Should You Crunch?

crunch

“Should we perform crunches in our exercise routine?”

This question has been hotly debated, especially in recent years. Many have leaned on the work of Dr. Stuart McGill and excluded crunches, sit-ups and other spinal flexion work from their programming.

But one question that almost always comes up is this:

What about mixed-martial artists (MMA)? Should they perform crunches, sit-ups and/or spinal flexion work in their programming?

I have my own thoughts about this type of training, but I’m going to save it for today.

I posed this question to several high-level guys who all train elite MMA fighters. Here’s what they had to say:

Dewey Nielsen, Impact Jiu-Jitsu

We don’t program any “flexion-based” core exercises like crunches and sit-ups for our MMA and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu athletes and haven’t since 2005. The sport requires enough spinal flexion as is and I feel programming it in our training is the wrong move.

In the sport of MMA, there is a much higher demand for the prevention of movement (think of your opponent trying to sweep, reverse or move you) than there is for the actual production of spinal flexion to move your opponent. The spine only has so many cycles of flexion available before “something” bad happens (Stu McGill, of course, can talk for hours on this) so we would rather our athletes use these cycles up during their skill training (no way around this) rather than their performance training.

The proof for me, what really changed my mind, was simply eliminating these exercises out of the programs of our combat athletes that experienced low back pain.

The results? Literally everyone had decreased pain to zero pain with myself included. I am a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and years ago I had suffered a serious low back injury that kept me off of the mat for nearly 6 months. This injury was a blessing and a curse.

The blessing was that it forced me to understand the spines relationship to flexion and it introduced me to Stuart McGill. The more I train inverted guard positions the worse my back feels so I cannot imagine ever intentionally doing crunches or sit-ups again in my strength training.

The key to training combat athletes doesn’t simply lie in making them solely perform better, but the secret, is KEEPING them as healthy as possible so that they have the opportunity to perform better. This is quite possibly, the roughest sport there is so the healthier the athlete is and the more chances they have to train to improve their skill, strength, power and conditioning.

The other problem we face with MMA athletes is posture. Good posture in fighting is bad posture in life and like the cyclist or desk jockey, we as fitness professionals and strength coaches MUST program intelligently to combat these bad postures.

Crunching and sit-ups train and reinforce poor posture by drawing the pelvis closer to the ribcage. We can reduce the harsh demand of poor posture by programming spinal stabilization exercises with a strong focus only correct posture while performing them.

This debate has been around for sometime now and doesn’t look like its going to die anytime soon. We know that there are better exercise selections (stabilization exercises) then crunches and sit-ups, and we know there are safer exercises. The choice becomes easier if you divorce yourself from tradition.

Joe Dowdell, Peak Performance NYC

Yes, I will program in some spinal flexion, spinal extension, rotation, lateral flexion, etc. That being said, I am very cognizant of the following:

  1. Things like load vectors (i.e., looking at whether the load is directly opposing the desired movement pattern or is it actually forcing them more into the movement pattern);
  2. Making sure they utilize a controlled movement especially when approaching the end ROM of any of the above patterns and also making sure that the program is about a 80-20 (at most a 70-30) split of spinal stability vs. spinal mobility.

In the early stages of the training program, spinal stability work takes total precedence.  As we move through the training process, we will incorporate some spinal mobility work. A lot of the spinal mobility work will actually be part of integrated movement pattern, like a hanging knee raise into a reverse curl motion.

If you need specific examples of exercises/movement patterns that I use, I can flesh this out some more for you.  But, the above exercise would be an example of how I will add some spinal mobility into the program.

In addition, I not only train my fighters like this, but myself as well, as I have found it to benefit my training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and boxing/kickboxing.

True story: About 4-5 years ago (whenever McGill’s Ultimate Back Training Book came out), I had stopped performing all spinal mobility work and only did spinal stability work.  Now, I was never into the whole high repetition abdominal work thing anyway, but I did do quite a bit of Swiss Ball Crunches, Swiss Ball Oblique Crunches, Reverse Crunches, etc. and I even did some heavy Swiss Ball DB Crunches.

Anyway, about 6 months or so into the whole no-more Spinal mobility process, I found myself finishing up a set of heavy bench press (I think it was around 250 lbs., which was heavy for me); I tried to sit up.

I couldn’t do it, I was stuck.

It took me by complete surprise so I tried again. But, this time, I really focused on performing a curl up.  Once again, I couldn’t do it. So, I turned to my side; grabbed the side of the bench and lifted myself up.

