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Do We Really Need to Crunch? 5 Core Exercises That Don’t Require Crunching

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if the first question I’m asked by most clients is “How do I get a six-pack?” It could be because so much media and advertising features models baring lean midriffs. And don’t get me started on all of the late-night TV products designed to “ABSolutely, positively” provide the user with a sculpted midsection. Anyone who has worked in fitness for more than a few minutes knows that one reason why many people start exercising is to create a flat and sculpted stomach. Walk around most gyms and two of the most common core exercises you’ll see are the plank and the crunch. The plank, which we talked about in our 5 Exercises to Flatten Your Stomach and Reduce Low-back Pain blog, can help tighten your tummy while reducing low-back pain. Crunches, on the other hand, can actually make back pain worse.

Why Do Crunches Make Back Pain Worse?

While the crunch is one of the most popular exercises in the gym, it is also one of the worst exercises to do if you have a history of low-back pain. Lying face-up on the floor and curling the trunk to do a crunch or sit-up can exacerbate low-back pain for two reasons:

  1. Crunches can place a lot of pressure on the intervertebral discs of the lumbar spine. As the spine flexes to lift the trunk, the discs are compressed at the front (ventral portion), which pushes the back (dorsal) directly into the hard surface of the floor. This pressure can be even greater for people who exercise in the morning, because lying down all night reduces the gravity’s pull on the body, resulting in more fluid in the discs, which makes them more susceptible to injury if compressed during a crunch movement.
  2. One of the primary muscles that causes spinal flexion when pulling the upper body off the floor during a sit-up is the iliopsoas, whose primary job is creating flexion at the hip. If you’ve been sitting all day in a hips-flexed position (shortening the iliopsoas), doing an exercise that uses the hip flexors can make the muscle tighter and pull the lumbar attachments forward, causing more discomfort in the lower back.

Which Muscles Make Up the Core and What is Their Purpose?

There are many ways to describe which muscles make up the core, but here is the definition I use: any muscle that attaches to the pelvis or spine. From this point of view, core muscles can either provide stability to the spine or produce strength to create movement at the hips and trunk. When you look at the anatomical structure, the muscles of the human body are designed to be most effective when standing on the ground. If you want to know more about the specifics of how they work, you can read about that here and here.    

What Exercises Should I Do to Enhance Strength and Definition?

If your current training goal is to enhance strength and definition in your core muscles, instead of doing crunches or sit-ups, try the following exercises. They use all of your core muscles together, resulting in higher caloric burn.

Standing 2-arm Cable Press

This exercise is an advanced progression for the plank and has been identified by researcher Dr. Stuart McGill as an excellent way to improve strength in ALL of the core muscles at the same time. Using a cable machine, set the pulley at approximately chest height, stand with your left shoulder facing the pulley and grab the handle with both hands and fingers wrapped around the handle. Sink back into your hips, press your feet into the floor and brace your abs (contract your muscles like someone is going to punch your tummy), then slowly press the handle away from your chest for eight to 12 reps. Switch sides and repeat. Rest for 30-45 seconds and repeat for two to three sets.

Rotational Shoulder Press

The external (on the front side of the body) and internal (on the backside of the core) obliques help control rotation of the upper body. Oblique crunches lying on the floor do not involve the hip or shoulder muscles, which all work together when the body is upright and moving over the ground. This standing rotational press is an excellent way to use the hips, obliques and shoulders together as one unit, but it is not recommended for someone with recurring shoulder or upper-back pain. Stand holding one dumbbell in each hand right with the elbows pointing forward (pictured). Rotate to the right and reach the right hand up in the air. This will lengthen the right-side obliques, creating an eccentric action, which is an effective way to train and strengthen the muscle. Rotate to the left side and repeat with the left arm; continue for eight to 10 reps on each side. Rest for 30 to 45 seconds and do two to three sets total. It is EXTREMELY important to maintain a straight and tall posture during this movement to reduce the stress on the shoulders.

Medicine Ball Lift With Rotation

The core has been described as being all of the muscles connecting the hips and spine to the pelvis. Based on this definition, the medicine ball lift with rotation uses most of those muscles together at the same time. Start with a medicine ball (or dumbbell held length-wise between the hands), sink back into your hips with the ball by your right hip, while keeping the spine straight. Press both feet into the ground to return to standing, while rotating the right foot to internally rotate the right hip. The ball should travel in a diagonal pattern from the right hip to above the left shoulder (pictured) during the move. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps then switch sides, rest for 30 to 45 seconds and repeat for two to three sets total.

Single-leg Romanian Deadlift

This exercise is GREAT for the posterior chain, specifically the butt, hamstrings and inner-thigh muscles responsible for extending the hip. Balance on the left leg, while holding a dumbbell in the right hand. Hinge forward on the left hip while extending the right leg and slowly lower yourself to a comfortable level. To help create stability, push your left foot into the floor and point the toes of the right foot, while bracing (contracting) your abs. To return to standing, think about pulling the bottom of your left glute down and in toward the back of the left thigh (this will focus on the adductors of the inner thigh). Do six to 10 reps on one leg, then switch legs. Rest 30 to 45 seconds between sets (no rest between switching legs) and perform two to three sets total.

Reverse Crunch

The rectus abdominis (six-pack muscle) attaches from the rib cage to the pelvis, so strengthening the muscle requires either pulling the rib cage toward the pelvis (often done incorrectly) or the pelvis toward the rib cage. The reverse crunch is an excellent way to do the latter because it uses the muscle without having to push the vertebrae into the ground by flexing the lumbar spine. Lie on a bench (holding on to the bench helps with support), lift the legs in the air and draw the belly button toward the spine, while pulling your pelvis up toward your rib cage. Slowly lower the hips to return to starting. Do six to 10 reps, rest for 30 to 45 seconds, and repeat for a total of two to three sets. Hint: The straighter the legs, the greater the resistance; therefore, when learning this move, start with the knees slight bent.