When I see someone doing crunches, I want to scream and bolt over to correct them, even if it’s not in the gym that I work at. Even if they are doing them with so called correct form, I still don’t think it’s a very effective or safe exercise.
I know, I know. It’s been a household and gym(hold?) staple for many years, and you might by ready to bite my head off, but read on and hear me out.
First, an anatomy lesson. Your abs are part of your “core”, which can be broken down into a few different muscles. You have your Rectus Abdominis which is what you would consider your six pack. Forget about anything you’ve ever heard of their being upper, middle, and lower abs. They are just your Rectus Abdominis. It is the most superficial core muscle, meaning it is closest to the skin and therefore, the easiest to see. Then right next to the Rectus Abdominus on each side are your External Obliques, which are what you would consider your side muscles. They are what allow your body to twist, and are also superficial. Then you have more internal muscles. There are Internal Obliques which run in the opposite direction of the External Obliques, and even deeper than that are the Transverse Abdominis. In my opinion they are the most important core muscles to keep strong. They wrap around your entire core and act as stabilization and protection for your spine. Also part of your core are your Erector Spinae. They start in your lower back and run all the way up your spine.
All that being said, to have a strong core, you have to have a balanced core. By balanced I mean, you have to work all of these above mentioned muscles equally and at the same time. Here are the reasons why crunches don’t do this:
1. When you do a traditional crunch, with your back on the ground and your feet flat with knees bent, you aren’t working these muscles. Your hip flexors are actually lifting your torso up, which is not good because tight, overworked hip flexors lead to lower back pain and pour posture. And lets face it, who stretches their hip flexors after they do crunches?
2. Your lower back is supported by the floor, therefore rendering it useless and vulnerable. Your spine should never bend during an exercise. Do you bend your spine during squats or deadlifts, or any other type of exercise? You don’t, so why would you during a crunch? The spine is never supposed to bend like that. The only exception being a twist during a wood chock, which is still an anatomically correct spinal movement.
3. The Rectus Abdominus is the secondary muscle being worked, which is why crunches burn sometimes. They don’t work the Transverse or either of the oblique muscles. And as mentioned above, it doesn’t work the Erector Spinae.
So, you must be thinking, how do I get a strong core? Or, how do I get a six pack? I’ll explain.
- The basis of any fitness, weight loss, or health goals start with a good diet. There are many, many fads out there and it’s hard to find reliable and credible tips on the internet. What it comes down to is eating correct portions, a correct ratio between carbs, protein, and fats, and changing any poor eating habits you have. Maintaining a healthy body weight and body fat percentage is the key to feeding growing muscles as well as being able to see muscle tone.
- Choose correct exercises to train your abs. Some great ones are:
- Wood-Chops: USING THE CABLE MACHINE. None of this dumbbell nonsense. Do them two ways, with the cable at the bottom and chopping upward, and also with the cable from the top and chopping downward.
- Planks: They are the best exercises to work your transverse abs and your lower back. You can also do side planks, but not if you have any kind of shoulder pain.
- Farmers Walks: These are great ways to train your abs to support your back while carrying heavy things. It also works your arms, shoulders, back and entire core. Just make sure you choose a weight that is comfortable on your shoulders but also heavy enough to engage your abs.
- Hanging Leg Raises: These are intimidating but really, anyone can do them. You just have to take it slow. If you are a beginner, make sure you start with a stool underneath so that you can take breaks. These work your entire core while also working your arms and back.
- Any compound exercise: When you do a compound exercise, like a shoulder press, chest press, squat, dead lift, or pull up, you engage your core to stabilize your your spine in order to bear weight.
- Do reasonable cardio. I say reasonable because sometimes I see people absolutely killing themselves on a piece of cardio equipment with that look of desperation in their face like “This HAS to be working, RIGHT!?” I disagree. If you have a correct mix of resistance training and healthy diet, you need only do about 20-30 minutes of interval training cardio about 3 or 4 times a week. It is proven that it is much more effective at burning fat while maintaining muscle mass. It is the sure fire way to get the six pack abs you want so badly, while also training your core and eating correctly.
Yes, many people have gotten away with doing crunches and not having any injuries. The military still uses sit-ups as a test, but look at them. They are at the peek of physical healthy and fitness. For the average gym-goer, and especially beginners, they may not understand the mechanics of the body and may be doing more harm than good. So my advice is to not take the easy way out. Take a chance and try the exercises above, and keep pushing. It takes time a discipline, but you will get there.