personal contents shift. This places strain on your low back.

Imagine for a moment that your ribs and hips form a cylinder to contain your internal organs. Your transverse abdominis, or transversus, is the first muscle trying to keep your organs in that cylinder. However, it’s a very thin layer. It needs additional help.

This is where the external obliques come into play. They are the additional force to help keep your organs inside the cylinder.

Now, let’s say your external obliques are weak or injured. They will not be supportive. With your spine closing the space in your back and your ribs and hips coming close to closing the space in the sides, there is only one area of weakness–your front.

When you have weak abdominals, your organs tend to spill forward out of your cylinder. This creates a pull on your low back. It’s kind of crazy to think this is the cause of your low back pain but, for many people, it is.

In some cases, though, people might have one tight external oblique muscle. This can cause either the rib cage or hips to be slightly rotated.

When this happens, it’s not always noticeable or painful, but it does take its toll on your spine over time. Your spine wants to have equal pull from your muscles. If one muscle pulls harder than the other or seems to always be pulling, it will cause issues.

I highly recommend you consult your doctor if you have back pain. Your doctor can order the appropriate imaging, therapy, and medication to correctly treat your issue.

That being said, sometimes you might notice small, correctable issues. Maybe you can rotate or bend really well to one side and not the other. You can probably do exercises to correct this imbalance. Again, though, let me remind you that if you feel pain, you need to call your doctor.

Spinal Rejuvenation can teach you how to permanently relieve your hip and/or back pain from the privacy of your own home!

How to Keep Your External Obliques Healthy

In order to increase strength and recover from injury in your external obliques, you need to correctly perform rotation and side flexion exercises. As you rotate one direction, you will stretch the external oblique that you are rotating toward.

Remember, your right external oblique rotates you to the left. Therefore, as you rotate to the left, it will be your left external oblique stretching.

Some excellent spinal rotation exercises are:

When both external obliques fire, your chest comes toward your pelvis. Because of this, a case can be made that Roll up, Ab prep, The Hundred, Spine stretch forward, Navasana, and other flexion exercises also strengthen your external obliques. In these scenarios, the external obliques would be secondary movers, though.

To Learn More…

The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey is a really great, easy-to-understand book about the major muscles in your body. However, for more precise medical information, I recommend checking out Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. (I earn a small commission if you order through these links.)

Also, Kenhub.com is a great resource to learn anatomy. Here is the link to their information about the anterior abdominal muscles (such as the external oblique muscles).

If you have hip or back pain that’s preventing you from living the life your dreams, I have great news for you–I created a course to teach you how to permanently ditch your pain. Enrollment for Spinal Rejuvenation is currently closed, but I would love to send you a FREE guide to hip pain relief while you wait for this course to open.

What are your favorite exercises for your external oblique muscles? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Stockett

Hi! I'm Sarah, and I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. When I'm not working with clients, I'm researching the best ways to get rid of pain. Do you want to learn how to practice yoga and Pilates safely in your own home? Or, do you want to know all my tips and tricks for pain relief? Join my mailing list and receive free goodies to help you.

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