(And what to do instead…)
I don’t want to be an alarmist, I just want to start out by being honest today.
I wish the ‘Crunch’ and ‘Sit-Up’ would mostly just die already.
Like skinny jeans, they are dramatically overused and often inappropriate…
If I see, or read the phrase, ‘try this awesome ab workout for that awesome six-pack‘ one more time, I might throw up a little in my mouth.
The world would be a better place really if people stopped marketing and buying ‘Get the Six-Pack You Always Dreamed Of‘ programs on the internet.
Six minute abs? More like "six-minutes-of-my-time-I-wish-I-had-back."
You can get a lot done in six minutes, don't get me wrong, but it'd be a lot more productive if you spent that six minutes on a total body lifting routine or conditioning than 1/10th of your muscles isolated to the trunk of your body.
Seriously, I’ve been in the industry for more than eight years and when I first started out Dr. Stuart McGill’s (the world’s leading expert on back pain and consequently ‘the core’) seminal book ‘Low Back Disorders’ had already been out for 3 years (2002 – 1st Edition).
Smart trainers everywhere were training clients walking around with it as a reference in their armpit for pete’s sake…
Yet despite the many intelligent trainers I’ve met, the pervasiveness of 100’s of crunches and ab dedicated workouts prevails in gyms everywhere. EVERYWHERE!
It's maddening. I want to pull my eyes out, every time I watch someone bust out 50 glute ham sit-ups, or 200 sit-up variations at the end of their workouts at the gym or on social media.
You’re wasting your damn time!
And you’re potentially seriously messing up your spine in the process.
40 years from now, Doctor’s will say you need a Back-e-otomy! (who gets the reference?)
I know it burns, and it feels productive, but it isn't. Not to mention if you value your spine, and the spines of others, you can do me a HUGE favour by sharing this post with your friends, family and anybody else you know that is interested in developing an ACTUAL rock solid core and not some flimsy, bendy, lame one.
Normally I’m extremely opposed to exposing myself in public. “Fitspiration” has been shown to demotivate others, so I don’t want to be the one posting my physique or workouts regularly on social media as if that is what really matters. Hopefully you’ll agree that my knowledge is what is most useful to you.
Hence you don’t see my goofy face plastered in this photo (but I can assure you this is a mirror selfie of me, email me if you need more proof…), but if this helps me prove my point then awesome. No one can accuse me of not looking the part, even if I rarely take my shirt off in public.
Note: Just because my abs look like this, doesn’t mean I’m the leading internet expert on ab training. I might know a thing or two, but just keep that in mind the next time you see an infomercial with somebody shredded. Shredded doesn’t mean ‘expert,’ but it would be kind of ironic of me to tell you what to do if I wasn’t doing it myself.
I don’t know how to use photoshop and there was nothing particularly special about this day save for some (always) flattering lighting in my bathroom.
I don’t crunch and as a person with a history of back pain (since age 8 I think actually), making the move to eliminate crunching almost entirely from my routine was one of the best decisions I ever made. Once upon a time I was was 8 and banging out crunches by the hundreds too, it’s probably what led to my first bout of back pain in hindsight.
80% of the population will experience back pain at some point, so there is a pretty ... pretty ... pretty high chance that you’ll get to experience what I mean, so maybe take some notes …
And I have to give a big hat tip to Dr. Stuart McGill, because it was also one of the most important things I ever learned personally AND as a trainer. I have successfully managed to help many other people deal with and work around their back pain too.
The Deal with Crunches and SitUps
It's pretty much a fact at this point that everyone only has so many bends of the spine in their lifetime and although some people may be more resistant to this eventual breakdown, why not mitigate the risk all the same?
This is an essential component of my training philosophy, ‘Do No Harm.’
In essence this post is really to protect you from yourself and your desire to feel a burning sensation in your mid-section. Burning ≠ useful.
Believe me when I say that you will unintentionally bend, twist and rotate your spine in everyday life (and maybe sport) without the added stress of deliberately doing hundreds of situps and crunches a week.
If you can get a similar training effect with a dozen reps of something instead of hundreds, wouldn't you do that instead? There really isn’t a strong argument for doing hundreds of reps of anything – other than it sounds cool/hardcore. Why not add real strength by increasing the intensity and lowering the volume?
