Updated: Oct 4, 2020
When it comes to abdominal exercises, if somebody told you jabbing your vertebrae into the hard ground and straining your neck may give you a six-pack, would you do it? Somebody did tell you that. And you did do it. It’s called a crunch. There’s a better way to work your abs and in this edition of “Exercises You Never Knew You Were Doing Wrong,” we’re going to explore it!
It’s not that crunches are all bad. The problem is twofold. On the floor, your muscles are working 100% against gravity. Because of that, if your abdominals aren’t strong enough to lift 100% of your “above-the-belt” bodyweight, what’s going to take over? The teeny tiny muscles in your neck. And that’s why so many people confess that they’ve never felt burn in the abs at all when doing crunches; just killer tension in the neck. Furthermore, crunches flex the discs in your spine. On hard surfaces (like a concrete floor only cushioned by your paper-thin yoga mat), you risk compressing your spinal discs. Compression of discs cause the discs to bulge and irritate nerves.
Back to my point of “it’s not that crunches are all bad”-- the primary function of the rectus abdominis, which are your “six-pack” muscles, is flexion of the trunk. Crunches are, plain and simple, flexion of the trunk. If you’re wanting to isolate rectus abdominis muscles, let’s keep the trunk flexion, but lose the undesirable side-effects that come with doing them on the floor. Grab a ball!
A stability ball (also known as a Swiss ball or a resistance ball) positions your body at an angle, so instead of working 100% against gravity, the ball absorbs some of the work. Also, the further you walk your feet away from the ball, the less body weight your abs have to lift. This extraordinary feature allows you to control how hard or how easy the crunch will be, customizing it to your abdominal strength! When you do crunches on a stability ball, you should feel no neck pain, whatsoever- zero, zip, zilch, nada! Also, because the rubber ball filled with air provides a cloud of cushion for you to crunch from, your risk of compressing discs diminishes, drastically.
Are there other core exercises that recruit rectus abdominis and other supporting muscles to do more “functional” exercises than a crunch? Sure! There’s planks, leg lifts, push-ups, and plenty of other functional bodyweight exercises that develop all of your middle muscles and work the body, as a whole. For heaven’s sake, running is a core exercise (and if you’ve seen competitive runners, they have abs for days)! But, if you want to target primarily rectus abdominis muscles, which are the abs muscles closest to the skin’s surface, their primary function is what it is: flexion at the trunk. That, my friends, is a crunch! If you do crunches, do them with mind-body awareness- and, for all the reasons listed above, do them with a stability ball!
Step 1: Inflate a stability ball to where it is very firm to the touch (realize that your bodyweight will compress the ball far more than your fingers giving it a little squish).
Step 2: Lay back on the ball with belly facing up. Walk your feet away from the ball until your mid-back is pressing into the ball, and shoulders are resting on the ball behind you.
Step 3: Lift your shoulders off the ball and draw the low ribs closer to the hip bones as you “crunch” up.
Step 4: Return your shoulder blades to the ball as you lower down, returning to starting position.
About the Author
Brook Benten, M.Ed., is an ACSM Exercise Physiologist. This Texas girl has been trailblazing fitness for two decades. She champions continuing education and has impacted the field as an executive director of healthy living, CEC provider, fitness magazine writer, campus recreation fitness director, and workout video star. Brook is a presenter for SCW Fitness at SCW MANIA conventions and "Train with the Trainers" livestream weekly workouts. She is a lifestyle columnist for Texas Lifestyle Magazine. Benten is an ambassador for Power Music and Lebert Fitness; she is among an international team of six Master Trainers for Johnny G Spirit Bike.