There is the right way and the wrong way to do everything. Especially crunches.
Have you ever seen people in the gym desperately pulling on their necks, jerking their bodies up and down in quick succession, huffing and puffing, tummy popping up at each crunch?
That is the wrong way.
I suspect the fitness enthusiasts of that kind gave crunches a bad reputation. However, done the right way, crunches deserve to remain the staple of any abs routine.
And this is the right way:
- Lie on your back on a mat with your feet on the floor, about hip width apart.
- Beginners and people with lower back issues should imprint their spine onto the mat, trying to keep the tailbone on the mat too. Everybody else can maintain the natural curve of the spine (leaving about one finger wide gap between the mat and the spot where the spine curves the most).
- Cup your hands behind your head, keeping the elbows wide. If you tend to pull on your head and neck, place your hands next to your head, fingers lightly touching the ears, or cross them over your chest.
- Keep your chin tucked a little towards your chest, as if holding an orange there. Do not let your head tilt back at any point during the exercise.
- Tighten your stomach muscles and sink the navel in towards the spine. The stomach stays like that throughout the exercise. Inhale.
- As you exhale, slowly lift your head and shoulders off the mat, executing the move with stomach muscles. Do not pull on your neck. Do not use momentum.
- Hold the top of the crunch for several seconds and then, stomach muscles still tight and navel pulled towards the spine, slowly lower your shoulders and your head onto the mat while inhaling.
- Repeat. Aim to do your crunches at a steady pace, in a deliberate, controlled, smooth motion.
As to how many crunches you should do – that depends on your level of fitness. The rule of the thumb is to do as many as you can in order to get that “on fire” feeling in your abdominal muscles. Stop sooner if you realise that you are losing form or if your lower back or your neck start sending distress signals of the “help, I’m in pain” kind.
There are several ways to increase the difficulty of the basic crunch. For example, you can lift your feet and bend your knees; you can straighten your legs with feet towards the ceiling; or you can lower your straight legs until they form an angle of about 45 degrees in relation to the body. Then do steps 6 – 8 from above.
While you are lying on your back in the straight-legs position, you may as well try another abs exercise. Keeping your head and shoulders off the mat, bring your legs straight up. Inhale. On exhale, lower your legs towards the floor, going as far down as you can without arching the spine.
By now, you must be dying for more abs-targeting moves. Here are two of my favourites.
Bicycle crunch (note that it is not necessary to touch your elbows to your knees, as this could cause strain in your neck):
Boat poses (from the easiest to the most challenging, which is called low boat pose):
It is imperative to follow an abs training routine with complementary moves that stretch the front of the body and extend the back, such as opposite arm and leg reach and upper back extension. In opposite arm and leg reach, the active arm and leg reach away from each other (not up). In the back extension, draw your shoulders down your back, keep the neck in line with the body, pull your navel up towards your spine, and lengthen forward from your head. For each of these exercises, do about 10 reps, holding the pose for a few seconds.
Done correctly, crunches (and other abs exercises) improve posture, stabilize the core of the body and contribute to a healthy back. However, avoid being crunch-obsessive (and abs-obsessive), because your body could settle into the posture characterised by a tucked-in pelvis, downward slumped shoulders and forward-sticking head. Men are far more prone to overdoing abs than women, but take note guys: having washboard abs is a poor consolation for a hunched posture!
Crunches and other abs exercises should be a part of a well-rounded programme that includes cardio or aerobics (walking, running, swimming, cycling), strength training (bodyweight exercises, exercises with resistance bands or with weights), as well as flexibility exercises (stretches, Pilates, yoga).
Oh, and if you need to get rid of belly fat too… exercising cannot do it alone. A low-calorie, healthy diet must be added into the mix!