This exercise is very efficient in shaping the abdominal muscles in less time

By | March 18, 2024

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If you’re looking for an exercise that will strengthen your abs routine, look no further. The Russian twist may be just what you need to target the core from *every* angle.

The standard Russian twist looks something like this: You sit on the floor, then lean back and possibly lift your legs if you’re ready for a challenge. Once stable in this position, rotate your torso from side to side. The primary target? Your core of course! But the move has more benefits than just working your six-pack muscles (also known as the rectus abdominis).

“The Russian twist is a very versatile core exercise that targets the obliques and deeper core muscles (also known as the transverse abdominals),” says Lo Lundstrom, a certified personal trainer and half of the Minny Hustlers fitness duo from Minneapolis. “It’s a move that’s great for everyone because you can modify it by keeping your feet on the ground for beginners or elevated for an extra challenge.”

Make sure you don’t go through a set of reps too quickly or throw a huge amount of weight back and forth, or you can lose the integrity of the movement, emphasizes Amanda Hoffman, ACE-CPT. Rather, prioritize the quality of your reps to avoid injuries and still get stronger.

Read on for everything you need to know about Russian twists, including their top benefits, a few variations on the traditional exercise, and how to dial back or amp up the challenge.

Meet the experts: Lo Lundstrom and Ann Flesher are certified personal trainers who are part of the Minny Hustlers, a fitness duo based in Minneapolis. Amanda Hoffman, ACE-CPT, is a strength and nutrition coach who wants to help women over 30 become strong and confident while building sustainable, healthy habits. Peter Donohoe is a NASM certified personal trainer, core strength teacher at Boston Ballet and functional performance specialist for Hydrow.

How to make a traditional Russian twist

How:

  1. Sit on the floor with your hands folded in front of your chest and lean your upper body back until your abdominal muscles are contracted. (Optional challenge: Raise your legs off the floor with your knees slightly bent so that your legs and torso form a V-like shape.)

  2. Rotate the torso to the right side so that the right elbow hovers just outside the mat. Keep the lower body still as you rotate the upper body to the left until the left elbow is just off the mat.

  3. Return to the center. The gaze follows the hands as you move. That’s 1 repetition. Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Pro tip: It’s important to move slowly, Hudock explains, rotating through your obliques, upper back and shoulders, while stabilizing and protecting your lower back from strain.

Benefits of Russian twists

Russian twists strengthen your core, including the obliques and some back muscles. “It’s a total core exercise that also improves your balance, builds stability in your spine, and trims your midsection all in one go,” says Donohoe.

  • It strengthens and challenges your core. Keeping yourself in the starting position for the Russian spin takes a lot of core strength, says Hudock. For that reason, beginners may want to modify the move or master others first.

  • It offers a bonus leg workout (and more!). Yes, it’s not just for your obliques. Hudock says this move can also work your legs and hips.

  • It can help you add good variety to your exercise regimen. To understand why, first consider the three planes of motion: frontal, sagittal, and transverse. “Frontal is side by side [movement]Sagittal is forward and backward, and transverse is rotation,” Hudock explains. There are many exercises that require forward and backward movements (think crunches), she adds. Russian twists, on the other hand, require you to move in the less common transverse plane.

  • The move is a complement to planks. Basically, this comes back to the rotation you do with Russian twists. Plank variations can be good anti-rotational movements, or exercises that require you to do this prevent make sure you don’t rotate, says Hudock. “Anti-rotation can help us prevent injuries as we teach ourselves how to ‘strengthen’ and create stable trunks,” she explains. On the other hand “the advantage of doing rotational movements [like Russian twists] can be more power,” she says. You want to perform both types of movements within a well-rounded core regimen.

How to add Russian twists to your workout

Most people can incorporate this movement into their routine two to three times a week, but if your favorite workout relies on rotational strength (like golf and kickboxing), you can increase that to four times a week.

The Russian twist can be incorporated into any ab circuit, but Donohoe likes to combine it with upper-body exercises such as a chest press, a one-arm dumbbell row, or a bent-over row.

