For most people, their idea of getting in shape is cutting calories, doing 30 minutes of cardio, and starting a crunch or sit-up regimen to flatten their belly. I don’t know why this is our go-to combination for getting in shape, but it is. It is also pretty obvious that this doesn’t work for most people.
Likewise, when people decide that their core is weak, or they need to get strong, they also throw themselves into a crunch, sit-up, or some other neck-flexing floor routine, if not to flatten the belly, then to hopefully strengthen the abdominal muscles so that irritating symptom X,Y, or Z will go away.
Mostly they just irritate their neck and shoulders instead of really strengthening their core.
It’s time to learn why crunches are overrated, why most people shouldn’t be doing them, and talk about why core workouts are really whole body workouts and that’s why they are hard to do properly.
Plus, we’ll learn a few things we should do instead – with links to some helpful videos (for practice members).
This is why crunches (and sit-ups) are overrated
Crunches are popular abdominal exercises because it doesn’t take long for most “out-of-shape” people to feel fatigue in some of their abdominal musculature. They are also popular because they don’t require any upper body or leg strength to accomplish. You get to lay down and do them! What makes them easy is is also what makes them ineffective.
What happens when you do a crunch? Minimal firing of the muscles you want to fire
Basic crunches provide one plane of resistance for the top layers of the abdominal wall – mainly the rectus abdominis muscles, which run from the bottom of the rib-cage to the top of the pubic bone. Because of the position of the exercise, it is easy to activate the rectus near the rib-cage but difficult near the pelvis. The exercise repeatedly shortens the rectus lifting the mass of the upper body.
In order to get to the lower and deeper layers of the rectus, it requires us to lift our legs as a counter mass.
In order to activate the side of the abdominal wall, it requires us to lift and rotate.
Sit-ups are even more of a waste of time, as they require the upper body to come up further, which for most people, ends up being a low-back activation exercise, and not an exercise of the abdominal wall.
Due to the position of the body, the time that top, upper layers of the rectus abdominals are actually firing is minimal. Which means you have to do a lot of crunches in order to increase the amount of time that muscles are under tension.
Crunches provide very little time under tension
This why crunches are ineffective based on the physiology of the muscle: muscles get strong (fire together under load) when they are under tension for increasing lengths of time. Increasing muscle strength requires time under tension.
Crunches require a lot of motion, with very little load, to put only a small percentage of the total abdominal wall, under tension for a short period of time. Crunches are just inefficient. You have to do a lot of them, and in that time you could have been doing many other exercises that were accomplishing more.
Crunches don’t follow the real-life function of the abdominal core
This is why crunches are ineffective based on the purpose of the core muscle: all core musculature is stabilizing muscle, which are under constant tension any time your body is in an upright position. Any time you get up, stand up, stand, move, or pick something up, your core stabilization musculature is firing.
The actual real-life situation a crunch represents doesn’t really exist in the real world. In fact, some of those amazing physiques with those six-pack abs that we idolize don’t even do crunches. They do whole body exercises that place complicated demands on their abdominal stabilizing musculature. Oh, and they maintain an incredibly low body fat percentage that allows these muscles to pop.
Smart, efficient, six pack ab gods and goddesses of the gym aren’t keeping their amazing physiques because they are committed to the abdominal crunch.
In fact, most people would gain more core stability if they worried less about the rectus abdominis and worked the deeper underlying muscles, including the transverse abdominal layer. But it can take some real work to activate and strengthen these muscles, especially if you have had an injury or have ever been pregnant.
Why crunches might even hurt you
If we can say one thing that’s true about many of us: we sit a lot. And when we aren’t sitting we often look down at a device with a screen. In short, our bodies and our necks are in a forward, C-shape position most of the day. We are already shortening (not lengthening) the muscles and soft tissues of much of the front side of our bodies.
When we do crunches, we only add to this C-shape, neck-flexed position. And when we do crunches to fatigue it’s very hard to not pull on the neck.
When you consider how many people already have a loss of neck curve, forward head posture, or rounded shoulders, then the potential harm of crunch position is even more obvious. Most people need to stretch, lengthen, and engage their front muscle chain, not shorten it further in a crunch position.
Unpopular opinion? True core muscle exercises are whole body exercises
For generations some in the fitness industry have been selling the idea that the perfect combination of core exercises and core exercise equipment is going to make our abs finally POP! Late night infomercials always feature highly conditioned men with 10% or less body fat using the promoter’s product. And usually the abdominal crunch makes it in there somewhere.
