Why Are You Still Crunching?

Photo credit: Photo credit: rich115 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Photo credit: rich115 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA


Why Are You Still Crunching?

To be honest, I’m a little surprised that we’re all still crunching in classes, in gyms, on TV, in magazines… a lot. I thought that we would be moving towards more functional, effective core exercises by now but the overload of abdominal crunching in addition to the increased number of clients I see coming to us with diastasis recti, thoracic kyphosis, upper trap dominance and cervical spine discomfort has prompted me to speak out.

What’s wrong with a crunch? In my personal opinion, a few things: First, the crunch places a lot of load on the neck and cervical spine, an area that many people have issues with because of their poor posture, increased sitting times and improper use of technology (read: smart?phones). We’re putting our spines out of alignment by craning our necks forward putting us in constant cervical extension, straining the upper neck and surrounding musculature to the point where they become tight and overworked. The crunch just aggravates this already poor posture by craning our neck forward.

Next, the crunch mainly targets the rectus abdominus. The main function of this top abdominal layer is spinal flexion. We need to maintain upright posture throughout our day whether it’s seated or standing and many of us are hunched forward in a constant state of spinal flexion. Many of us have limited time to train and instead of reinforcing our already shortened anterior musculature, the emphasis should be placed on the more important Transverse Abdominus (TVA) and deep core stabilizers that improve overall stability and power. 

But what about the obliques – those side ab muscles? I need to crunch and twist to target them! Not necessary.  Studies have shown that your external oblique is more engaged in a Push up that in a twisting crunch.  A push up!

Third, crunches may cause, contribute to and aggravate a diastasis recti (DRA).  DRA is a separation of the rectus abdominus at the linea alba (it’s attachment point running up and down the abdomen) and is most commonly seen during pregnancy and in the postnatal period. The rectus abdominus (top layer) is put on stretch during pregnancy and we see an increased lumbar lordosis (sway back) – the TVA (deep core) is not strong enough to support our shifting center of gravity and altered posture.  Crunches may cause the rectus to separate from the already strained/weakened connective tissue.   Performing crunches with a DRA will only make the condition worse. It’s essential to omit crunches and build up the weakened connective tissue by engaging the TVA’s and deep core.

Finally, it’s possible to achieve strong abdominals without crunches. Whole body movements such as squats, push ups, and others will target the core resulting in improved overall function.

You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe!  Strengthen the deep core and you’ll be able to do more.

I believe there are situations when spinal flexion can be beneficial.  However, for mom’s to be and new moms who’s abdominal wall is on stretch or in recovery, there are way more beneficial, effective and functional exercises that can be performed.

So, if the crunch is so bad, what should I do? Here are a few of my favourite deep core exercises:

-Lying draw ins with marches: Lie on the floor with your knees bent.  Place your fingers 1 inch from your hip bones and make a hissing sound.  Did you feel your transverse abdominus engage?  Try holding the core activation and lift one foot off the floor.  Switch sides and keep alternating maintaining the core activation without shifting/moving your hips.

-Planks (if this doesn’t produce any doming in the abdomen):  Start from the elbows and knees and progress to the toes imagining your hip bones are closing at the front like bookends all while maintaining a nice straight line.

My personal favourite: Wall press march – place your hands flat on the wall, standing tall and perfectly aligned. Bend your knees and engage your transverse (try hissing). Slowly march by alternating one leg at a time.  Try not to let your hips move at all as you switch sides.  

Next time you’re planning on dropping to the ground to crunch.  Try some of the above exercises and let me know how it goes!  

Sarah is a Certified Kinesiologist, Exercise Physiologist, Group Fitness Instructor and Mother of 2. She is the creator of the Prenatal and Postnatal Strength Workout DVD (available at www.sarahzahab.ca) as well as co-created the Elemental Workout®. Sarah owns Continuum Fitness and Movement Performance with her husband, John (www.continuumfitness.ca), a personal training studio in Westboro, Ottawa offering one on one coaching as well as group classes. Sarah is a former international fitness competitor and has been a nationally ranked race walker.

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  1. What an interesting post. I don’t do crunches but my son goes to the gym regularly so I’ve passed this article on to him. This all makes perfect sense to me. Everyone wants to improve their body not damage it. Thanks for sharing this with us 🙂


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