Exploring the Obliques
The obliques are an important stabilising group of muscles in the core from the ribs to the hips. They prevent strain in the low back and bridge an important part of holistic health. Often it is the Pilates teacher who talks about them so that means that they are important for stability, functional movement and holistic wellbeing.
Why should you care about the obliques?
It is unlikely that these muscles themselves will cause pain and problems, but if they are imbalanced or weak then they will often lead to low back pain. Their role in pulling the ribs and hips together prevents over extending the spine that can lead to strain in the low back or sides of the body. Further, when imbalanced or weak, the vertebrae can take the strain of a twist (in particular when leaning forward) and this is often when the back ‘goes’.
The classic back spasm trigger is bending over to pick up something that fell to the floor. The movement pattern is seen in the Pilates ‘Saw’ exercise (see image to side).
To avoid collapsing the core with gravity during this movement, the obliques need to activate in two ways:
initiate the movement and flex the spine forward (both obliques flex the mid and low back),
the twist requires both obliques to rotate the vertebrae without compressing them.
Further, the obliques stabilise the pelvis from rotating with the upper torso movement in this exercise, as would be desirable in daily movements similar to it.
Anatomy of the Obliques
There are two sets of oblique muscles - internal and external. The muscle fibres of these run in different directions along the body so have different impacts on movement. They lie above the transverse abdominis (breathing muscle) and beneath the rectus abdominis (six-pack).
The muscles attach fairly high on the torso into the fifth rib and below, where the ribs ‘float’ from the spine. They connect to the pubis and iliac crests, including central linea alba of abdominals. The internal obliques connect to the lumbar fascia on the back body and side hips.
Key nerves of the obliques are the nerves of the thoracic intercostal ribs from T5-11 and also the ilioinguinal nerve at L1. This means that the nerves cross over the mid-back and into the lower back. Therefore, low back pain may be connected to a dysfunction of the obliques.
Movements of the Obliques
The obliques can easily become imbalanced by always using the dominating arm and leg in daily movement habits. The obliques are active in stabilising the torso during peripheral movements away from the body. This is often where imbalances show up and can result in issues of tightness or strain.
The external obliques are responsible for:
Side bending of the spine (segmented thoracic or lumbar)
Contralateral rotation of the spine (twist)
Spinal ipsilateral rotation when working unilaterally
Supports abdominal wall
Assists with forced expiration
The internal obliques are responsible for:
Side bending (unilateral lateral flexion)
Lumbar flexion (drawing the ribs and hips together)
Assists with forced expiration
Assists with rotation of the spine
An interesting point about the external obliques is that a spinal twist requires one side to contract on its own side and the opposing side to contract too, this is called ipsilateral and contralateral.
The Lateral Line (LL) is the outside of the waist where the lateral obliques lie above the iliac crest (hip bone at side). This line is the link between front and back body, but also mediates forces amongst other superficial lines e.g. front, back, arms and spiral lines. Thus, it can act as an important stabilizer of the trunk to keep its structure during activity. Creates side bending in the body, lifts the hip to the outside and also brakes the side bending and twisting movements of the trunk.
The LL is also Impacted by arches of the feet rolling in or out (inversion or eversion) so foot placement can impact pain all the way up into the ribcage and contribute to low back pain through rib or hip shifting. Further the LL is pulled out of alignment with the common forward head posture that restricts head stability and down into the core line.
Where the obliques sit at top of iliac crest can be an area of congestion for tissue that becomes uncomfortable. This may impact down into the tensor fascia latae (side hip) and knee issues.
The obliques role in assisting breath, especially forced exhalations means that a full three-dimensional breath like used in Pilates will free tight fascia along the LL.
The Spiral Line (SPL) slings across both internal and external obliques from the serratus anterior (see blog post) over to the iliac crest on the other side of the trunk. This is a key part of the connective tissue that meshes the external oblique over the internal oblique, which is where bundles of connective tissue can become congested and feel tight to lengthen.
Use of this connection can help find shoulder stability from lower ribcage core support in arm weight bearing exercises e.g. quadruped opposite arm and leg lifts.
Energetics of the Obliques
The muscles cover the three lower chakras of the body. This means that they cover a great deal of the physical experience, the body, purpose, relationships and creation. The muscles fibres extending up to the fifth rib draw them up toward the heart so show their role in the connection of self to the heart and its direction.
In Chinese Medicine, acupressure points of the obliques are related to the meridians of the conception vessel or central, the liver, stomach and spleen meridians. Imbalances in these meridians can lead to:
Over sensitive to other’s thoughts
Reproductive issues including menstruation and pregnancy.
Key acupressure points of the obliques are:
Conception Vessel Meridian
Regulates the yin energy of the body through the central front line of the body at the linea alba.
Can express imbalances through throat, lung and breast issues in the physical body.
Key area for helping move energy around the body.
LR14 - Liver
Can relate to anger and irritability. There may be subcostal chest or rib pain. This includes chest palpitations, dizziness, anxiety and fear experienced in the body through the ribcage impact.
ST25 - stomach
This connects the Upper and Lower Warmers of the core, which plays an important role in pre and postnatal vital energy.
Imbalances in this point can direct attention to intestinal issues like constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, distention, pain, masses/accumulations of any type.
Further, the Lower Warmer affects Irregular menstruation, painful menstruation, fibroid/cysts, fertility issues and leukorrhea.
SP15 - spleen
Regulation of the vital energy in the body is from the intestines. An imbalance here can present itself as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and distention.
Spleen tapping can help alleviate this tension.
An emotional summary of the obliques from an energetic viewpoint can be summarised as:
Struggles to digest life experiences, emotions and thoughts.
Emotional holding on to fears, anxieties, anger and
Challenges with new beginnings and rhythmic cycles in life.
Consistent and balance energy that connects to feeling purposeful.
Clear expression and energy for a fulfilling life.
Holistic Training of the Obliques
The classic exercises for the obliques are:
Side bending stretch
Side abdominal crunches
Floor-lying abdominal work with the legs in the air (open kinetic chain)
Twists in any position, but activate the muscles to avoid using the elbow to hook and force the chest to twist.
Side leg lifts
Check out our video for a full workout to train the fascial lines, muscles and energy pathways of the body.