Especially moves like the bicycle crunch that force you to flex your low spine and rotate it at the same time — this might be the #1 most wanted suspect on the FBI's back destroyer list …
Or maybe worse…the superman exercise, you know the one where you’re laying on your stomach and you lift your opposite arm and leg up at the same time or all four of them at the same time?
You know…kinda like this…
The only thing your spine hates more than repeated bouts of flexion with rotation is repeated bouts of extension with rotation. So while the two-handed superman above isn’t terrible, the moment you switch to one leg up and opposite arm up, it might be a little over the top.
Add to that the inertia that people throw their limbs around while doing ‘core training’ and you have a recipe for a rough situation. If you need mobility in this area, do a mobility drill. If you need it functionally because you swim, well swimming will train this quality already, why overtrain it?
Needless to say, you should most likely stop doing these as well…
Foot throwdowns with a partner, I’m also throwing on this list, the torque on the spine with this drill is surprisingly HUGE…
Beyond that, the basic logic behind doing as much ab work as many people do is based on a false premise:
No, no it isn’t and in this case in particular, more is very often worse.
Ab exercises get abused and as if that wasn’t enough, people don’t really develop truly strong and functioning abdominals in the process either, they just develop an overuse pattern in one plane of movement.
Now I get it, people want a six-pack, so doing more crunches seems like a good idea but what good is that six-pack if it can’t hold up to the stress of everyday life?
How do you increase the tone of these muscles really using hundreds of reps?
What You Really Want is Strength/Stability
Lots of repetition, builds endurance, increases the size of mitochondria in the cell and develops fatigue resistance. It does not hypertrophy the muscles of your abdominals so they appear to be bulging out of your skin.
It’s been my experience that most people (even those who might generally be considered not all that fit…) can bang out 25+ crunches with ease, from a variety of positions even. If you have that capacity already, why keep going?
It's like driving an extra 20 miles after you finished your quarter mile race, the race was over 10 minutes ago. Who are you competing against anymore?
You're not getting any effective repetitions, which means you're not creating a stimulus for growth, which means you're not getting 'toned' abs. You are wasting a boatload of your time though. And time is your more precious commodity.
If you want hypertrophy the reps should never really exceed 20, arguably 15, and even then I'd prefer if yours rarely exceeded 12. Unless you have very good reason to, and there are a few exceptions to what I'm telling you in this article but I'm talking to the 98% of you where those exceptions don't apply.
If you going to do exercises that bend your spine repeatedly they need to be challenging enough to approach actual muscular fatigue. Followed by sufficient rest so that subsequent bouts of fatigue are not putting excessive amounts of force in passive structures like ligaments or your vertebral discs.
And you don’t have to do 8 sets in one shot to get a training effect! 2-5 total sets will do. One, maybe two abdominal flexion exercises per workout is all you need. If you dedicate an entire day to training 'abs' you are seriously wasting that training day. They don’t deserve their own ‘training day.’
According to a meta-analysis by Wernbom et al. there is little reason to accumulate anymore than ~70 total reps per muscle group in any given training session. Be that for your abdominals, your back, your chest or your arms.
Here’s the thing about six-pack abs:
- There is a genetic component to it. Everyone has a different abdominal tendon structure, so some people get a more rippled effect than others. Some people may have to settle for a few barely visibly defined abs – technically the rectus abdominis (RA) – and others look shredded up the wazoo, so long as they stay reasonably low in body fat.
- Beyond genetics, it is largely related to body fat percentage and not how many crunches you can do. Nutrition and exercise in general is significantly more important than crunches and situps for the appearance of your midsection.
Ultimately here is how I see it...
Train flexion cycles once or twice a year for about 3-4 weeks at a time, use the crunch I’m going to describe below as your starting point.
If you can do more than 3 sets of 20, move on. You’re just periodically checking in and testing your localized muscular endurance, there is no need to train this pattern a ton unless you have a severe posture issue (again see below). This is just a quick test to see where you’re at.
If you do the things I’m about to mention below you’ll probably find that 20 McGill crunches is easy any time you attempt it and if it isn’t, you can get that feeling back in a few sessions used as a warm up drill.
