Tight external obliques cause back pain. Here’s everything you need to know to keep these muscles loose and relieve your pain.
When you’re seized up with back pain, it’s easy to think that maybe one of your back muscles is to blame. After all, that is where the pain is. Surely you’re dealing with some cranky muscle back there, right?
Not necessarily. Although back muscles can certainly cause back pain, they’re not the only ones responsible for it.
When abdominal muscles are tight or weak, they pull on your spine. This can lead to back pain.
Think of it this way, if your abdominal muscles were tight, you wouldn’t be able to bend and move your spine the way it’s meant to move. If your abdominals were weak, they wouldn’t do their job on the front keeping the space and support between the ribs and hips.
This would make your organs kind of spill forward out of your body and make you look like you have a sort of pot belly. The pull from your pot belly would tug on your spine and give you back pain.
But, the good news is that it’s really pretty easy to get your abdominals to get working and relieve your back pain.
In particular, if you focus on stretching your tight external obliques; you’ll be able to feel stronger, look thinner, and get rid of your cranky back. Here’s everything you need to know to get going.
Are you tired of living with back pain? If you’re ready to be done with back pain, learn my #1 secret for helping my clients relieve back pain. Download your free copy of The Fast + Easy Way to Relieve Hip + Back Pain now!
So, Where Are Your External Obliques?
Every muscle has a point where it begins called the origin and a place where it ends called the insertion. Whenever you have tight external obliques, it can be because of where the muscle begins, where it ends, or anywhere in between.
I know, super-helpful, right?
But, the truth is it’s really not so tough to figure out which part of your muscle is bugging you when you know exactly where the muscle begins and ends.
Do you see that picture of the external oblique muscle? Everything that’s in green is the muscle. But, here’s the specifics of where the muscle begins and ends.
External Obliques Origin
The external obliques originate on the external surfaces and bottom edges of the lower eight ribs. So, it’s basically toward the outside edges of your rib cage but still on the front of your body.
External Obliques Insertion
According to Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards, the insertion for the external obliques is on the “linea alba by means of the broad abdominal aponeurosis from ribs to crest of pubis, inguinal ligament, and the anterior half of the iliac crest along the outer lip.”
Uh huh. Let’s take a moment to break that down.
The linea alba is the line that runs down the middle of your rectus abdominis. It splits your three-pack into a six-pack.
An aponeurosis is a fibrous tissue that takes the place of a tendon. It works similarly to a tendon, but they’re not the same thing.
You may remember that tendons attach muscles to bones. That’s what this aponeurosis does, connecting the external oblique to the crest of the pubis. However, it also connects the external oblique to the linea alba.
The external oblique also inserts on the inguinal ligament and the anterior half of the iliac crest. If you put your fingertips on the front of your pelvis and trace down about halfway, this is where the external oblique insertion starts. As your fingertips move toward your pubis, you are tracing your external oblique insertion.
But, Here’s the Best Way to Figure Out Where the Heck This Muscle Is…
My Pilates instructor and guru, Tracy Maxfield, taught me to find the external oblique muscles this way: To trace the external obliques, your hands start toward the outside edges of the front of your rib cage. They slide down toward your pubis. That zone is X-rated. Thus, you get “X-ternal obliques.”
The Next Step to Figure Out How to Relieve Your Tight External Obliques Is…
So, now that you understand exactly where your external obliques are, you can start to figure out where you’re tight. But, in order to figure out where you’re tight, you need to try to move. By challenging your external obliques to work like they should, you can really start to pinpoint exactly where they’re tight and failing you.
Here’s more about what you’re external obliques are supposed to be doing. As you read, try to move around. See if your notice any pain when you move. Or, maybe you’ll notice you can’t do that movement at all because of your tight external obliques!
What Do the External Obliques Do?
Because you have an external oblique muscle on each side of your body, the external obliques can move both unilaterally and bilaterally. This means they can either work separately or together.
When just one of the external obliques is working correctly, that muscle will rotate your torso to the opposite side (with a little help from the opposite side’s internal obliques). It will also bend to the side in the direction of the working muscle.
Side note: If you’re moving while you’re reading, make sure you check out both sides. For example, if you just rotated and bent to your right side, check out how it goes when you move to the left.
Now, check out how it goes when both external oblique muscles work at the same time. This happens when you bend forward.
Honestly, the external oblique also helps with forced exhalation, but I’d bet that nobody has ever noticed their tight external obliques because of their inability to forcefully exhale.
So, the external obliques do a lot of work. They move and bend you, but they also have one other very important job: The external obliques provide structural support. This means these important muscles support the spine, especially the low back. Plus, they help hold the other abdominal muscles in their places.
Whew! That’s a lot of work.
But What If They Don’t Work…
If your external obliques don’t work correctly, you can be faced with a number of issues. The most common issue is low back pain.
Without the muscle tone and stability of the external obliques, your personal contents shift. This places strain on your low back.
Not quite sure what I mean?
Imagine for a moment that your ribs and hips form a cylinder to contain your internal organs. Your transverse abdominis is the first muscle trying to keep your organs in that cylinder. However, it’s a very thin layer. It needs additional help.
This is where the external obliques come into play. They are the additional force to help keep your organs inside the cylinder.
Now, let’s say your external obliques are weak or injured. They will not be supportive. With your spine closing the space in your back and your ribs and hips coming close to closing the space on the sides, there is only one area of weakness—your front.
When you have weak abdominals, your organs tend to spill forward out of your cylinder. This creates a pull on your low back. It’s kind of crazy to think this is the cause of your low back pain but, for many people, it is.
In some cases, though, people might have one tight external oblique muscle. This can cause either the rib cage or hips to be slightly rotated.
When this happens, it’s not always noticeable or painful, but it does take its toll on your spine over time. Your spine wants to have equal pull from your muscles. If one muscle pulls harder than the other or seems to always be pulling, it will cause issues.
Disclaimer: Contact your doctor if you have back pain. Your doctor can order the appropriate imaging, therapy, and medication to correctly treat your issue.
That being said, sometimes you might notice small, correctable issues. Maybe you can rotate or bend really well to one side and not the other. You can probably do exercises to correct this imbalance. Again, though, let me remind you that if you feel pain, you need to call your doctor.
How to Stretch Tight External Obliques
Finally! You’re to the fun part. You’ve already found out exactly where the external oblique are on your body. Then, you moved in all the different ways the obliques move you to see if you notice any pain or restriction. Now, it’s time to do something about those tight external obliques and relieve your back pain!
Keep in mind, your muscles may not be completely equal from one side to the other. It’s totally normal for one side to rotate very well and the other side to be kind of dinky. It happens. You notice it. You work on it, and it gets better.
Remember: Your right external oblique rotates you to the left. So, as you rotate to the left, it will be your left external oblique stretching while your right external oblique works.
If you have any doubts about whether you have tight external obliques, this exercise will let you know. Try it out. If you have trouble rotating to one side (or maybe even both sides), then yes, you have some tight external obliques. However, if everything feels really easy when you rotate to both sides, it’s possible that your external obliques aren’t the muscle that’s causing trouble.
- Begin on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Make sure your feet are about a fist’s distance apart. Reach your arms are by your side with your shoulders away from your ears. Feel like you’re open across the front of your chest.
- Bring your straight left arm across your body and place it on your right thigh. The left arm will stay straight through the whole exercise.
- Bend your right elbow and place your right hand behind the back of your head so that your fingertips are touching the part of your skull behind your ear. Try your best to relax your right shoulder open so the back of your arm and elbow rest on the floor.
- Keep your pelvis in neutral, don’t let your low back collapse or press into the floor, and inhale through your nose.
- Exhale through pursed lips, let your low belly drop toward your spine, and slide your left hand up your right leg. You should feel your rib cage lift and rotate. The right elbow and back of the arm stay stable on the floor the whole time. Make sure your pelvis stays in neutral and doesn’t collapse or press into the ground.
- Inhale through your nose and rotate back to center.
- Complete 5-10 reps on this side.
- Switch sides.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Half lord of the fishes pose is another great way to check and see if your external obliques are able to rotate your spine. If you find one side is harder than the other, try to figure out if it’s because the working muscle isn’t quite strong enough or because the oblique that needs to stretch is too tight.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose throughout this pose.
- Begin seated with your legs straight in front of you.
- Feel your SITs bones press into the mat beneath you. You might have to use your hand to scoot some tissue out of the way in order to feel a good connection between your bottom and the floor. Or, you can use your hands to internally rotate your thighs.
- Press down through your SITs bones to feel your head reach toward the ceiling.
