Expert Q&A

Abdominal rotation exercise tips

I see people at the gym twisting and turning on machines and with their trainers. How should I train abdominal rotation?

The human body is designed to move in three dimensions. This means our movements don’t just happen in a straight, single line. Our abdominal girdle doesn’t just need to crunch up—it needs to turn, and bend, and stabilize the spine. Thus, to be functional and strong, we should train our midsection for real life demands, including rotation.

Rotation should come from the hips and not the waist

There are two things to keep in mind when training torso rotation with resistance. The first is that ideally rotation should not come from the waist; it should start in the hips. The human spine isn’t well constructed to accommodate a lot of powerful twisting in the upper body if all the load is borne by the spine itself. Spinal biomechanicist Stuart McGill found in his research that one of the worst, most dangerous machines for spinal injury was the “twist” machine, in which people sit, press against a pad, and then twist the upper body back and forth. The immobility of the lower body combined with the twisting motion creates significant shearing forces in the spine, which can lead to disc or other soft tissue damage.

In real life, the body prefers to twist as a unit, engaging shoulders, hips, and legs as much as possible. For instance, when a pitcher throws a ball, there is a windup phase followed by a throw in which the pitcher’s entire body from neck to ankles contributes. She doesn’t just throw with a flip of the arm alone. When a golfer drives the ball, he turns his entire body to follow the swing. As boxing coaches like to say, “punch from the belt” rather than with the arms only.

Rotations require stability in your midsection

The second thing is that very often, what we need in our activities is not rotation per se, but stability through rotation. What I mean by this is that we need to train the midsection not to collapse as we turn the rest of the body. Think of chopping wood. If the ribcage and pelvis are flopping all over the place, we’re not able to coordinate that downward force of the axe. However, if the body moves as one unit from shoulders to hips, we can execute a powerful stroke and slice that wood. In another example, runners have to keep the midsection stable as each leg moves forward. Otherwise, as the leg comes forward and the other goes back, the hips would rotate too much, turning the runner sideways – they’d run in circles or a wobbly line.

The best types of movements use this “whole body” idea and attempt to integrate all the moving pieces. “Wood chops” are excellent for this type of functional rotation, and they can be done downward or upwards in a diagonal motion across the body. Upward chops start with the lifter bent at the hips, arms outstretched across the body and hands at hip/thigh level on one side. The lifter swings the straight arms outward and upward in a diagonal motion, ending up overhead. If hands started at the left side, they end up overhead on the right side. As the arms move up and across, notice how your hips want to help out, and let them straighten and turn accordingly. Think of making an “X” pattern across the body with this movement.

To do a downward chop, simply think of chopping wood or swinging a sledgehammer towards a target that is on one side of you. Arms start straight and overhead on one side, and travel down diagonally to end up at the other side. As you move through the arc, bend the hips and knees naturally.

Cables or rubber tubing can provide resistance for downward chops; and cables, medicine balls, dumbbells, or weight plates can provide resistance for upward chops. Remember to use the whole body as the weight travels across the body.

For more information on exercises that aid stability in your midsection see the following article from TheDietChannel: 3 Core Muscle Exercises That Build Balance and Stability.


Further reading:

McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation (2002) and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (2nd ed.) (2004). Both available at


Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD
Contributing Expert

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