The obliques are an important muscle group for rotation of the torso during the punching action, particularly during hooks and uppercuts.
The obliques are also recruited during defensive manoeuvres such as slipping, ducking and rolling and help boxers recoil from these evasion techniques to deliver punishing counter punches.
Considering the importance of the obliques, comprehensive development of this muscle group is something we focus on at Boxing Science.
With that said, the main points of discussion that will feature in this article include:
The anatomy of the oblique muscles.
An in depth outline of the function of the oblique muscles and how this function translates to boxing performance.
A description of the methods we use at Boxing Science to develop this muscle group and important considerations to address when selecting your own training methods for targeting the obliques.
The oblique muscles, located each side of the trunk, consist of the External and Internal obliques.
Internal oblique fibres run downwards and forwards towards the midline, whereas external oblique fibres travel in an opposite direction, adopting a downwards and backwards trajectory.
ORIGIN AND INSERTION OF THE INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL OBLIQUES
The internal oblique, along with the external oblique and transverse abdominis comprise the lateral abdominal wall.
The internal oblique lies deeper to the external oblique and its fibres travel in an opposite direction to its superficial counterpart.
The internal obliques begin at the bony prominence of the hip joint, known as the iliac crest and travel upwards towards its insertion points which are the bottom borders of ribs 10-12 and the linea alba, which is essentially a line running through the middle trunk.
These fibres also insert onto the bottom of the pelvis at the Pubic Crest and Pectin Pubic via a conjoint tendon.
Travelling in an opposite direction to the Internal Obliques, the External Obliques essentially have the same articulation points as the Internal fibres except the origin and insertion are interchanged.
This means that the External Obliques originate from the external surfaces of ribs 5-12 and it’s points of insertion are the Iliac Crest and Pubic Tubercle.
FUNCTION OF THE OBLIQUES
Both Internal and External oblique fibres are important for similar functions.
Bilateral contraction i.e when the obliques on both sides of the trunk are being recruited, the Internal and External obliques facilitate trunk flexion, compresses abdominal viscera and play a role in expiration.
Unilateral contraction i.e when only one pair of oblique muscles are being activated on either side of the abdominal wall, this facilitates trunk lateral flexion or side bending on the same side as well as trunk rotation towards the opposite side.
ANTAGONISTS TO THE OBLIQUES
Antagonist muscles refer to muscles that oppose or inhibit the function of a given muscle group.
In the case of the obliques, these fibres have differing antagonists depending on uni lateral (one sided) or bi lateral (two sided) contraction.
Bilaterally, the antagonists to the function of the obliques are the Trunk extensors, mainly the erector spinae.
Unilaterally, the obiliques are opposed by the oblique muscle pair of the opposite side, contralateral (opposite) Transverse Abdominis, and the contralateral Quadratus Lumborum (QL).
This is a common question we consider when discussing the role various muscle groups in boxing.
Our answers are formulated based on movement assessments performed on hundreds of boxers since the foundation of Boxing Science along with analysing the most prominent movements associated with the sport of boxing.
This gives us an idea of the level of acitivity/recruitment of that these muscles undergo as part of a boxers training regime and can help direct our training approach from a movement and strengthening perspective.
When we consider the oblique muscle group it can be regarded as an underactive and underdeveloped region due to a boxer’s tendency for erector spinae engagement during trunk extension movements that feature prominently with punching actions.
This is largely a consequence of sub-optimal core training and a lack of exposure to structured strength training from an early age along with associated weakness of the posterior chain.
Uni-lateral contraction of the oblique muscle group are quite common considering the prevalence of side bending and rotation of the trunk. however, during these movements the obliques can often be overtaken by the QL muscle group.
Again, this can be attributed to a lack of posterior chain strength combined with a failure to establish correct muscle sequencing during trunk rotation as well as under developed lateral stabilisers.
So, from the above we can conclude that the obliques need to be targeted in training, however, training of this muscle group must be approached with a certain level of caution due to the tendency of other muscle groups to become involved when aiming to focus on the obliques.
THE OBLIQUES AND BOXING
We have already discussed, in-depth, the anatomy and function of the oblique muscles.
But what does this mean for boxers? and how do the obliques contribute to boxing performance?
From an injury prevention perspective we can minimise the repetitive recruitment and thus irritation of the erector spine muscles which is prevalent among boxers through comprehensive development of the core, particularly the obliques.
In terms of improving the punching action we can maximise rotational force of the trunk during hooks and uppercuts by strengthening the oblique muscles and taking the undesirable rotational stress away from the QL.
Developing stability, strength and explosiveness in the lateral stabilisers can also help improve stretch shortening cycle (SSC) function of the core.
Enhancing SSC function in this region can improve rotation during combination punching and can also enable the athlete to be more efficient when recoiling from defensive manoeuvres, particularly slips and deliver punishing counter punches.
An often overlooked function of the obliques is the role they play in creating intra-abdominal pressure across the abdominal wall.
This can help with the generation of sufficient tension at the end range of a punch and therefore contribute to PUNCH SNAP.
