Abdominal crunches: an exercise that you’ve all probably performed ad nauseam, whether it was prescribed by a magazine you read, or a personal trainer you’ve worked with. Well, what do crunches have in common with the “eight glasses of water” rule? Both of these concepts are based on extremely outdated science and research (or perhaps even lack thereof), and until just recently, the water consumption rule has been widely prescribed by mostly everyone, myself included! This rule was pulled out of seemingly thin air back in the 1940’s and we’ve blindly stuck to it ever since. The part that gets left out of the whole hydration equation is the amount of water that we take in through the rest of our diet, whether it be through an apple or even a cup of coffee. Like most things, there is a lot more grey area than strictly black or white, and the biggest influence on our perception of those things is context. Another example of our society abiding by a rule through the years due to our lack of context and/or continued research is the abdominal crunch, and it is time to reevaluate.
Why Did We Think We Were Doing Crunches?
Before we hand out our death sentence to the abdominal crunch, we should probably build our case. I guess to better understand why not to do something, we need to first understand why we thought we were supposed to do it in the first place. For years, we’ve tried to train our core musculature like something it wasn’t. Instead of discussing the functions of the transverse abdominis, external/internal obliques, and rectus abdominis, let me try to simplify things. The muscles that comprise the “core” all work together to create an intricate network of support cables that help keep the spine safe while transferring power up and down, back and forth, with the hips, legs, and arms. The key word here is, transfer, not produce. The core musculature is designed to transfer forces, therefore, we would like for it to be as stable as possible. Combine this with the fact that a majority of us spend most of our day sitting at a car or desk, with a forward and rounded posture, and you’re looking at very structurally unstable and inadequately performing core. Now that the evidence is on the table, the big question surfaces: why the hell would we train ourselves to not only create a force with our core musculature but do it in a manner that would reinforce our already poor posture? Side note- crunches don’t create a six-pack, a healthy diet does.
No Crunches? Now What?
It’s easy for anyone to complain about how or why something is, but producing a viable solution to the problem is a different story. Obviously, when you read this article, and you learn that abdominal crunches are no longer appropriate (not that they ever have been), you’re going to want safe alternatives for core training. Firstly, every exercise you do, from a bird-dog (pictured below), to a push-up (picture above), and even body-part specific exercises like bicep curls, should start as a core exercise. In a forearm plank, think of both points of contact with the ground (forearms and feet) as the ends of a suspension bridge, which create the anchors. It is the tension of the abdominals (cables) that buttress the weight of the body, not passively, but actively, creating an upward lift of the body. The entire duration of your plank, your spine is in a neutral position, with slight inward curves at your lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck). I will always instruct my clients to create pressure in the abdominal cavity as if someone was going to step on their stomach. Through this artificial tension, you create stability in the lumbar spine, which then frees up your extremities to move efficiently with proper range-of-motion. After mastering the plank, progressing to something like movement in one arm or leg can present a bigger challenge. So many exercises place more demand on your core than a crunch ever could, so if bang for your workout buck is what you’re after, explore other options. This quote from a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning sums it up for you-
“Thus, an isometric training approach was superior in terms of enhancing core stiffness. This is important since increased core stiffness enhances load bearing ability, arrests painful vertebral micro-movements, and enhances ballistic distal limb movement. This may explain the efficacy reported for back and knee injury reduction.”
Core Training Must Evolve
The bottom line on core specific training lies in the simple fact that the core is designed to transfer power, not produce it. Learn to maintain spinal position through varying difficulties of arm/leg movements and your back will inevitably thank you for it. Not only are you reinforcing the posture you’ve been barked at to maintain since you were a child, but you are joining a new and better (at least to me) way of thinking in this world. Hell, even the United States Navy is bailing on their sit-up test. Like technology, things change, systems evolve, and we gain a better understanding of how and why to do things differently than before. Don’t make the mistake of falling into the thought process of “we do it that way because that’s how we’ve always done it”. Put the eighth glass of water down, stop doing crunches, and evolve.
Yours in Wellness,
Prevention over Treatment