One of the eternal debates rages in fitness is the role of crunches in training the core. While many trainers (such as myself) advocate for exercises which require the abs to prevent motion (such as a plank) versus creating motion (such as a crunch), the reality is the every day gym goer will happily shun my concern and continue banging out crunches.
But if this type of training will inevitably show up at some point in your workout, I feel it is important to understand how to perform this exercise as effectively as possible. Put simply, the problem I see with most people performing crunches is short jerky movements in an attempt to bang out as many reps as possible.
While this strategy may work if we were going for volume, we want to move slowly with an emphasis on contracting the right muscles.
Without going in to deep discussion on anatomy, we also want to consider which muscles we do NOT want to involve in this exercise.
Consider for a moment that the action of a crunch requires the hip flexors to contract along with abs to bring the torso to the knees. Given these same muscles are tightened by spending 6-8 hours a day hunched over a computer, the net result of crunches are a forward arching of the low back (due to tight hip flexors) and what I like to call “gut support”.
If you have ever witnessed someone with a protruding gut, you will notice that such a forward arching causes the gut to stick out regardless of bodyfat or abdominal strength.
So in this situation, the benefit strengthening the abs is negated by the effect this move has on the hips. With the goal of getting around this issue, the goal with our crunch rehabilitation is to emphasize proper movement to help you get the most out of this exercise.
If you are wondering how you will get through the holidays without busting out of your jeans, this just may be the solution to bringing that family pack back down to six.
1 – Unlock your potential:
In order to really bring out a killer set of abs without unleashing the stomach’s ugly step sister (the gut), we must do everything in our power to keep our hips in proper alignment.
With the goal of taming a wicked beer gut (or at least fitting in to your jeans), the first step in our journey is to identify the muscles which tilt the pelvis forward and backwards. Because these areas are often overworked via exercise and compressed during inactivity, they tend to become excessively tight and pull the pelvis out of position. These include:
• Illiacus and Psoas (Hip flexors)
• Lattismus Dorsi (Arm Pits)
• Pectoralis Major (Chest)
With the goal of countering the effects of daily posture and exercise, a good rule of thumb is to stretch each area 2-3 times per week for 90+ seconds and perform the daily mobility drills which move these muscles actively through the range of motion.
2 – Move with a neutral spine:
Going back to our discussion above, the problem in performing exercises such as sit ups and crunches for most trainees is the failure to utilize the abdominals versus the hips or spine. Often, this is due to fast jerky movement (as in banging out crunches) performed without maintaining abdominal contraction through the exercise.
By contrast, by initiating a contraction of the abs first, followed by slow and controlled movement, we ensure that these are the primary muscles of focus throughout our exercise. While most crunch and sit up variations are performed with both legs down, I have found that bending one knee helps to reduce load on the hip flexors and spine to allow us to teach this exercise effectively.
With this in mind, we utilize an exercise known as the McGill Crunch to teach our clients how to move from the upper back (an area built for this sort of movement) versus the low back or hips during a situp. The key here (and with all abdominal exercises) is to maintain the abdominal contraction throughout the exercise.
This can be monitored by placing the hands under the low back and monitoring whether or not the back begins to arch. Starting out with ten second holds (versus short and choppy reps) with the McGill crunch, this move can be progressed to allow and controlled reps with exercises far more effective than a crunch.
In our second video, we demonstrate this progression along with key form tips.
3 – Getting a leg up:
The other move we often see along with crunches are exercises which bring the knees to the chest– think straight leg raises, hanging leg raises and scissor kicks. In a similar fashion to our crunch, we are faced with the problem of strengthening the hip flexors along with the abs.
Because the primary requirement of the hip flexors is to raise the legs off the ground, we can get around this hurdle by keeping the feet closer to the ground while maintaining an abdominal contraction throughout the exercise. In order to monitor proper form, place your hands between the small of the low back and attempt to maintain a slight press in to the floor.
If you feel the back arch during the exercise, stop and attempt to re-initiate your abdominal contraction. Starting with ten second holds, these exercises can be progressed to various leg movements and are a fantastic compliment to any core training program.
In training for a flat stomach, exercises such as crunches and leg lifts can be very powerful weapons in working either for or against your goal. The trick with each exercise is to move with proper form and keep the abs tight and contracted to ensure the proper muscles are moving.
By including a variation of exercise above in your core training routine, my challenge for you is to practice form and progress so you can hit the ground running come January. In order to do so, repeat the following exercises back to back and simply add 1-2 ten second holds per week.
Once you are able to do five ten second holds for each, progress to a hard variation of the exercise and prepare to give yourself the gift of a flat stomach this Christmas!
McGill Crunch- 3 x 10 seconds
Double leg two inch lift- 3 x 10 seconds