Likewise those in therapeutic rehabilitation have been educating us on the importance of the core muscles. Why do we have back pain? Weak core. Why do we have knee pain? Weak core. Why did our team lose the championship? Weak core.
This has lead many to believe that a good set of crunches can save the world…Or at least their low back, if not flatten their belly a bit. Because the crunch is the default core exercise for most people even though it is just a small percentage of the total core musculature.
If we paid attention to the rehab experts more we would figure out that the true ab working, core firing exercises, are rarely done just laying on one’s back. Core rehabilitation and strengthening is actually a whole body workout. Because if you’re not just going to lay down, you’re going to be using your leg and upper body strength…And for many of us that means we need to work on strengthening the shoulders, arms, and legs simultaneously with the deep and superficial layers of our core.
And that’s not easy. That takes work. And if it’s been years since we lifted more than a gallon of milk for our exercise it might be weeks or months before our core really feels like we’re working it because we have to bring our upper body strength up to speed.
In which case it does seem easier to flop down and push out a few crunches to feel that abdominal burn.
So, if I shouldn’t do crunches, what should I do?
I think in a perfect world everyone would have access to an experienced Pilates instructor with a Pilates Reformer, and other specialized equipment to learn how to work and connect with their core. (See the expert Pilates instructors at Pilates Detroit for what this might look like.)
Of course, this is not a perfect world. So, if you don’t have a Pilates Studio around the corner from you, here’s what you should do.
Getting ready to plank (neck-safe)
The front-plank and side plank and all their multiple variations are probably the easiest, fastest way to connect with your core and actually work your abdominal muscles (and the other muscles of the core) in a way that safe for your neck and posture.
Why do most people not do it? Because it really is a whole body workout, which means that many people have to get ready to plank with a pre-plank workout.
Here is my go-to pre-plank exercise sequence. (If you want the how-to videos, you’re going to need to follow this link, and have the password). I would move through these exercises in this order:
- Incline Tall Plank
- Tall Plank on Knees
- Tall Plank
- Plank on Knees
- Side Plank on Knees
- Side Plank Feet Apart
- Side Plank
The neck-safe front plank sequence
If you’re able to hold a front plank position for at least a minute, then you may be ready to try to work through the following suggested sequence which tends to go from easy to hard (though you might disagree on a few). Most of these need no equipment.
- Tall Plank
- Tall Plank to Low Plank
- Plank Dip
- Planking on a Foam Roller
- Planking on a Swiss Ball
- Tall Plank Knee Extension
- Plank Terminal Knee Extension
- Tall Plank Body Saw
- Plank Body Saw
- Plank Leg Lift
- Three Point Tall Leg Lift
- Plank Alternating Leg Lift on Knees
- Tall Plank Shoulder Tap on Knee
- Tall Plank Shoulder Tap
- Tall Plank Y
- Tall Plank T
- Tall Plank Shoulder Rotation
- Tall Plank Thread the Needle
Being able to do just a few of these plank variations in a slow and controlled manner will help you activate your core stabilization muscles without aggravating your neck, rounding your shoulders, or further contributing to forward head posture.
The neck-safe side plank sequence
If you’re able to hold a side plank position (feet together) for at least a minute, then you may be able to work through the following suggested sequence beyond the side plank. You’ll probably have to work harder in the side plank position to maintain proper neck and head posture.
- Side Plank Elevated Surface
- Side on Knees
- Side Plank Feet Apart
- Side Plank
- Incline Adductor Side Plank
- Adductor Side Plank
- Tall Side Plank – On Knees, Isometric Hip Abduction
- Side Plank on Kees, Isometric Hip Abduction
- Side Plank – On Knees, Hip Abduction
- Side Plank – Isometric Hip Abduction
- Side Plank – Hip Abduction
- Side Plank – Reps
- Side Plank – Hip Dip
- Side Plank – Roll
- Side Plank – Thread the Needle
- Side Plank – Crunch
- Side Plank – On Knees, Clam
- Side Plank – Hip Dip
- Side Plank – Clam, Hip Thrust, On Knees
Why should I stop doing crunches to strengthen my core?
Crunches are an inefficient exercise that only works a small portion of the core, while pulling the body further into a flexion. It’s a great way to irritate your neck, while not doing much else. A minute of planking is going to beat a minute of abdominal crunches any day of the the week. And if you’re a chiropractic patient, getting good at planking is going to help stabilize the changes your chiropractor is helping you make.