Should You Crunch? #2

crunches


Amazingly enough, crunches are still a hot-button topic in the fitness industry.

10-15 years ago, crunches were all the rage. After all, they were easier on your achy back than sit-ups, and they did a better job of isolating the target muscles, the rectus abdominus.

About 5 years ago, crunches really started to fall out of favor. You heard industry leaders such as Mike Boyle and Dr. Stuart McGill talk about how they rarely, if ever, used crunches and we started focusing on exercises that prevented motion versus creating it.

Now, Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras’ new article cites research that crunches may possibly be beneficial for the discs in the lumbar spine. Their contention is that the subtle motion provides nourishment to the discs and helps keep them healthy.

So where exactly does this leave us with regards to using crunches in our programming?

While I’m just one coach, I of course have my opinion, and I’m not shy about stating it. So here goes….

I rarely, if ever, use crunches in my programming.

In fact, it’s rare that I ever use any sort of isolated spinal flexion in my programming.

Firstly, let me give one instance where isolated spine flexion work could be appropriate. If someone comes to you that’s locked in lumbar hyper-extension, and needs their isolated/segmental lumbar mobility restored, this would be a time when spine flexion work is appropriate.

Even still, crunches are not how I would get them from A-to-B. In fact, I dealt with a client recently that was in this exact scenario, and one of the best exercises for him was a low-load exercise, the cat-camel.

Now we can debate this until the cows come home, but here are my thoughts on the crunches.

Are Crunches Bad for the Back?

The first and most obvious question is this: Are crunches bad for your lower back?

And it’s an extremely loaded question that leads to a million other questions.

  • Where are they getting the movement – the thoracic spine or the lumbar spine?
  • Do they currently have back pain?
  • Have they had back pain in the past?
  • What does their posture and alignment look like?
  • What positions are they in throughout the day?
  • What sport(s) do they participate in?
  • How many crunches are they doing on any given day?
  • How does that volume play out with regards to their total core training?
  • What does the rest of their training program look like?
  • What kind of loads are being used in training?

As you can imagine, it would be very hard to look at an entire program and say, “Yep – the crunches are 100%, for sure, the reason this person does/does not have back pain or dysfunction.”

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple, or that black and white.

The big argument for crunches these days is that it provides a certain amount of nourishment to the discs of the lumbar spine. Movement is typically a good thing – as gentle movement can provide blood flow and nutrition to just about any area to help keep it healthy.

But here’s my question – are crunches the only way to provide said nourishment?

Are there not other options out there that we can choose from? Ones that don’t have a negative effect on the posture and the alignment throughout our body?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s talk about the biggest reason I don’t like crunches, and it’s not even lower back related!

Do Crunches Cause Upper Body Pain and/or Dysfunction?

In all honesty, I think we’re missing the mark when it comes to crunches. We’re so focused on the changes it makes DOWN the kinetic chain (i.e. the lower back) that we fail to realize the changes they make UP the kinetic chain (i.e. the upper back and neck)!

Try this out for me – standing up, sitting down, I don’t care what you’re doing – slouch your shoulders over like you’re doing a crunch.

Now try and lift your arms straight up as high as you can.

Your mobility isn’t great, right?

Now, get as “tall” as you can throughout your thoracic spine. Try the test again, raising your arms as high as you can.

Pretty significant change in shoulder motion right?

This is probably the biggest reason I rarely use crunches – they can absolutely promote poor alignment, which affects our thoracic spine posture.

And by extension, that poor t-spine positioning negatively impacts the position of our scapulae, shoulders, elbows and even our wrists.

Why are we using an exercise that knowingly and willingly puts us in a poor postural alignment?

Not to mention the fact that most of us assume this position for 6, 8, even as much as 10 to 12 hours every day we’re at work or in the car!

Do we really need more practice in hunching over and shortening our core?

I just don’t see the need for it.

Are there rare circumstances or instances where crunches or spinal flexion work could pay dividends?

