When you want to fire up your core—and fast—moves that involve twisting your mid-body get you there pretty darn quickly. That’s why bicycle crunches and side plank rotations take on a starring role in many 360-degree ab workouts. And the Russian twist exercise? Well, it’s yet another member of the pack of core movements that doesn’t leave your side-body behind in the pursuit of working your entire core.
“The benefit of the Russian twist is [it helps with] our ability to move in a different plane of motion and focus on utilizing our obliques—a portion of our abs that often gets disregarded in normal routines,” says Ladder coach Sam Tooley. “This is a simple movement and one that can be made more challenging by adding additional load or tension.” When you work your obliques on the reg, actions like bending down or twisting your torso slightly to grab something become so much easier.
In case you’ve heard the term “obliques” thrown around in core classes before, but have never known where they are, exactly, here’s the 411. Your internal and external obliques run up the sides of your abs all the way up from your hips to your rib cage. Moves like crunches and planks don’t hit those side-body muscles effectively because you’re mostly using the strength from the muscles that frame the belly button, or the rectus abdominis. So when you’re designing your own mid-body blasters, you can add Russian twists to fill any gaps that may be missing in your circuit otherwise.
Below, Tooley breaks down exactly how to master the Russian twist, step-by-step. Plus, a few ways to tweak your form to make it even harder than it already is (which is really saying something).
How to do the Russian twist exercise, step-by-step
1. To set up for the strictly bodyweight version of this move, go ahead and come to a seat on the floor or a yoga mat.
2. Lean back slightly without arching your back. Bend your knees and raise your heels off the floor. (Or, you can keep them just brushing the floor for more support.) For added balance, you can cross your ankles. Or, for an extra challenge, try to glue your legs together as you start to move. Extend your arms straight out in front of your or clasp them together
3. From this starting position, focus on broadening your chest and hollowing out your belly. Rotate your entire torso in one unit as you point your fingertips to the left side. Come back to center, then repeat that same move on the right. Continue alternating sides until you’re feeling your core all over.
4. If you’re feeling good about bodyweight Russian twists, here’s how to increase the difficulty of the move.
Variation 1: Russian twist with a hollow-body hold
1. Begin seated once more.
2. Lift your heels off the floor and hover your upper body about a foot off the ground so you’re balancing on your sitz bones. Bring your arms straight out in front of you and hold the position—engaging your core—for three full breaths.
3. Rotate your torso to the left, then to the right. One of these sets should cover a full 180 degrees around your torso.
4. Come back to center and that hollow-body hold for another three full breaths.
5. Continue on like this.
Variation 2: Russian twist with a dumbbell, medicine ball, or kettlebell
1. Start from seated and—you know the drill—lift the heels and upper body off the ground so your glutes are the only thing touching the floor.
2. Grip the kettlebell, dumbbell, or medicine ball between your palms, right at your chest, and check-in with yourself to see if you have a weight that’s challenging—but not so challenging that you wind up compromising your form in your twists.
3. Twist to the left and right, doing your best to keep your legs completely still as your torso guides the movement.
Variation 3: Russian twist with a resistance band
1. From that same seated position, loop a resistance band around your wrists. Lift your heels and back off the ground and pull the band taught. (You should already feel your arms engage here.)
2. Without moving your legs, twist your body to the left and right without allowing the resistance band to loosen. Feel that burn all the way up your arms, into your shoulders, and down into your side body.
Variation 4: Open-arm Russian twists
1. Still seated on your butt, keep your heels down or lifted and pull your torso back.
2. Twist open to the right, allowing your right fingertips to brush the floor while your left fingertips reach to the sky. Keep switching sides—this variation will open your shoulders and improve your hip mobility at the same time it works your core.
Variation 5: Stability ball Russian Twists
1. Want your Russian twists to challenge your balance? If so, this is the move. Bring your back onto the stability ball and bend your knees to place them on the floor.
2. With or without equipment, engage your torso to roll over onto your left side—extending your arms out to the left as you go. Engage your core to come back to center and roll onto your right side, still gripping that dumbbell or engaging those arms.
3. Keep alternating back and forth, feeling your entire body work to keep you balanced.
Incorporate Russian twists into this ab workout for some extra spice: