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