Sure – I’m not absolutist enough to say anything different.

But I also feel those times are extremely few and far between. The bottom line is there are better core training exercises out there, that will train all the muscles of our anterior core (don’t forget your external obliques!) that won’t have the negative impact on the position of our rib cage and shoulders.

We Need Bottom-Up Stability!

The final nail in my “crunching” coffin comes from old-fashioned, in the trenches experience.

We know people have crappy posture and alignment. And that leads to a host of upper extremity issues.

But crunching in effect is a top-down core exercise. You’re pulling the rib cage down to meet the pelvis.

Instead, think about what most people need – they’re walking around in an excessive anterior tilt of the pelvis.

This anterior tilt drives lower back pain, pulled hammies, pulled groins, anterior knee pain, and a host of other lower extremity injuries.

Instead of a top-down approach, what most of our clients and athletes need is a bottom-up approach to stability!

We need to teach them how to effectively stabilize and control the position of their pelvis. And even though the rectus abdominus can play a small role in that, what we need to be spending the bulk of our time on is developing the external obliques instead.

The external obliques can pull “upwards” on the pelvis, getting it to a more neutral position. As Shirley Sahrmann states in her first text, the external obliques are different from the rectus abdomnius because they can create a posterior tilt of the pelvis without pulling downward on the ribcage.

Summary

So those are my thoughts on crunching and spinal flexion work, as well as the reasons I rarely use them.

Again, I’m not absolutist enough to say I will never use them, but at this point in time I think the negatives far outweigh the positives, at least for myself and the clients I work with.

All the best

MR

BTW – Complete Core Fitness is coming soon! Make sure to check it out if you haven’t already….

17 Comments

Leave Comment

  1. Good stuff Mike!

    I will say, that I am still on the fence about how I am going to incorporate crunches/spinal flexion into my clients programs. I visited Bret Contreras last year and we talked about spinal flexion quite a bit. And with he and Brad’s recent work I admit, it/they have pulled me back to the middle, so to speak (going away from no crunching, and coming back to possibly starting to incorporate a low volume of spinal flexion back in).

    Anyway, I see what you are saying about what crunching can do to t-spine extension/posture. BUT, like always, to me it’s about the application… will 3 X 8 or 2 X 10 one time per week really have a negative impact on posture. Right now, I’m leaning towards no, it won’t. 20-30 crunches per week would not be the problem… sitting for hours on end in flexion would be the culprit (or a main culprit). So, time/energy should be spent fixing what is MAINLY causing the problem (which again, in my opinion, a low volume of crunching is not what is causing the problem). And if spinal flexion appears to have some benefits (nourishing the discs), that is great bonus.

    Again, it’s all about the application; 3 X 100 reps four days per week = not so good. 3 X 8 one time week, may be a good thing.

    Danny

    • Danny –

      Hard not to agree, as the volume definitely plays a role.

      As does load, posture(s) they assume throughout the day, etc.

      Have you listened to McGill’s audio download on Phil Snell’s site? Very cool stuff and well worth an hour of our time.

      I guess for me, it comes down to if the main thing we’re doing crunches for now is disc nourishment, can we not do that in a low/minimal load environment such as a cat-camel?

      And keep in mind here, I really don’t think there’s a black-and-white, right-or-wrong answer. More like a spectrum/continuum and what works for the athlete/client standing in front of you.

      Great thoughts!
      MR

  2. If people can do 1,000’s of any exercise in one sitting then it’s probably NOT that advanced…

    Seems you’ve relayed “logic” into the research perfectly here.

  3. I really enjoyed this!

    A lot of people think they HAVE to do crunches and feel the “burn”, and a lot of people might know its not very effective, but they don’t know what else to do 🙁

    But its not a perfect world, which is why we all have jobs. Kind of bittersweet.

  4. Great post Mike thank you.

    I have a herniated disc in my lower back and my previous instructor every BJJ class would have us do 100’s of sit ups as our warm up. My back was always in agony.