From a strength and conditioning perspective creating intra-abdominal pressure is a key technical aspect of safe and effective lifting, especially during compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift.
Such pressure will protect the spinal column and also allow the athlete to lift heavier, become stronger over time and therefore indirectly contribute to improved punch power.
DEVELOPING THE OBLIQUES: THE BOXING SCIENCE METHOD
At Boxing Science we focus on four main functions of the core anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion, anti-extension and hip flexion with a neutral spine.
Our primary way of targeting the obliques is through anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion exercises.
These movement categories are prominent in the early phases of our core training journey and refer to the trunks ability to resist rotation of the lumbar spine along with buffering lateral flexion forces of the lumbar spine.
The stages of our core training journey that encompasses oblique development include Stability, Strength, Explosiveness.
This initial phase of core development is characterised by exercises which require little or no movement and require the athlete to sustain isometric contractions and resist forces in a given direction.
During this phase we are focused on exposing the core to increased time under tension and developing strength endurance within this region.
These exercises tend to be bodyweight oriented, involve isometric contractions against an immovable object or resistance can also be applied with bands.
In this phase the aim is to progressively challenge the athlete’s core stability through a given range of motion.
The exercises in this phase tend to incorporate eccentric, isometric and concentric muscle actions and can be loaded through conventional methods such as dumbbells, barbells and resistance bands.
This helps overload the stretch shortening cycle of the core which is an integral neuromuscular function to the punching action as mentioned previously.
We can also incorporate some proprioception work in this phase where perturbations and random changes in the direction of force applied can be implemented.
In this phase our aim is to further the develop the stretch-shortening cycle of the core in a dynamic and explosive manner which more specific to boxing.
The exercises programmed for this phase are usually low in load with an emphasis on fast movement.
We tend to load these exercises with medicine balls and perform catch and throw variations.
These type of movements allow for a rapid stretch or eccentric portion and force the athlete to quickly switch from muscle lengthening to shortening or eccentric to concentric which is more specific to how the core is recruited in the ring.
APPLYING THE CORE TRAINING JOURNEY FOR OBLIQUE DEVELOPMENT
How can the core training journey be tailored towards oblique development?
We tend to use predominantly anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion exercises to target the obliques during stability, strength and explosive training phases.
During the stability phase we tend to use Plank Rows/Shoulder Taps, Rotational Planks, Pallof Isometric Holds, Farmers Carry and Hold variations as well as Paloff Press variations to develop strength endurance in the oblique muscle group.
Whilst the side plank may seem like an obvious choice during the stability phase, we tend to avoid placing heavy reliance on this exercise as boxers shoulders are often the limiting factors during this movement and therefore reduce oblique activation/time under tension.
An effective alternative to the side plank is a lateral iso hold.
Common exercises we include during this phase are Landmine Rotations, Pallof Presses and Pallof Rotations.
Single arm pressing variations can also contribute towards oblique development during this phase due to the role this muscle group plays is stabilising the torso when performing single arm vertical and horizontal pressing movements.
A common movement used by many to develop strength in the obliques is the single-arm side bend usually loaded with a plate or dumbbell.
Whilst there are instances where this may be an appropriate variation, we tend to focus on other exercises as boxers will often display a tendency to use the quadrates lumborum when side bending, rather than the obliques.
Additionally, in using the side bend exercise we are re-inforcing a potentially ineffective movement pattern i.e side bending which we want to avoid when punching in order to reduce the chances of losing balance or being susceptible to counter punches.
We usually incorporate medicine ball variations during this phase as mentioned previously.
Examples include Kneeling Rotational Throws, Explosive Paloff Rotations and standing Rotational Throw variations.
During the stability phase hold can be performed or between 20 and 40 seconds and tend to be repeated for 3-4 Sets. Pallof holds can be quite intense and therefore may be sustained for 3-5 seconds intrerspersed Wirth a brief recovery period between repetitions.
Exercises during this phase that require some movement are usually performed for between 8 and 10 repetitions each side.
Strength phase volume guidelines are similar to the previous stability phases with exercises being performed for between 8 and 10 reps each side by 3-4 sets.
When focusing on explosiveness we want to emphasise intent and rapid transfer of the implement. Therefore, these exercises are usually performed for 3-6 repetitions each side by 3-4 Sets.
In terms of when to perform these exercises, we often incorporate our explosive core training during extended warm ups as a means of stimulating the nervous system prior to our main strength work.
During speed and taper phases these explosive movements are seen as key exercises and tend to feature within the main session.
Strength and stability core training is usually performed in a circuit towards to the end of the session or can also be paired up with a single-leg exercise.
The obliques are an important muscle group for trunk rotation and facilitating optimal stretch shortening cycle of the core during the punching action.
When targeting the obliques in training it is important to have an awareness of a boxer’s movement restriction and their tendency to super compensate through other muscle groups during movements that are intended to target the obliques.
The primary exercises we use to target the obliques can be categorised as anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation.
In order to develop the obliques in a comprehensive manner we coach our athletes through a core training journey that initially focuses on stability and strength before further challenging the stretch shortening cycle of the lateral stabilisers via explosive movements.