Set it and forget it. Try again in 6-12 months! Stop beating a dead horse and quit while you’re ahead.
What To Do Instead
I’m going to give you a rundown of exercises that train the same movement, but are more back saving and lead to a better overall training effect (depending on your circumstance).
Here is a list of exercises that just flat out put you in a better position.
The McGill Crunch
This is what to do instead, the almost the ONLY crunch you’ll ever need and I actually like to train them for static holds more often than not. 6 reps of 5 second holds at the top for instance or 3 reps of 10 second holds for 2-3 sets.
Too much counting in your head? That’s fine too, use regular rep schemes. If you can do more than 15-20 reps without shaking for 2-3 sets, you probably don’t need to do more of these (or any other kind of crunch), move along, find something more challenging…
Maybe this is a warm up drill to increase spinal stiffness before you lift. But most often this is a diagnostic baseline or benchmark, THAT’S IT. You don’t have to do a million. Build the capacity, and then check that capacity every 3-6 months to see if it's worth revisiting.
You’re not going to be any better off with other crunching movements, if you can do a few solid sets of these.
Would you expect to train 100 bodyweight squats and make your loaded squat stronger? Of course not! Same idea here … you need load.
Here’s why the McGill Crunch is a better variation:
- The hands (or towel) in the low back gives you kinesthetic feedback on the positioning of your back and allows you to create appropriate back saving abdominal pressure.
- Doing crunches without this pressure, reduces or eliminates the support that muscles can provide the system and place more load onto passive structures like the discs and ligaments that connect the vertebrae. You can’t contract those structures, so they wear down more so with overuse.
- This pressure actually eliminates much, almost all bending that takes place in the lumbar spine (the lower five vertebrae that are the thickest, yet most prone to injury), so you actually eliminate a lot of bending repetitions to this part of the spine.
- By not bending in the low back (the mistake most people make doing crunches already anyway) you place more bending on the more durable to rotation and bending part of the spine, the thoracic part near the rib cage — makes sense, it doesn’t deal with as much load due to shorter levers as the lumbar spine would if you bent all the way up.
- The single bent knee (as opposed to bending both knees) lowers the total involvement of the hip flexors (which are what many people end up training when they do crunches and situps and ultimately what often pull people into poor postures that lead to pain) placing more actual stress on the rectus abdominis (RA) or your six-pack.
- You actually train the RA more directly, because it’s sole function within the crunch is pulling the rib cage to the pelvis. With this variation, you’re moving through a small but direct movement that pulls the rib cage towards the pelvis, but doesn’t allow the back of the pelvis to shift away in the opposite direction (to accommodate the movement) which is counterproductive (and how most crunches and situps get executed).
Ultimately it leads to a pretty tough variation, like I said if you can do 15 for a few sets, you’re strong enough, and you need something that is more challenging. Try something below.
The Reverse Crunch
OK so maybe there is one other exception for crunches, if you’re in a heavy anterior tilt posture then a reverse crunch might be a viable option.
If only because it preferentially recruits all the musculature that is generally not up to snuff with people who have a really really heavy anterior tilt like this:
If you’re not like that, you probably don’t have to worry about them often either, but still you definitely wouldn’t want to be doing 50 of them at a time.
If 15 is super easy, you’re either not doing them right, or you need a harder variation that increases the gravitational force, so an incline bench or a roman chair or even a full hang position from a chinup bar. i.e. hanging knee tuck.
Reduce the total number of repetitions you’re doing for full flexion abdominal work as much as you can but increase the active restraint stress!
Note: McGill wrote about strong implications for total force on the spine not being nearly as impactful on disc herniation as the number of repetitions. There does not appear to be a direct link between the amount of force and the number of repetitions you’ll be able to tolerate. MEANING: Reducing the amount of total repetitions is significantly more important for back health than decreasing force. Training improves your tolerance to force, which appears to be the main issue in spinal health.
If they don’t help improve your lordotic pelvic posture, something else is probably going on elsewhere that needs to be addressed, like stretching your tight hip flexors and strengthening your glutes.
You may not even need them in your training program. I don’t do them because I have more of a flat low back posture. I’m not you though.
