When it comes to abdominal exercises, if somebody told you jabbing your vertebrae into the hard ground and straining your neck may give you a six-pack, would you do it?
Somebody did tell you that. And you did do it. It’s called a Crunch.
However, there’s a better way to work your abs and, in this edition of
Exercises You Never Knew You Were Doing Wrong, we’re going to explore it.
Crunches Ain’t All Bad
It’s not that Crunches are all bad. The problem is twofold.
On the floor, your muscles are working 100% against gravity. Because of that, if your abdominals aren’t strong enough to lift 100% of your “above-the-belt” bodyweight, what’s going to take over? The teeny tiny muscles in your neck. And that’s why so many people confess that they’ve never felt burn in the abs at all when doing Crunches; just killer tension in the neck. Furthermore, Crunches flex the discs in your back. On hard surfaces (like a concrete floor only cushioned by your paper-thin yoga mat), you risk compressing your spinal discs. Compression of discs causes the discs to bulge and irritate nerves.
Flex That Trunk!
Back to my point of “it’s not that Crunches are all bad”– the primary function of the rectus abdominis, which are your “six-pack” muscles, is flexion of the trunk. Crunches are, plain and simple, flexion of the trunk. If you’re wanting to isolate rectus abdominis muscles, let’s keep the trunk flexion, but lose the undesirable side-effects that come with doing them on the floor. Grab a ball!
How To Control It
A stability ball (also known as a Swiss ball or a resistance ball) positions your body at an angle, so instead of working 100% against gravity, the ball absorbs some of the work. Also, the further you walk your feet away from the ball, the less body weight your abs have to lift. This extraordinary feature allows you to control how hard or how easy the Crunch will be, customizing it to your abdominal strength. When you do Crunches on a stability ball, you should feel no neck pain, whatsoever–zero, zip, zilch, nada! Also, because the rubber ball filled with air provides a cloud of cushion for you to crunch from, your risk of compressing discs diminishes drastically.
Are there other core exercises that recruit rectus abdominis and other supporting muscles to do more “functional” exercises than a Crunch? Sure! There are Planks, Leg Lifts, Push-ups, and plenty of other functional bodyweight exercises that develop all of your middle muscles and work the body, as a whole. For heaven’s sake, running is a core exercise (and if you’ve seen competitive runners, they have abs for days).
But, if you want to target primarily rectus abdominis muscles, which are the abs muscles closest to the skin’s surface, their primary function is what it is: flexion at the trunk. That, my friends, is a Crunch! If you do Crunches, do them with mind-body awareness and, for all the reasons listed above, do them with a stability ball.
4 Steps To Better Abs
Step 1: Inflate a stability ball to where it is very firm to the touch. Realize that your bodyweight will compress the ball far more than your fingers giving it a little squish.
Step 2: Lay back on the ball with your belly facing up. Walk your feet away from the ball until your mid-back is pressing into the ball, and shoulders are resting on the ball behind you.
Step 3: Lift your shoulders off the ball and draw the low ribs closer to the hip bones as you “crunch” up.
Step 4: Return your shoulder blades to the ball as you lower down, returning to the starting position.
Cover photo courtesy Brook Benten Jimenez
Brook Benten Jimenez, M.Ed., is an exercise physiologist in Georgetown, Texas. She is currently in the running for “Ms Health & Fitness 2020” (vote here). Benten Jimenez was named 2012 “Austin’s Fittest Fitness Professional.”