I was originally going to call this post “Do This, Not That,” but decided not to just in case Eat This, Not That has some copyright on the phrase ___ This, Not That. They could seriously create a monopoly on books about things you should eat/do/drive/use instead of alternative things that you could eat/do/drive/use.
So the title became Do This Instead!
In this series of posts, I’m going to address lots of common movements that we see in the gym and suggest an alternative. (In fact, T-Nation just posted a similar article specifically about machines. It’s here. Just ignore the shameless plugs for supplements.)
The inspiration actually came from frequent conversations with a co-worker about certain exercises that we see being done and why/how we can modify them or even replace them completely to increase the benefit or safety.
The question is this: is there a safer way to achieve the same result? And the answer is almost always, “yes.”
Enter The Russian Twist
The Russian Twist was originally a dance move that came from the USSR during the Cold War period. It’s initial applications included intimidating and confusing American tourists.
Since then, however, the Russian Twist has become synonymous with an exercise where the body is held in a sit-up/modified hollow-body hold and the arms are “swung” side-to-side while holding onto a medicine ball, dumbbell, or some other weighted implement.
The movements is meant to build the abs, obliques, and “explosiveness in the upper torso.” However, I think that the benefits of the Russian Twist are a bit overstated.
For instance, Russian Twists demand exceptional mobility through the upper back and thoracic spine. Without it, the twisting motion must either come from the lumbar spine.
Also (and this is for all of the functional training gurus out there), I’m not sure where the idea that training core with nothing but your butt on the ground came from, but let’s get back to using our legs (like we actually do IRL).
So the question becomes, “is there a safer way to achieve the same result?”
In order to substitute, we should probably consider the fact that people perform Russian Twists for two major reasons: to actually strengthen their core in a rotational fashion and to build their abs and obliques.
These reasons are distinct and therefore, the substitutions should be as well.
If we examine rotary core stability, there are a few different types of exercises that we could use as a replacement. The first is what I would call active core exercises.
*Side note: I’m going to use active and passive to differentiate between superficial and deep core musculature. While these may not be perfect terms, they’ll do.
To build our active rotary stability in a safer way than with traditional russian twists, we are going to rely on pallof variations. My favorite and go-to are tall-kneeling and supine (laying on your back) pallof presses.
We could also use various chop and lift exercises. On the other hand, passive rotary stability is the term I would use to reflect the activities of your deep core (TVA, multifidus, diaphragm, psoas, pelvic floor) in response to unilateral instability.
For instance, when we perform plank shoulder taps, our deep core fires in order to maintain rigidity while we shift onto one arm. While it’s not ab-burning oblique-shredding muscle-torture, it is a good way to work the rotary capacity of your core while not actually causing rotation within the spine.
The other benefit of active rotary exercises like pallof presses is that they are easily progressable. Just add more weight to the cable. Try mixing both active and passive rotational core exercises into your program and watch your core flourish!
The other reason that people seem to perform russian twists is to burn the fat off their obliques and reveal that sculpted six-pack while not closely resembling those funny Russian doll-things where they just keep getting tinier and tinier.
But, as we should all know by now, russian twists don’t burn the fat off your obliques. Eating fewer Pop-Tarts on the way to work burns the fat off your obliques.
Still, if you’re looking to make your obliques and abs pop (no pun intended), there are a few, safer ways to do so. For the abs, I recommend ball and ab wheel rollout variations, as well as gymnastic variations like L-sits, hollow body holds, & front levers.
As for the obliques, active rotary core exercises like pallof variations should serve you well, but we also want to hit the obliques from a perspective of lateral flexion and extension.
For this, we should use overhead lateral pallof presses, suitcase carries, and side planks.
The russian twist is an outdated way to get that burning feeling in your core and it’s main benefit probably lies somewhere in the fact that the start position closely resembles that of a modified hollow body hold.
And despite the fact that we should have the ability to rotate at the spine, rotating willingly under load in the gym seems a bit short-sighted.
Instead, let’s spare our spine the extra stress and use anti-rotation and anti-extension exercises to build our abs and obliques into something that people of the opposite gender wouldn’t mind seeing without a shirt. You can still build an incredible amount of strength using isometric exercises (as demonstrated by gymnasts and bodyweight exercises enthusiasts everywhere).
That said, I recommend that you ditch the russian twists and Do This Instead:
TRX Anti-Rotation Press
The TRX Anti-Rotation Press is the most awesome in terms of rotary and lateral stability through the core. While gravity challenges our lateral core, the motion of pressing the TRX away from us demands that we not let ourselves rotate. (I will say, setting yourself up for this can be a bit challenging to figure out. But once you get it, it’s awesome.)