From that day forward, I put back some spinal mobility exercises into all of my programs, including my clients (unless they have a spinal pathology) and athletes. After the incident, I remembered something that Paul Chek said once in a seminar that I attended about 15 years ago: “If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”

And, that is exactly what happened to me. I had lost the ability to flex my spine.

My programming is based on the needs analysis of the sport.  The sport happens in a chaotic manner and often times your body is not in the most ideal positions.

In my opinion, and my personal experience, I have found it extremely beneficial to make sure that I have the strength (and the ability to control of that strength) throughout the entire available range of motion. I don’t find it necessary to perform a high volume of movement in these patterns, but I have definitely found more merit in doing some than none at all.

And, back when I experimented with the omission of all spinal mobility work on myself, I did it with my clients as well. When I added it back into their programs, they responded with very positive feedback as well. In fact, many of them said that they felt better.

I thought about this topic a lot and I think that a lot of people (myself included) forgot that that when McGill’s research came out, it was all based on a spine in vitro.  The spine has muscles, tendons and ligaments attached to it and all of these things help create force as well as attenuate force.

So, even though it’s very interesting research, it’s not exactly applicable to what really happens in a human spine with muscles, tendons and ligaments. I still think that we should spend the majority of our training focusing on Spinal stability, but I feel there is a need for some smart use of spinal mobility exercises as well.

Dr. Stuart McGill, Professor of Spine Biomechanics at University of Waterloo

A huge question and one which would be better to discuss on the phone. Many of the athletes who see me have flexion based back pain so I need to enhance their athleticism by avoiding the pain mechanism.

For them I assess their capacity for flexion volume then stay within that. Things like stir-the-pot etc assist in this. There are those who say “but they flex in MMA and therefore need to keep training it through the pain”.

They were not successful and that is why they ended up seeing me. I save the flexion capacity for the sport and preserve the spine in training. That is for those in pain.

For those without pain, the world changes. I need to see the total program, and assess the individual to determine where the athletic imbalances lay, where technique is flawed, where they are over powered or underpowered etc etc. From that I will design the program. Situps are fine for some where a combo hip flexion is needed. But, if it is just hip flexion I will focus there.

But for MMA:

  1. Build the abdominal and torso armor to withstand blows,
  2. lift an opponent and throw,
  3. core stability and proximal stiffness to unleash distal mobility and limb speed, and
  4. within the core stiffness rubric, rapid contraction and relaxation of muscle to enhance speed for closing velocities and effective mass to enhance force delivery to the fist or foot, etc etc.

Each program will be different depending on what I feel will produce the biggest improvement for the least effort.

The acid test: put an MMA athlete in front of me, let me assess and watch them perform and then let me roll with them in the cage – then I will be educated enough to design a program.

So there you have it – three industry experts weigh-in on the topic of crunching, sit-ups and spinal flexion?

But what do you think? Would you prescribe these exercises in your programming?

Any specific thoughts with regards to MMA fighters?

I’m looking forward to your feedback below!

All the best

MR

P.S. – In case you’ve missed it, Complete Core Fitness is coming very soon! Here’s a short video that describes why I created the product, what it covers, and what you’ll learn by checking it out!

21 Comments

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  1. Great topic…and one that I have thought about quite a bit. I would side with Joe Dowdell on this one. The fighters that I work with do more stability than flexion, but I never eliminate the latter (except in the presence of low back pain). I know from grappling myself that, in the guard position, I was constantly flexing my spine to grab a gi, neck, submissions, etc. I think as long as there is a healthy ratio of resisting force (bracing, Pallofs, planks) and producing force (medicine ball slams, standing flexion), the spine is safe.

    • Tony –

      Thanks for the feedback! And that’s exactly why I went to numerous people – to get different viewpoints and perspectives!

  2. Great article!

    As a practitioner and competitor in Brazilian jiujitsu for over 7 years and having done my share of MMA training, I’ve found more transfer from stability style core exercises versus mobility exercises. I agree with Dewey in that being able to prevent movement is of paramount importance, and possibly more important, to the sport. Dewey also mentions that he plays a lot of guard and inverted guard which, for those who aren’t familiar with the sport, puts you at end-ranges of spinal flexion. When I think about it it’s amazing that more people don’t hurt their back in our sport! lol

    I agree with Joe’s idea of keeping some spinal mobility exercises. It’s hard to argue that exercises like DB ball crunches and reverse crunches don’t improve aesthetics which is what most of my clients want. And of course Stuart McGill makes a great point that it’s ultimately ALL about the individual and your ability to assess them.

    For me personally, my back starts hurting when I stop deadlifting to counteract all the flexion. As long as I keep my posterior chain strong with deadlifts, I rarely experience any back issues.