If you’re in a posterior pelvic tilt, you probably want to avoid this exercise altogether, or put yourself at risk of back pain and making your tilt worse:
This type of posture is even more likely to result in low back pain, so if you have it and you train the reverse crunch, that could be a recipe that tastes AWFUL…
Here’s why the Reverse Crunch is a better variation:
- The spine remains a little more decompressed moving from the bottom up (as opposed to top-down in the traditional crunch or sit up).
- Most of the flexion based pressure happens in the more flexible thoracic spine.
- The neck is saved more in the reverse crunch then in the standard crunch (you eliminate the tendency people have to grab onto their heads and pull the head forward)
- The External Obliques, which assist with posteriorly tilting the pelvis (remember, you probably shouldn’t use this exercise if you already have a natural posterior tilt) are heavily involved in this variation and it teaches better motor control for posterior pelvic tilting.
You still don’t need to be using more than 15 reps a set for this really for it to be effective and if you can easily get through that amount of volume with good form, this again, is probably not the right exercise for you, move along.
The Swiss Ball (AKA Physio Ball) Pike
If all of the above is still too easy (and again particularly if you’re still in an anterior tilt, which is rare but happens) and you still insist on still training flexion (and I’ll discuss in a future post, a better way to approach ‘Core Training’ but the core is really better trained in positions that require it to stabilize, rather than mobilizing into flexion…) then you might be ready for the pike position (or a straight leg reverse crunch).
*Again potentially bad idea for posterior tilted individuals…
The Pike position plays with levers, essentially you make the reverse crunch into a longer lever (and going to a straight leg reverse crunch will make this more difficult, using the same progressions as above, from the ground, to incline, to hanging…) and increase the difficulty.
I’d start here, instead of going to a straight leg reverse crunch variation, because in this position you can more effectively stabilize your spine (hands on the floor) and thus reduce pressure on the spine until you’re sure you can handle a harder variation that opposes more gravitational force.
Here’s why the SB Pike is better than another crunches (except those above):
- There is a reason for building bridges in an arch format, it distributes forces better. If you put your hands on the floor, you now have 4 points of contact (2 feet, 2 hands), this spreads the forces out between your upper and lower body, taking some pressure off your spine (probably less than the reverse crunch even). In a traditional crunch all the force goes downward, in a traditional reverse crunch all the force goes upward. This variation disperses forces a lot more efficiently to the hands and feet at the same time…
- You may even find just holding the starting position quite difficult, which is a great variation of a front plank (little tougher position) — training stability like this, is actually probably more useful than crunching but adding a dynamic element to it is even better (stability around movement is key)
- Is very challenging for a lot of people, at least at first (and will make you think you’re getting more lower abdominals, even if that isn’t actually true…) and you’re less likely to be able to do more than 15 reps (which if you can, again, you probably need something else…)
- It’s more of a closed chain movement, which provides some variety to your movement pattern training. Crunches are more open chain. I like a balance between the two.
- The External Obliques, which assist with posteriorly tilting the pelvis (remember, you probably shouldn’t use this exercise if you already have a natural posterior tilt) are still heavily involved in this variation still and it teaches better motor control for posterior pelvic tilting with a straighter leg position. It also trains the hip flexors and teaches the hamstrings to reflexively relax (something they don’t always get to do in closed chain lower body training) so the hip flexors can contract.
This will stress the hip flexors a little more too, which sometimes you want, many don’t need it until they do. All in all, if you can do 15 or more of these, I’m telling you for the last time…
Probably not a great exercise for you, you could even be way too strong in flexion.
If you have back pain from posterior pelvic tilting, these last 2 exercises are not great options. No crunches options are good options for you, stick to planks and other isometric or static core training exercise variations like crawling.
I actually sit a little into posterior tilt, so I hardly ever use any of these in my own training, but I find them to be effective with tight athletes and women (who tend to sit more in anterior tilt than men).
There really just far more challenging variations of flexion based movements that will allow you to actually get stronger, rather than just building endurance, in this range of motion.
Don’t just do more of something, make it harder!
Please share this with people who crunch, together we can rid the world of bad backs everywhere…
Now all you have to do is get your nutrition dialed in and you’re golden for that six-pack…