- Draw your belly button to your spine.
- Bend your right knee.
- Step your right foot so that it’s now on the outside of your left knee.
- Bend your left leg and bring your left foot toward your right butt cheek. Only do this if you are able to reconnect both SITs bones to the mat. If one of your SITs bones won’t reconnect, straighten your left leg and reconnect. It’s really important that you’re able to feel both SITs bones press into the mat.
- Press down through your SITs bones and feel yourself lift through the top of your head.
- Double-check that your abdominals are still drawn toward your spine.
- Inhale and reach your left arm toward the ceiling to get a good stretch in your side body.
- Exhale and rotate toward the right. Let your right arm naturally reach to the floor behind you. Stay high on fingertips to help keep the right arm active. Bring the outside of the left arm to the outside of the right thigh, and bend the elbow. If your arm won’t meet your thigh, bend your left elbow and loop your arm around your right knee to facilitate your twist. Gaze over your right shoulder.
- Hold here and breathe for 5-8 breaths.
- To come out of this pose, keep your muscular energy as you unwind and return back to your starting position with your legs straight in front of you.
- Repeat steps 3-14 for the other side. Make sure that this time you bend the left knee and bring the outside of the right arm to the outside of the left thigh.
I love Mermaid and all the versions of this Pilates exercise as a way to bend to the side to stretch tight external oblique muscles. The whole key to doing the exercise correctly is finding that feeling of lifting your rib cage up and away from your hips before you bend to the side. This is what stretches tight muscles and relieves back pain.
- Take a seat. If your hips will let you, bend your left leg so your shin is parallel to the front edge of your mat. Then, bend your right leg so your right toes point to the back edge of your mat. Basically, this looks like a letter Z with your legs.
- Inhale through your nose and exhale through pursed lips throughout this exercise.
- Hug your belly button to your spine.
- Reach your left arm out to the side for balance. Lift onto your fingertips.
- Inhale and raise your right arm. Make sure to keep your shoulder down away from your ear.
- As you exhale, think of lifting your rib cage up and over as you bend to the left. Let your left hand gently support you on the mat.
- Inhale to come back to center, keeping your right arm lifted.
- Exhale to lower your right arm.
- Inhale to lift your left arm. Keep your shoulder down away from your ear.
- As you exhale, think of lifting your rib cage up and over as you bend to the right.
- Inhale to come back to center, keeping your left arm lifted.
- Exhale to lower your left arm.
- Complete 3-5 repetitions on this side.
- Switch your legs to switch sides.
- Complete 3-5 repetitions on the other side.
This Pilates exercise is one of the very best ways to strengthen both external obliques at the same time. It looks super-simple and, to some degree, it is. However, if you try to blow through the instructions and turn this into a Crunch, you’ll miss out on the subtle-yet-effective oblique work.
- Begin on your back with your knees bent, heels in line with your SITs bones. This means your feet should be about a fist’s distance apart.
- Make sure that your pelvis is in neutral. (If you’re unsure of how to do this, here is my article on Imprint and finding a neutral pelvis.)
- Make sure that your rib cage is in neutral. (If you’re not sure of how to do this, here is my article on rib cage placement.)
- Broaden your collarbones and reach your arms beside you. Send energy through your fingertips like you’re reaching for your heels.
- Slightly tuck your chin so you have a neutral head and cervical spine placement. (If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s my article on neutral head and spine placement.)
- Now that you’re in neutral position, take a moment and let yourself relax. Release any muscle tension you might have, especially in the abdominal area. Let gravity be your friend and help you! You might find that as you release the energy in your abs, they drop toward your spine, making you appear thinner.
- With gravity helping you to bring your abdominals closer to your spine (which is good), lightly activate your abdominal muscles. When you activate your abdominals, it should look quite similar to step 6 when you had no activation. That is an indication of how lightly you should activate those muscles.
- Make sure you have done the set-up outlined above.
- Find the light activation of the abdominals.
- Inhale through your nose into the sides of your ribs, and slightly tuck your chin. Think of anchoring your tailbone to the mat. You want to make sure your pelvis doesn’t move during this exercise.
- Now, imagine the top of your head, your neck, and your rib cage and the spine that is a part of the rib cage are all one solid piece. As you exhale through pursed lips, use your abdominals to tuck your bottom ribs in, lifting your head, neck, and upper back in one solid piece. As your shoulder blades are floating on the back of your rib cage, your arms will lift because of your spine hinging.