    Thanks again for a great article,

    – Ted Ryce

  3. I personally don’t do any spinal flexion with my BJJ/mma athletes. Generally speaking not only do they spend about 1/2 of their training time in flexion, but most BJJ “skill” coaches include dozens of sit-ups and triangles into their warm-ups/cool downs. Strength coaches need to be very mindful of programming around what their athletes do on the mat and communicate with their skill coaches as much as possible.

    Great article Mike.

  4. I share the same experience as J.B. I’ve never had a coach who didn’t include a ton of flexion work in warm-ups and/or training, and therefore I make sure that I don’t program any flexion in my strength sessions. Bang-for-buck, so to speak. I’d rather spend my limited time training some other quality that gives a more pronounced carry-over.-

    The same can be said about specific grip work too though, as I’ve noticed my grip tend to fatigue easier whenever I train more than 5 hours of BJJ/week.

    And as always, you always have to look at the individual before you condemn any form of training or exercise. Some people can do extra crunches, some people can’t.

  5. On what Joe said, I like how he said at the extreme, it’s probably not a good thing (i.e. NO spinal flexion…ever), but flexion under load- the other extreme- is also going to be a big problem. Even unloaded though, I don’t think spinal flexion is absolutely “necessary” in training. But performing a few sets of camel/cats and such every now and then, to keep the body aware of its mobility, doesn’t seem like it can be a bad thing. I imagine most individuals get some spinal flexion throughout every day life (unless they’re a field expert who’s actually trying to avoid it at ALL TIMES!). However the extent to which this is used in programming should always be determined after a “lifestyle evaluation” and assessment, looking at their pelvic tilt, posture, and so forth.

  6. A problem I see with excluding it is the loss of eccentric strength in the abdominals as well. In addition, when most train “stability” component, they only train in a neutral pelvic position. To truly train this, I would advise doing exercises such as the ab wheel with a posterior pelvic tilt, neutral, and even with anterior pelvic tilt to train the abdominal wall in varying levels of spinal extension/flexion. Paul Chek was right a long time ago that the abdominal wall needs a LOT of variety with regards to stimulation.

    Pain shouldn’t be the only marker of whether or not you are doing something right. I’ve rehabbed hundreds of back pain patients who have eliminated pain long before they achieved ideal function.

    • I believe the cut-off is 50% – in other words, 50% of all low back pain cases resolve themselves with no treatment whatsoever!

  7. I think these responses highlight the individuality of program design…putting the “personal” back into personal training. I particularly like J.B.s response in relation to many sports coaches programming a lot of spinal flexion and how me may not actually need to add to that.

  8. As I recall you saying when you were up here in Vancouver, Mike – “just because you should be able to do it, doesn’t mean you should LOAD it”. For loaded/resisted core training with myself and my clients, I focus on stability, because I want them to stabilize in good alignment when performing activities wherever possible. I address maintaining the ability to move through flexion/extension without load in the warmup, and generally try to avoid end ROM.

    In the case of an MMA athlete, as many have noted above, they get plenty of flexion in training for their sport. The specifics of BJJ training have already been mentioned above, but strikers as well also spend a lot of time with their shoulders rounded forward, an exaggerated kyphosis and slight lumbar flexion when training with their guard up and slipping punches. To keep them healthy, focusing more on proper posture outside of that environment is important. Also, for delivering maximum power in their strikes, working on core stability (especially anti-rotation) and hip mobility is, in my opinion, a more effective and (here comes the f-word!) functional way to train.

  9. I would also say, it is interesting to note – a lot of “anti-crunchers” focus on the research of Dr. McGill with in-vitro pig spines, and his recommendations for those who are injured. It is good to see the doc himself reinforce that it really comes down to the assessment!

  10. Good stuff! As already mentioned yes would come down to the assessment so therefore becomes an individual thing. What about when it is a class situation? Do we divide fighters up into i.e Anterior pelvic tilt vs Posterior pelvic tilt…crunches vs no crunches.
    Let pain be the guide….”Use your brain when you train” instead of no pain no gain… So many variables in MMA & BJJ this topic will be around for a long time. Thanks for insight.

  11. Nice wrap up on the MMA angle Mike. Check out my interview last week with Stu McGill if you get the time. Just talked to Stu again earlier today to discuss whether it was worth doing a follow up interview to handle some of the blowback in the forums after last week’s interview. The question you pose in this post seems to be 2-fold. More generally, should we be recommending crunches as ab work to the general public? The body of your post however, focuses on a specific population, MMA fighters, asking the same question. As to the question of whether or not to train loaded flexed spine in an MMA fighter, the point seems moot. The guard positions place high flexed spine loads on tissues that we know from NIOSH epidemiological studies fare poorly in response to repeated loaded flexion. Adding strength training programs which add to the sport specific stress leaves less opportunity for recovery, more likelihood for tissue failure.

