If there’s one thing that annoys me at the gym (there aren’t that many things that annoy me at the gym; believe it or not, I’m very tolerant, and I can see the good in just about everything), it’s people doing crunches. Crunches, crunches, crunches.
“I want six-pack abs!” Well, believe me, buddy. Doing those wimpy crunches won’t get you anywhere near a six-pack.
“I was told sit-ups are bad for you.” Bad for you? Really? The ability to sit up is bad? Okay… then roll onto your hip and get up from all-fours for the rest of your life.
Doing any exercise incorrectly can be unsafe. Your form may be bad, not the exercise.
So what’s the story with crunches? Why did they become so popular?
People started lacing their fingers behind their heads and straining to sit up. Their lower lumbar spine, probably unaccustomed to the exercise, tended to curl and compress their discs. Their elbows pointed forward, their eyes were squeezed shut, and their necks were feeling strained from the effort. This is not a good position for the spine, in any sense. High quality sit-ups aren’t easy. Twenty years ago, it was decided that crunches were a nicer option, because they were “easier” on the spine (and they could be easily integrated into aerobics exercise videos, which were very popular at the time).
Let’s face it. America is getting lazier and lazier. Over the past 30 years, the American Council of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has lowered it’s exercise recommendations. Why? Because an out-of-shape American would feel too daunted by the amount of exercise formerly prescribed. The idea was to encourage people to start exercising (period) by telling them it wouldn’t have to be that much.
Crunches are easy. I don’t care who you are. They are easy, and that is why people gravitate toward them (like elliptical machines), especially when they’ve been led to believe that sit-ups are “bad for you.” You do a few crunches, and within seconds you start to feel that burn in your upper abs. Awesome! You’re giving yourself a great core workout! Right?
Wrong. The only part of your core getting worked is the upper region of the rectus abdominis, a relatively tiny portion of your core.
Core strength is something far more complex than mere isolation exercises. Every time you lift a box, walk, run, jump, twist, sit-up and get out of bed, load the dishwasher, vacuum your house, pick up your kid, whatever–you are using your core. Your core strength will dictate your posture. It is involved in just about every functional movement there is.
Crunches? Come on! You think it’s going to give you definition? Low body fat will give you muscle definition. Low body fat is achieved by burning body fat–burning excess calories.
You can lower body fat by building muscle, so can’t you build muscle doing crunches? Sure, and give yourself years to get there. Or, you can do sit-ups properly. You can do leg lifts, too. Switch to compound exercises like the dead lift, build way more muscle, burn way more fat, and get your results.
What else works the core? Push-ups and pull-ups (these will target the same muscles your crunches will), big time. Holding weight at chest height and doing squats. Torso twists. The list goes on.
Look on the web if you want to find pro-crunch articles. But you will never ever, ever see me prescribe a crunch on this site. On my list of “core exercises to do,” they fall right at the bottom.