This is our second blog post in the series where we put popular exercises under scrutiny to examine how they stack up—or not—against the principles of healthy posture. Here we are looking at crunches, a common abdominal exercise.
Crunches are often seen as a better targeted and safer
abdominal exercise than sit-ups—but there is still a downside.
Crunches are done lying down on the floor, face up, knees bent with feet on the floor, and with the hands placed behind or to the side of the head. They involve using the muscles of the rectus abdominis and the obliques to repeatedly raise and lower the upper body.
Crunches are well named—they crunch your discs and crunch your nerves. Lifting the weight of the head—which at around 11 lb. or 5 kg is the weight of an average bowling ball—can put considerable strain on your neck and threaten its delicate structures. It also encourages rounding of the back and shoulders, as you can see in the above photo. We recommend against this exercise.
Doing poorly designed exercises and overtraining the “six-pack” muscles will encourage a tucked pelvis
and a rounded upper spine. Freepik
Why are crunches so popular?
People in our culture are conditioned to feel more attractive when they have a flat stomach and an impressive six-pack, and so may turn to all manner of treatments, diet regimens, and abdominal exercises to target this area. People who have experienced an episode of debilitating back pain also want, quite understandably, to strengthen their abs and core in order to protect their back.
Do most people need to strengthen their abs?
Parking the pelvis forward is a common postural habit that pushes into the groins and compresses the lower back. It indicates that the deep abdominal muscles are not engaged and prevents them from fulfilling their postural role. Freepik
Most people in our culture sit, stand, bend, and walk in ways that actually discourage their abdominal muscles from working in their day-to-day lives. Those who either arch or round their backs are holding themselves upright with their back muscles or stressing their joints. With these poor posture habits the “inner corset” (deep muscles of the abdomen and lower back) is not recruited to perform its natural role and becomes progressively weaker.
This woman in Burkina Faso and man in Brazil use their inner corset in their everyday tasks.
Learning healthy posture as taught in our online Elements course and in-person Gokhale [Go-clay]Method Foundations Course holistically addresses this problem. In the courses we teach specific, well-chosen exercises designed to jump-start weak muscles and awaken your inner corset. Some of these are illustrated in Appendix 1 of my book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.
Are crunches a safer exercise than sit-ups?
Crunches are often regarded as a safer and better choice of abdominal exercise than sit-ups. And they are. The Canadian Armed Forces discontinued the use of sit-ups in training and physical-fitness tests due to the large numbers of injuries caused to their personnel. The U.S. military also has a plan to phase them out by 2021. Stuart McGill, Professor of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a leading researcher on the subject, points to numerous studies that show that repeated sit-ups, which load the discs in a particularly dangerous direction, cause bulging, sequestrated, and herniated discs as well as spinal nerve damage.
Neither of these people doing crunches have healthy form. Their necks are doing too much, and the man is also tucking his pelvis. Crello
Gym instructors often prefer crunches over sit-ups because they are safer and result in less tension in the psoas (hip flexors). But are they safe enough?
In our view, classic rounded crunches are still a risky, disc-compressing exercise which encourage tension in the groin, while also training the body in poor postural form (tucking the pelvis and rounding the upper back and neck).
Doing a crunch twisting the head towards the knee encourages the neck to do too much and the pelvis to tuck. Crello
Rounded crunches are sometimes done with a twist at the waist to work the abs more obliquely. This is often done by bringing up the entire upper body and reaching one elbow towards the knee of the opposite leg.
Effective ab exercises that are healthy for your posture
There are healthy alternatives to crunches that give your abdominal muscles a good workout!
Our healthy and posture-positive version of this exercise keeps the head supported in the hands. The arm on the side to which you are turning continues to be supported on the ground. You can watch Gokhale Method Fitness teacher Eric Fernandez performing the exercise in this video. You will see that he maintains his spinal alignment throughout the exercise, rather than tucking and rounding his torso.
When doing this exercise:
- Support your head in your hands and relax your neck
- Rest your upper arm on the floor as you turn towards it, lifting the opposite arm and shoulder from the floor
- Do not pull your head forward
- Do not tuck your pelvis
- Aim for small, smooth, accurate movements
If your abdominal muscles are weak or you are currently or intermittently experiencing back pain, then we recommend that you start with a less challenging exercise. To correctly identify and safely bring your abdominal obliques and other upper abdominal muscles to a healthy baseline tone, we recommend first watching this Gokhale Method rib anchor exercise video, and then learning to use your inner corset. The inner corset is explained in detail in 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.
Free Chapter of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back
As a special gift to newsletter subscribers who have confirmed their subscription, we would like to send you the Inner Corset chapter from Esther's book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.
Please enter your email address in the field below and you will be sent an email with your Inner Corset chapter. You may receive a confirmation email to sign up to the Positive Stance newsletter first.
If you are looking for a way to exercise regularly that is healthy for your back and improves your posture, sign up for our Gokhale Exercise Free Trial:
1-2-3 Move happens daily with Esther at 9:45 a.m. (Pacific Time)
Gokhale Fitness with Eric runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays from 7–7:25 a.m.
(Pacific Time), and Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays from 3–3:25 p.m. (Pacific Time)
Read our Home Exercises Part 1 blog post on Cobra here.