Q. Can you recommend exercises to strengthen the sides of the midsection? I know they won't get rid of any fat, I just want to firm and strengthen those muscles.

J.D.

McLean

A. You're referring to the group of muscles called the obliques, which are difficult to isolate and develop but a concern to many. One of the most effective exercises is the side bend. Select a light weight to start with (try 10 pounds). Stand erect and hold the weight in both hands with arms fully extended directly overhead (feet together). Bend sideways, allowing at least four seconds to bend as far as possible. Pause momentarily in the bent-sideways position and slowly recover to the starting position. Perform 12 to 15 repetitions in one direction (right or left) and then 12 to 15 reps in the other direction. Be sure to bend directly to the side. A common mistake is to bend forward slightly during the execution of a rep. This will decrease the effectiveness of the exercise significantly. Another mistake is to move the arms sideways while bending the body. Keep the arms aligned with the body and keep them in that position throughout the exercise. The weight being held overhead should always be directly in line with the torso. A variation of this exercise is to hold a dumbbell in one hand, hanging down at arm's length. Don't make the mistake of holding a dumbbell in each hand -- a dumbbell in both hands balances out the weight and cancels out any additional resistance applied to the working muscles. If you do the exercise with a dumbbell in one hand, use the same guidelines as outlined above, but you'll need more weight. Another effective exercise for the obliques is the twisting situp. Most people perform the twisting situp by rotating and unrotating during the execution of a repetition. For example, during the raising phase, they rotate the upper body, and in the torso-raised position, they touch the right elbow to the left knee. During the lowering phase they rotate back to the starting position. They then mirror the above process, touching the left elbow to the right knee. This can give good results. But there's a more difficult and effective progression to the twisting situp. Make sure the feet are held down securely. The legs should be bent (during the execution of any form of situp) to minimize strain on the low back. Start the exercise in the sitting-up position; fold your arms against your chest and keep them there throughout the exercise. Rotate your upper body to the right or left as far as possible and keep the upper back rounded to minimize stress in the lower back. Make sure you maintain the fully rotated position thoughout the full execution. There'll be a tendency to unrotate the torso (making the exercise easier) as you perform the exercise. To perform the exercise, allow at least four seconds during the lowering phase and pause momentarily (do not let the head or upper back touch the floor). Maintain that good rotated position and allow about two seconds to recover to the starting position. At the end of each repetition, rotate the torso in the opposite direction. As soon as you can perform 15 reps correctly, try having a spotter stand behind you and add additional resistance by pulling on the front of your shoulders. Do these every day if you wish, and a firmer midsection will be yours.