Imagine a vertical line that runs through the body, neatly dividing it into halves. Any movement you make parallel with this line is done in the sagittal plane. Now consider the movements you make during your workouts and how many of them are parallel to this line. It’s probably most of them—from classic bodyweight moves like lunges and squats to free-weight exercises like presses and curls. Then, when you do mix it up, the chances are you’ll start moving laterally, with side lunges or skater jumps. These are movements done in the frontal plane.
All of these are excellent exercises that will do you a world of good, but they do not prepare your body for another kind of movement you do regularly, especially if you play a lot of sport—twisting. Consider another imaginary line that cuts your body in half at the waist. Movements where you twist your upper or lower body parallel to this line are said to be done in the transverse plane. The chances are you don’t include so many rotational exercises in your workouts.
Rectify that by doing the Russian twist, which works in the transverse plane and strengthens muscles that you might be missing with your straight-up-and-down crunches and sit-ups, such as the obliques. Regular Russian twisting can also help improve your posture and if you’re about to take up kayaking or canoeing with a vengeance, there is no better core exercise to prepare for life with a paddle.
Which muscles does the Russian twist work?
“The muscles on the side of your abs are targeted, but the Russian twist is great because it works your whole core including the lower back muscles, the deep abdominal muscles (called the transversus abdominis) and your rectus abdominus,” says certified personal trainer Amber Sayer. “So really, your entire core gets a workout.”
It’s also a functional movement that strengthens muscles used in everyday activities such as twisting and lifting. “What is great about this exercise is you have to hold your core as steady as possible, like a plank,” says Sayer. “You should be fixed in that position while you move your upper body. I like this move because it’s very functional in that way. If you think about the core, you really want it to act like a stable support base upon which your arms and legs can move. The Russian twist trains that role of the core.”
How To Do The Russian Twist
Start by sitting on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Then lean back so your upper body is at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Keep your back straight at this angle throughout the exercise, as it will be tempting to hunch your shoulders forward. Link your hands together in front of your chest, then brace your core. Rotate your arms all the way over to one side, then do the same in the other direction. Count that as one rep.
To make the Russian twist more challenging, raise your feet off the floor while you rotate from side to side. This movement will work your lower abs and hip flexors, Sayer says. However, if you find keeping your feet raised compromises your form, place them back on the floor. “If you’re not strong enough to do that,” says Sayer, “put your feet down and you will still get the oblique benefits. It’s the same with any abs exercise. It’s better to use proper form than to do it the hard way.”
Russian Twist Form Tip
The biggest mistake you can make with the Russian twist is rounding your back. “You want your back to be straight. It needs to be angled towards the ground, but it shouldn’t be curved,” says Sayer. “I see a lot of people sink into that position with their lower back, but you need to use your abs. Think about tightening your entire trunk so that you stay in that position otherwise, it’s bad for your back. Plus, you won’t really work your abs if you sink into a curved position.”
Russian Twist Variations
Weighted Russian twist
This progression is probably the most common form of the Russian twist done in gyms, and can be done with any kind of weight you have to hand: a dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, weight plate, sandbag—anything that you can hold in two hands as you twist from side to side. The extra weight increases the challenge to your core, especially when you try to twist back from taking the weight over to the side. For extra credit, try to gently tap your weight on the floor on each side as you twist.
Whatever weight you’re using, it’s important to ensure your body isn’t being dragged out of position during the exercise. Only your torso should be twisting, so if you’re struggling to maintain good form then reduce the weight or go back to the unweighted exercise.
Gym ball Russian twist
As the old saying goes, if you want to make a core exercise harder, introduce a huge inflatable ball. Supporting your upper body on an unstable surface during the Russian twist means that your core has to work all the harder to keep your form and balance. Lie with your upper back on the ball and your feet flat on the ground. Extend your arms straight up. Twist your torso to one side until your arms are parallel to the ground, then twist to the other side.
Standing cable Russian twist
Using the cable machine to resist your twist provides a constant challenge to your core throughout the movement. Set up a handle at chest height on the machine. Stand side-on to the machine and hold the handle in both hands with your arms straight. Keep them straight and twist your torso to move the handle to the other side. Look forwards throughout—this will help ensure you move just your torso, rather than twisting your entire body.
About Our Expert
Amber Sayer is a fitness, nutrition and wellness writer, and editor at Marathon Handbook. She is a UESCA-certified coach in running, endurance nutrition and triathlon, as well as a certified personal trainer. She has two master’s degrees, one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
- Lois MackenzieFitness writer