It’s time to face the truth: You’re not giving your love handles any love by doing side bends.
Somehow side bends still remain a go-to exercise you’ll see on the floor of just about any commercial gym, as guys strive to work their oblique muscles. But when it comes to strengthening your midsection or even shrinking your waist as some people hope, side bends provide little to no core value whatsoever.
So no matter how much you may think you’re feeling the burn by bending an inch or two from side to side with a dumbbell or plate in one hand (or sometimes both), it’s time to stop doing this pointlessly overrated exercise. Men’s Health experts Mathew Forzaglia, N.F.P.T., C.P.T., founder of Forzag Fitness and MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. are both convinced you’re doing more than wasting your time—you’re potentially putting yourself in a bad spot.
“This is one of those exercises that you always question yourself, ‘Why are they doing that?’ Forzaglia says. “It’s just one of those movements that you look at or you do and it just doesn’t feel that great for your spine.”
While it’s hard to justify doing these, there’s a quite a few reasons to avoid side bends at all costs.
Why You Need to Stop Doing Side Bends
Side Bends Put Your Spine in a Bad Spot
While the objective of the side bend is to move side to side while holding a weight, eventually that weight will shift forward, pulling you out of alignment and forcing your shoulders to roll forward. After the shift, the load places an uncomfortable and possibly compromising stress on the lower back. “What happens once we wind up pulling forward, our lower back is not in that traditional deadlift position where we’re nice and strong, where we’re everything really nice and tight, but we’re out of that position,” Samuel says. “So it’s hard to find that stability, and so you’re inviting a lot of chance for injury and that’s not something that’s really worth it.”
Side Bends Wind Up Working Your Hips, Not Your Obliques
No matter how hard we want to focus on our abs, side bends quickly become a hip-dominant exercise because of the motion. If the side bend worked as intended, Samuel says the move would train anti-lateral flexion (similar to a side plank). Your obliques would be fighting against the side motion and driving up. Instead, most people allow their hips to do most of the work, which could bring some the potential for injury.
Side Bends Shortchange Your Time Under Tension
Even if you do all things correctly, the side bend only work a tiny range of motion—far less than other exercise you could be doing instead. The side bend also becomes hard to develop the mind muscle connection with our abs and obliques. So even at its best, side bends are far less effective than many other moves.
3 Side Bend Alternatives That Train Your Obliques
- Paloff Press
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side
The Paloff press is a more functional way to attack your abs and obliques. Here the focus is on anti-rotation—focusing on holding the load in front of the chest and not rotating side-to-side—but we’re going to find that target and muscle group a lot easier than pulling sides.
- Single-Arm Farmers Carry (Suitcase Carry)
3 sets of 40 second marches per side
Fitness doesn’t get more functional than carrying a heavy load. Using only one arm to carry load really helps develop your obliques—and you’ll also get some good cardio with this exercise. Think of holding a dumbbell or kettlebell as a simulation exercise for that bag of groceries you’re gonna be carrying from the car to your kitchen post-workout.
- Overhead Windmill
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps per side
You’ll be getting plenty of hip work while adding an overhead component and a lot of body awareness with this highly technical exercise. The overhead windmill works on your hinge movements, a key component in activating your hips. As you descend, you’ll twist your torso as well—that’s three planes of motion in one exercise. That’s close to how you move in real life. Makes more sense than just bending side to side, don’t you think?
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
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