The side bend is one of the select few “little” (or accessory) exercises that warrant inclusion in your routine at least some of the time.
Most of what are considered “little” exercises are isolation movements, but not so the side bend. The side bend works such a lot of musculature that it isn’t really a little exercise.
Two to four important accessory exercises can be effectively included in your weekly schedule without undermining your progress in the major exercises except during the final stage of a cycle when you’re well into new poundage territory in the major movements. During that stage, eliminate or severely cut back everything other than the major exercises.
While popularly thought of as an exercise just for the external and internal obliques, the side bend does much more than that. And once you get into doing it properly, the side bend is demanding.
The side bend is a great exercise for strengthening the entire midsection—front, back and sides, and the small muscles between and around the vertebrae—and for increasing stability for the big exercises.
Exercise for the obliques has received unfair criticism based on the mistaken belief that side bends quickly add substantial muscle to waist girth, and impair the waist-to-shoulder flare.
It takes consistent dedication to the side bend, and the building up to a poundage of over 100 pounds for a man, to add just a little muscle to your obliques. That extra muscle, and the additional muscle elsewhere in the midsection that will also be built from the side bend, should be welcomed for the accompanying increased stability and resistance to injury.
And so long as you’re lean enough for your waist musculature to be seen, development of your obliques will add to the impressiveness of your midsection.
Dumbbell side bend
This can be done standing or seated.
For the standing version, space your feet at least hip-width apart. Balance is harder to maintain with a close stance than a wider one. And keep your buttocks contracted.
Do the seated version while sat across the end of a bench, with one foot on each side. With a wide enough foot placement to maintain balance, the seated side bend can work well. There’ll be no problem with the plates striking your thighs and obstructing performance.
Either way, take the weight in your right hand. Rest your left hand on your left hip. Bend to your right side as far as feels comfortable, pause for a second, then return to the vertical position. Pause for another second, then repeat.
In the standing side bend, as you bend to your right, push your hips somewhat to your left. This may improve stability, and increase range of motion. As you return to the vertical position, move your torso first, then your hips.
Do all your reps to your right side without interruption. To exercise your other side, reverse the procedure.
Face forward throughout each set. There should only be lateral movement. Don’t lean forward, don’t lean backward, and don’t overstretch.
As you descend, take more of the stress on the inner sides of your feet than the outer.
Do the reps carefully—about three seconds up, and three seconds down, plus the pauses at the top and the bottom. Use smooth, controlled movements.
Inhale on the descent, and exhale on the ascent, or just breathe freely.
The range of motion at the top can be increased by not stopping at the vertical position on each rep, but by continuing the motion as much as possible to the other side, without changing knee flexion, and without twisting. This works especially well with the pulley side bend.
Pulley side bend
Use a cable that arises from a low pulley. Stand sideways to the apparatus, with the handle in your hand that’s nearest the apparatus. Stand a sufficient distance away from the apparatus so that the plates can’t come to rest at the bottom position. And line up the pulley with your ankle, and the direction of the cable with the center of the side of your hips, to keep the resistance in the same vertical plane as your body.
Then follow the guidelines for the standing dumbbell side bend.
General tips for the side bend
Take special care if you’ve not done the side bend before, or if you’ve not done it for a long time. For two weeks, do the side bend twice a week without added resistance. Do a couple of sets of high reps each time. Initially, keep your hands by your sides, then progress to putting them on your chest, and then to on top of your head. Focus on smooth, controlled reps. Go down to a depth that feels comfortable. Later on, if your flexibility increases, you may be able to increase your range of motion a little.
To learn the movement, do the exercise sideways to a mirror. Keep your head turned to the side, scrutinize your technique, and ensure lateral movement only. Don’t, however, do any intensive side bends with your head turned. You must have your head facing forward when you side bend intensively.
In your third or fourth week of side bends, adopt the form described in the first part of this post, use a very comfortable weight, and thereafter add poundage slowly and gradually, using small increments.
Perform a single warm-up set for each side, and then a single work set for each side. After a hard set of side bends, take two to three minutes rest before working your other side, so that your performance on the latter doesn’t suffer. From workout to workout, alternate the side you work first.
When you take the resistance to get set up for the side bend—whether a dumbbell, or from a low pulley—keep the stress as symmetrical as possible. Bend your knees, keep your shoulders pulled back, lower back slightly hollow, and brace your disengaged hand against the thigh on the same side, while the engaged hand takes the resistance from the other side. Reverse the procedure at the end of a set, when you return the resistance to the floor.