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Women doing a crunch

The abdominal crunch has been vilified for years and dismissed as nonfunctional, even potentially hazardous. But take a look around any health club and it becomes clear that this core exercise is a staple.

The trouble with crunches, experts say, is that they repeatedly put the spine in flexion, or a forward bent position. This — combined with poor mechanics, insufficient strength, and a high number of repetitions — can cause pain in the neck and lower back. Plus, there are more effective ways to target the deep abdominal muscles that provide core stability.

That said, the crunch is not the bad guy it’s made out to be. With proper form, functional modifications, fewer repetitions, and realistic expectations, it has its place as an advanced move.

Avoid it if you are deconditioned, suffering from a back or neck condition, pregnant, healing from diastasis recti (a common pregnancy-related separation of the abdominal muscles) — or if you simply don’t enjoy them. (For crunch-free ways to strengthen your core, visit “3 Ways to Strengthen Your Core”.)

To get started, experiment with placing your hands, feet, and legs in a few different positions that allow you to engage the abs without tension or pain in the neck and lower back.

Once you’ve found a comfortable position, follow the steps below for making the most of this popular move.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Find your neutral spine position by tilting your pelvis as far forward and then as far back as possible before “locking” it in a comfortable position halfway in between. This activates the transversus abdominis, “nature’s weight belt.”
  2. Place your hands behind your head, or rest your arms and hands at your sides, across your chest, extended above your chest, or tucked under your hips. Inhale.

Tip: Wherever you rest your hands, keep them relaxed. Don’t pull on your neck or shirt or create tension in your neck by reaching hard with your hands.

  1. As you exhale, engage your abs and lift your head and shoulder blades off the floor. Pause for one or two seconds. Relax your head and shoulders to the floor, then repeat the movement. Move slowly and with control, and limit reps to what you can perform with good form.

Tip: Draw your shoulders away from your ears and keep them relaxed throughout the movement.

Tip: Keep your neck neutral: Avoid reaching up with your chin or tucking your chin to your chest.

This originally appeared as “BREAK IT DOWN: The Crunch” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

Variations to Try

  • Crunch with Hands Behind Head
  • Crunch with Hands Across Chest
  • Crunch with Arms Extended Over Chest
  • Crunch with Arms Extended at Sides
  • Crunch with Hands Under Hips
  • Crunch with Legs Extended Straight Out
  • Crunch with Legs at 90º
  • Crunch with Legs Extended in Air
  • Weighted Crunch

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