    Now with focusing on anti rotation, stability and more “lower” ab work and trying to minimize anterior pelvic tilt I can minimize the flare ups.

    As well it is great to know this information for when I teach and train my own clients.

    Never stop learning!

    Thanks again.

    Rob
    http://www.RobKingFitness.com

    See you at Pat’s seminar later this month!

  5. Perfect timing for this topic. I have not used trunk flexion exercises in about 10 years. I train mostly baseball players and general fitness clients.

    One client has had some recent back pain. Myself and our PT examine her. She is 4 foot 10, 95 lbs, and 23 years old. Long story short she’s hyper lordotic, very strong “core” and very muscular in her lumbar region. She hinges at L3/L4 and has poor Tx extension. When she tries to touch her toes she can almost get to neural spinal flexion. She has so much lumbar extension that she can’t produce flexion in her lumbar spine.

    Last week I added in 3 sets of some form of crunching or light loading of lumbar flexion movements. 3 sessions later she has no back pain and can flex through her lumbar spine. I never thought I would be programing crunches, but it worked. Any thoughts?

  6. Mike,

    I appreciate your balanced viewpoint. In my opinion, crunches fall into the same category as any other isolation exercise: in most cases, they are not going to be a necessary addition to an exercise program. Should everyone do bicep curls just because flexion is good for the elbow joint?

  7. Hello Mike,

    I know my comment is completely off topic, but i have some questions on your article in which you give 18 tips for a healthy knee.

    My questions iare. regarding the usage of knee sleeves, should they be worn by people that dont have any knee issues? (in my case i’ve had some minor injuries). and should the sleeves be worn during the whole leg/squatting session?
    Do you think that using the sleeves for a long period of time (here i mean, for several workouts) would cause some time predisposition to injury on the knees?

    Thanks a lot

    and i am sorry for this been so off-topic. By the way your articles have been life-saving.

  8. Mike,

    Great article. One question though – How should one safely train for sit-ups if they are used as a performance evaluation in say Military or Law Enforcement PFTs and unavoidable?

  9. Great post!
    Always good information, many people are too quick to jump into one camp or the other, black or white. It’s nice to see a little gray every once in a while

  10. Mike,
    Great series! I like your apporach to the topic, and strongly agree with your statement, “why are we using an exercise that knowingly and willingly puts us in a poor postural alignment?”
    Nice idea to use cat-camel as a low load approach to address a locked lumbar ext posture. I keep hearing mention of reverse crunches to address this, and still not sure this is a good idea, what are your thoughts on this – mainly considering a non-athletic population.
    Thanks
    Robert

  11. I read the article by Schoenfeld and Contreras. I was thinking at the time that someone needs to give them a tap on the shoulder. I think something needs to be said when someone without any of the background of study, research and experience of a McGill stands on a podium and advisers an audience to do something where the experts in that field are saying the opposite.

    If this pair want to do crunches I have no problem with that. I do have a problem when their advice to others to do the same is wrapping in a patina of scientific research.

  12. Feel at present that there are many more productive ways to train my own core for health, performance & aesthetic benefits than crunches or the like. Reduce ATP & portion sizes at meal times & voila – better abs – AMAZING 😉 Rather get better to safely overhead press any day than to crunch! P.S Love Assess & Correct -so much more than a corrective warm-up -guides my entire program design . Thanks Mike!

  13. Mike:

    Can you explain to me why some of our federal, state, and local law enforcement and emergency medical services still use the archaic sit-up as a physical fitness test?

    Don’t you think they would have moved on to something better? I mean, all the labs I did in college for my undergrad used the timed crunch as a measure of muscular endurance. I’d rather have to do that than a full sit up with hands interlocked behind my head.

    Thanks!

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts, the part I liked the most is these three questions you placed in this part:
    â– How many crunches are they doing on any given day?
    â– How does that volume play out with regards to their total core training?
    â– What does the rest of their training program look like?

Leave a Reply


Back to All Posts