- Inhale through your nose into the sides of your ribs.
- Exhale through pursed lips and lower to your neutral starting position.
- Practice, practice, practice! Make sure the collarbones stay broad to avoid neck and shoulder tension. Also, check that you’re not pulling your head forward.
Spine Stretch Forward
Any time you bend forward, you stretch spinal muscles. Spine stretch forward is a great opportunity to check and see if it’s tight external obliques or tight back muscles that are causing your pain.
- Sit with your legs straight in front of you, wider than your hips. Flex your feet so you feel your heels press into the mat. Make sure that you can feel your SITs bones press into the mat. If you can’t feel your SITs bones (those bony parts in your tush), sit on a folded blanket or bolster. This will help reduce strain on your hamstrings and, when you get elevated to the correct height, you should be able to feel your SITs bones press into whatever you’re sitting on.
- Take a moment to sit in this position. Make sure that your hip flexors (in the front of your hips) are relaxed. If you’re not sure if they are, take your thumbs and press into the front of your hips. Feel free to explore a little and dig around.
- As you feel your SITs bones press into whatever is beneath you, feel yourself lift through the top of your head. When you lift through your spine, notice how your belly button naturally draws toward your spine.
- Inhale through your nose to lengthen your spine and lightly engage your abdominals.
- Exhale through pursed lips and roll forward one vertebra at a time (starting with your head). As you roll, let your hands slide along the tops of your legs, keeping your elbows straight. (This will help keep your shoulders away from your ears.) Stop after your bottom rib hinges into your body so that you make a C shape. Never collapse your upper body onto your legs. You should still feel your SITs bones pressing into the mat, and your hip flexors should be relaxed.
- Inhale into your spine. Exhale and hold here. Inhale and exhale two more times so you take a total of three breaths here.
- On your last exhale, reverse sequence and roll up one vertebra at a time. Draw your belly button to your spine as you stack it back up. Make sure your head comes all the way up to neutral when you return.
- You may do this 3-5 times.
This pose is an absolutely wonderful way to strengthen both external oblique muscles at the same time! It’s versatile and has tons of modifications to suit you no matter where you’re at right now on your fitness journey. Plus, because there are modifications, that means there’s always one next step to get this pose as intense as you want!
- Inhale and exhale through your nose throughout the pose.
- Begin seated with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
- Feel your SITs bones press into the mat beneath you, and sit up nice and tall so you feel like you’re reaching through the top of your head.
- Make sure the muscles in the front of your hips are relaxed. If these muscles get grippy, you will end up feeling pain in your sacrum (tailbone). Also, if they’re tight right now, you can massage them with your thumbs and that should help them relax.
- Put your hands behind your thighs or reach them so they’re parallel to the ground.
- Inhale and reach through the top of your head.
- Exhale and slightly tilt your pelvis so that you are now sitting just behind your SITs bones. Your belly button should really be drawing toward your spine, and you should really feel your abdominals working.
- If this is a good starting point for you, stop here.
- Otherwise, inhale to lift one leg so your foot lifts parallel to the floor.
- Exhale to lift the other.
- Again, if this is a good starting point for you, stay here. Otherwise, engage your quadriceps to straighten your legs.
- If your hands are behind your legs, the next step is to reach your arm by your sides.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose for 5-10 breaths.
- To finish, return your hands to behind your thighs, bend your knees, set one foot down, then the other, and return your pelvis to neutral.
- Take a moment to stretch the spine forward by allowing your body to drape over your bent legs.
- Do 2 or 3 of these before moving on to the next pose.
To Learn More…
For even more exercises to stretch your tight external obliques, check out these exercises on my sister site, Custom Pilates and Yoga.
Or, if you’re tired of living with back pain, you can learn my #1 secret for helping clients relieve back pain. Download your free copy of The Fast + Easy Way to Relieve Hip + Back Pain now!
The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey is a really great, easy-to-understand book about the major muscles in your body. However, for more precise medical information, I recommend checking out Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. (I earn a small commission if you order through these links.)
Also, Kenhub.com is a great resource to learn anatomy. Here is the link to their information about the anterior abdominal muscles (such as the external oblique muscles).
What are your favorite exercises to relieve tight external obliques? Let us know in the comments below.