Russian twist variations

Whether you want more or less challenge, below are a few ways to mix up the standard Russian twist.

One warning: don’t use speed as progress. “Keep it slow, keep it under control,” says Hoffman. You can even pause in the middle (instead of continually turning from side to side) to make the movement more difficult, she adds. You also always have the option to expand your repetitions and/or sets as an extra challenge.

Slamball Russian twist

Why it rocks: This version increases the intensity with added weight and engages the entire core.

How:

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, your heels on the floor and your upper body leaning back at a 45-degree angle to the ground.

  2. Hold a hitting ball against your chest with your elbows bent.

  3. Keeping your arms slightly bent, rotate your torso to the left and hit the ball on the floor next to your left hip. Hold for 1-2 seconds.

  4. Rotate the torso through the center to the right and hit the ball on the floor near your right hip. That’s 1 repetition. Continue switching sides.

Dumbbell Russian Twist

Why it rocks: The shape and grip of the barbell can change the challenge, so make sure you focus on precision and control during the twist.

How:

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

  2. Lean back slightly and lift your feet a few inches off the ground, balancing on your butt.

  3. Holding a weight at your chest/waist, rotate your torso to one side, tapping the weight on the floor next to your hip before rotating to the other side. That’s 1 repetition.

Russian Twist Alternatives

Here are some exercises you can do instead of or in addition to the Russian twist and its variations. These options may be gentler on your lower back or simply feel better on your body.

Reverse crunch

Why it rocks: The Minny Hustlers recommend this move because it not only digs deep into the lower abdomen, but also minimizes hip flexor involvement when performed correctly.

How:

  1. Start lying on your back with arms next to each other and feet lifted off the ground, legs straight and toes pointed.

  2. Push down into the arms and pull the knees into the chest until the hips come off the mat.

  3. Return slowly to start. That’s 1 repetition.

V-ups

Why it rocks: This total core challenger uses every inch of your abs and helps improve overall balance and stability.

How:

  1. Start lying on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides, both on the mat.

  2. In one motion, lift the torso, arms, and legs so that they balance on the tailbone and form a “V” shape with the body.

  3. Lower again. That’s 1 repetition.

Bicycle crunches

Why it rocks: This move is a Minny Hustler favorite because it allows targeted oblique engagement to work each side of your core evenly and effectively.

How:

  1. Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed into your mat.

  2. Then interlace your fingers to create a cradle and place it behind your head. The elbows should be wide and out of your peripheral vision.

  3. Float your legs up to a tabletop position, with your ankles aligned with the knees.

  4. Engage your abdominal muscles and lift your head so that your shoulder blades float off the ground.

  5. Stretch the right leg long as you rotate the upper body to the left. Bring your right elbow toward your left knee. Turn at the ribs and lead with your shoulder instead of your elbow.

  6. Switch and repeat on the other side. That’s 1 repetition.

Are Russian twists good for beginners?

The short answer: not necessarily. Remember how holding yourself in that position requires a lot of core strength? If you’re not quite there yet, Hudock recommends first mastering stabilizing exercises like planks or dead bugs.

And when you Are ready to try the Russian twist, start with a modified version of the exercise, using body weight only. Keep your heels on the floor, Hudock suggests, and complete a low number of reps. You can even start by holding yourself in that starting position – when you feel ready, add that controlled rotation.

How to prevent injury

According to Hudock, the most important thing to watch out for and avoid with this movement is lower back stress. And it’s important to note that Russian twists aren’t for everyone. For example, pregnant and postpartum women should avoid them, Hudock says.

“There are a lot of great core-strengthening exercises for women who have just given birth and are trying to recover from it,” she explains. “And I wouldn’t say this is one of them.”

Briefly: The Russian twist can be a good exercise to add challenge to your core regimen, thanks to the rotating motion. Remember to take it slow and don’t hesitate to consult a trainer if you need help with your form.

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