Are crunches bad for you?

An article on why we should never do crunches went viral on my Facebook this morning. I read it and while the information wasn’t necessarily incorrect, there was a rather large caveat that it failed to mention.

The pitfall of crunches (and the article) is only true if you do crunches excessively with bad form. Now, I don’t love crunches and I don’t think anyone needs to do hundreds of them. I also believe that there are a million other (often) more effective ways to recruit your abdominals without ever having to get down on the floor and lift your head. But if you asked me, “Are crunches bad for you?” I’d have to say, not really.

Additionally, if you have a neck or a back problem where flexion is contraindicated, crunches are not your friend. However, assuming you are apparently healthy, the “crunch,” which in Pilates we call an “ab prep,” is not all bad. It’s just misunderstood and poorly utilized.

I’m going to break down the arguments in the anti-crunch article, but before I even get there, I think it’s important to ask what is the actual purpose of a crunch? After all, nearly every exercise program includes something that is crunch like!

To me, crunches are meant to do more than build your abs. While they do involve abdominal work, their purpose is to practice how to isolate rib motion from pelvic motion.

Many of us can’t curl our ribs without squeezing our butts and tucking our pelvises. Incidentally, this is also why we have back pain, because when we move this way, we actually decrease spinal stabilization put a whole bunch of compression in our backs instead. Poorly performed crunches will certainly expose this, but with good awareness and mechanics, they can also be used a tool to fix this issue.

The article in question gave six reasons why we should never do a crunch. While I understand the author’s point of view, I don’t think that we should banish an exercise, so much as we should teach people the purpose and how to do it correctly, if appropriate.

After all, if we get too dogmatic about what makes a “good” exercise or a “bad” exercise, eventually we’ll run out of moves to do. If you look close enough, every exercise has potential for injury if applied inappropriately or done incorrectly.

Of course, you are free to draw your own conclusions, but I’ve outlined and broken down the article’s arguments below. While I do think it makes a case for thoughtful movement, I don’t think that it merits cutting out an exercise completely.

Also, I realize this article is crazy long, so if you want a much shorter description and video of how to properly perform a crunch, you can check out my previous post here.

Argument 1: Crunches load the spine.

Well, yes, everything loads the spine and it’s a bad idea to hundreds of them, or any movement for that matter, since it’s inefficient, the nervous system dislikes repetition and it sets the stage for fatigue and errors in movement patterning.

It’s also a bad idea to do crunches with an overly tucked pelvis or butt gripping, because it increases compression force on the lumbar spine. Likewise, you don’t want to stay militantly neutral because it will create shear force on the spine.

It’s also not a hot idea to perform the movement by craning your neck up and forward, instead of moving your ribs. This exacerbates forward head posture and creates strain on the neck.

Are you getting the idea that this simple movement is actually complicated? It is! However, all of these form deviations are fixable! Go slow, use props as needed, find a good head position and load all of your vertebrae evenly to distribute force. Once you have the mechanics down, limit your reps, but make them count. No more excessive compression.

Argument 2: Crunches only work the superficial muscles.

The first fallacy in this statement is that you can isolate deep muscles during movement without engaging the superficial mobilizers. Aside from lying on your back and breathing, it’s pretty much impossible to do any core move without activating your obliques, which are considered somewhat superficial.

However, we can get into trouble if we perform crunches without first engaging our deeper stabilizers. This is entirely possible if you do the movement too fast, big or mindlessly, but it’s also not the only way to do a crunch!

In Pilates, we sometimes use the crunch as a means to evaluate and improve muscle timing in the core. We usually call it an ab prep, but it’s really the same thing. If you want to make the crunch more than a superficial exercise, you just need to consider the order in which things are firing.

Before you even move, you are already gaining spinal support from you transverse abdominis (TVA), which is a paper think muscle that contracts in a cylindrical fashion (like a corset) every time you breathe.

For some of us, the TVA is a delayed, so you could spend some time becoming aware of it as a precursor to bigger exercises. Just know that once you go to move, the TVA should already be on.

Once you have a sense of TVA, which most feels like a whisper of core support that comes from an exhale, you can do a slight chin nod to activate the deep neck flexors to support your neck as you lift your head.

As you lift your head, you want to see if you can close the distance between your ribs and your hips by feeling your ribs move towards your pelvis and the floor, without disrupting your original pelvic position.

When you do it this way, you may also notice that your obliques draw in and together to create a “flattening” effect in the abs and additional support to the spine. You could also feel a touch of rectus (the six pack muscle), but it shouldn’t dominate the motion.

If you see your abs “pop” up towards the ceiling, it’s a clear sign that you have recruited rectus (the most superficial muscle) without garnering support from the deeper layers of abs.


Argument 3: Crunches won’t make your tummy flat.

Well, yeah. That’s diet. Of course, they’re talking about the people who train their abs by pushing rectus up towards the ceiling, because they failed to connect to TVA and obliques appropriately. If you do those things, then your abdominals won’t push outward.

The article also talks about how crunches creates forward head posture, a tucked under butt, bad posture, ect, ect, but as I’ve already mentioned above, this is only if you do them with poor form.

Argument 4: Crunches cause downward pressure on the pelvic floor and outward pressure on the abdominal wall, which can contribute to a condition known as diastasis recti (a separation of the outermost abdominal muscles) in both men and women.

It’s true, if you’ve recently had a kid or you have a hernia, crunches aren’t a good idea, because you lack abdominal support and it’s going to be difficult for you to recruit your abs effectively. The same will happen if you do crunches with poor mechanics.

There’s a caveat though. If you do them well with your body positioned in a good place, you’re not going to create nearly as much pressure on the abdominal wall and again, I wouldn’t do 50 of these, I’d do…8.

Argument 5: Research has shown that as many as 52 per cent of women with pelvic floor dysfunction have diastasis recti. This stat is alarming, especially given that women can have diastasis recti after pregnancy but have no idea.

Okay, first off, nearly any exercise performed poorly with a lack of stabilization is going to encourage pelvic floor dysfunction and diastasis recti (DR). On this note though, this statement points to a problem much bigger than ugly crunches.

The medical community needs to do a better job of educating post-partum women on what DR is and what is contraindicated.

Furthermore, as fitness professionals, we need to understand that it is a potential issue for post-partum women and how to modify for it and watch for signs of it.

Argument 6: When you do a crunch, the pressure inside the abdominal cavity increases and, in a dysfunctional core, the ability to manage this increase in pressure is hindered. This results in the internal organs being pushed down.

I’m going to sound like a broken record here. This is a bigger problem if you do crunches poorly and honestly if you have core dysfunction, work with a specialist to learn how to improve your movement patterning before you move onto more traditional forms of exercises.

On the plus side, this article did end with some sage advice. Kim, the author concludes with “Instead of crunching your way to oblivion, I urge you to take a step back. If it’s a flat tummy you are after, begin with optimizing your alignment during everyday activities such as sitting and walking – position your ribs over your pelvis, keep your tailbone untucked and balance your weight over your feet rather than the forefoot.

Move more, sit less…progress to dynamic movements such as bridges, squats and lunges. Choose exercises that restore your body instead of break it down.”

On this note, I absolutely, completely agree with her. Your exercise program, core or otherwise, should be so much more than crunches and mindful movement throughout the day is far more important than any one exercise.

However, we shouldn’t be taught to discard or fear the negative ramifications of specific exercises. Oftentimes, the problem is not the exercise itself. It is how we are applying or performing it.

Want great results, good posture or less injury from exercise? Consider the purpose of something before you do it.

Common sense. It’s a thing.

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