    As to the question of whether John Q. should be doing crunches, the same NIOSH research is applicable. Assuming your average gym goer wants general fitness, a visible 6 pack, or injury resistance from their ab routine, other exercises can get to those goals thru other routes and other exercises quite nicely. Stir the Pot was good enough for the tops in MMA (can’t name names) who are known for having aesthetically pleasing abs. Vary that a bit to account for adaptability and get to other things like how to integrate the anti-torque nature of the abs in complex pulls and pushes. BTW, love the get ups with the logs on FB, reminds me of home!

    Sorry for the rant, but this is a public health issue. In the Western world, lifetime incidence of severe back pain is 80% and point prevalence is 30%. Let’s give folks excellent functioning abs, without repeatedly showing them loaded spine flexion and see if we can save a lot of pain and money.

  12. That’s interesting.

    At some point I hope we’ll get back to real Kickboxer training w/ Mr. Van damme, dropping coconuts on our stomachs from high in trees…..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ffs_5DMJLw

    Sit through the video, you’ll see, annnnnd it’s worth it.

    I used to have guys repeatedly drop med balls on my stomach back in the day just b/c of this movie. Haha. Imagine trying to convince a client to do that.

    Personally, Spinal flexion work doesn’t work for me. My GI is even whacky for a few days. So I stay away. H/e I’ve had lumbar issues since high school. I also grew up wrestling, playing baseball, and generally getting the shit kicked out of me by my brother and his friends repeatedly (until one day when I kicked his ass. He’s 4 years older. Prob sucked getting dominated in 8th grade by your 9yr old little brother….haha.)

    But for the general population I think McGill is right, each case needs to be taken individually. Of course as time goes on we’re going to find standards of practice and procedure that will allow us to make better decisions in regards to back pain and exercise prescription.

    My stance though: How many athletes are really gonna advance so far that plank variations, anti rotation, heavy carries, etc etc aren’t going to have their place in a program.

    What do you think Mike? Even close?

    • I think you’re right on man – at the end of the day we can give “general” recommendations to keep people healthy.

      But until we’ve assessed the INDIVIDUAL, it’s impossible to develop a customized and appropriate program.

      MR

  13. Would love to see Dr McGill do some research on MMA fighters in the guard positions to assess there flexion position, similar to the research he’s done in powerlifters, to see if they do in fact reach end ROM on a regular basis in this position. How bout it Dr McGill.

  14. I’m really not sure where Joe Dowdell is coming from. He couldn’t do a crunch up from the bench? Why would he want to try that in the first place? Especially, if his feet are still in contact with the ground. The forces on his lumbar, if he attempted this, would be high I’m sure, and he could risk injury attempting to just get up.

    Usually, I would use momentum to get myself up. I would bring my knees near my chest, and simply rock up. It was no different than having dumbbells and touching your knees, one at a time to the dumbbells and rock up. How many times have we seen people struggle to get off the bench by not doing this or by simply dropping the dumbbells on the floor?

    My other technique involved simply grabbing the bar with my right hand, bringing my knees up near my chest, pulling with my right arm and rotating on my toosh, and putting my legs to the side of the bench and getting up, like I was getting out of bed.

    Two easy and safe ways of getting off the bench, but if you want to put some more Newtons on your lumbar and crunch up, then as Pavel says, “It is America. A land of choices.”

  15. from a chiropractic prospective low back pain is not as simple as doing one thing or another. yes, u can have over use and or creat imbalances. so… correct them and move on. there is not one answer. but simply eliminating all flx exercises is not a balanced answer. my clients and pt s do a combination of stability, flx and lat. flx exercises and all of them report an increase of strength and a decrease in pain. balance is key in corrective exercise, corrective therapy and pre-hab.
    thx DR. Lessuk head of assesments, corrective therapy and corrective exercise for “The Program”

  16. Great topic! I’ve actually experienced back pain for the past 12 years, since I was 18 and picked up a heavy object at work and experienced pain like I hadn’t experienced before. Since taking crunches out of my programs, I’ve actually experienced less back pain. We sit so much in forward flexion as a society, I feel we don’t really need to continually hammer at our rectus abdominus through forward flexion. Stability exercises do a great job working the entire core and in my experience I don’t feel my lower back is as vulnerable to injury. Just my thoughts through my own personal experience.
    Conor

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