Crunches and Sit-ups: Why We Suck

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“If I had to choose between a guy that can do 500 crunches in 5 minutes, or a guy that can do windmills with a 70 pound kettlebell, I’m taking the windmill everytime.”

Chris brought this to my attention this past Saturday. For awhile now, I’ve known that crunches are a shit exercise to develop those washboard abs. The question I couldn’t seem to crack was, why? Why are crunches no good for us? This god-awful excuses of an exercise, besides the bench press, is in my opinion the most commonly done exercise in the gym…and it makes me want to pull my friggen hair out.

Why are crunches so bad anyway? Well, first thing’s first, crunches target one, maybe two of the core muscles depending on what variation you’re doing. The rectus abdominis and the obliques group. That’s it. No transverse abdominis. No erector spinae. No multifidi. No other core muscles. So if you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, traditional crunches definitely should not make the cut.

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“Oh, but my abdominals and obliques are all I care about.” Have fun explaining that nonsense to your back when it’s screaming in pain. Not only are crunches a crappy exercise for core development, but they also put a pretty nice beating on your lower back. If you’re into that kind of pain, then by all means, go for it.

“How is this possible though? I don’t feel it in my back, only in my abs”

When setup in your crunch/sit-up position, the next motion is to “crunch” up with our torso. This is known as spinal flexion. Spinal flexion is the scientific way of saying “bending over from our back”. When we sit at a desk, drive a car, or bend over to tie our shoes, we are in spinal flexion. Today, we are all guilty of excessive spinal flexion, maybe this could account for why 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain at one point in their lives. We are degenerating in front of our eyes, but that’s not the point of this right now. Anyways, why is this bad when we perform a crunch?

According to a study done by Dr. Stuart McGill in 1995, when you flex your back in the supine (on your back) position, a great amount of stress is placed on the vertebrae of the lumbar spine. His testing discovered that there is approximately 674 pounds of force on the lower back with¬†every crunch we perform. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound to pleasant to me.

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Let’s try to avoid this at all costs. Not fun.

So what could we do instead…

Well, if we don’t want a jacked up back from the million variations of crunches we do, something has to change.

The core functions in numerous ways. It stabilizes the body during movement and is responsible for trunk flexion, sidebending, extension, and rotation. So to train these patterns, we must develop a routine to target every single one of them. The exercises we must do include core stability exercises, as well as flexion, anti-lateral flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation movements. Yes I know, I’ll slow it down, because the first time I ever read that it looked like a foreign language to me as well. Let me break them down one-by-one.

Exercises that effect core stability are our isometric weapons. In less fancy terms, these are our planks along with their variations. As we proceed with this blog, we’ll learn how every exercise we perform, whether it’s a kettlebell swing or a biceps curl, is a plank!

Flexion exercises are our movements that involved hip flexion. THIS MEANS THERE IS NO SPINE FLEXION INVOLVED. These exercises include (but are not limited to of course) reverse crunches, Janda crunches, and physioball knee tucks. I know, I hammered the idea of no crunches earlier, however, because the flexion is coming from the hips rather than the lumbar spine, our backs are in a much safer position to prevent injury. F’d up backs are no fun, trust me I know first hand.

Our anti-lateral flexion exercises are the exercises that we want to prevent sidebending with. To do this, we load one side of the body which forces the opposite side’s obliques to fire to prevent lopsided posture. Side planks and single arm carries force the obliques to fire like hell. The great part about these bad boys are, even though only one side of the body is loaded at a time, both sides are forced to work hard as hell to prevent shitty posture with Farmer’s walks, and proper alignment for side planks.

When we want to prevent the spine from overly extending, or hyperextending, we must include anti-extension drills as well. When squatting, deadlifting, etc., we don’t want spinal extension because of the compression force that comes with it. Compression force on the spine = pain. Anti-extension exercises include bar and wheel rollouts, TRX fall outs, and slideboard body saws.

*I love bodysaws. They’re great because even if you don’t have a slideboard, it’s extremely easy to find a surface to perform them on. All you need is a tile/wood floor and a towel to place under your feet. There you go, a modified slideboard!

Anti-rotation exercises are my personal favorites, when it comes to the core movements. Pallof presses, bird dogs, deadbugs, high-to-low chops, and low-to-high chops are an excellent equation to beat the shit out of your core. I feel more explosive with these exercises, which is important in baseball (all sports for the most part) when it comes to basically every aspect. Both hitting and pitching involved explosiveness from the hips, trunk, and shoulders. Cutting movements in sports like basketball and football also involve rotation through the transverse axis. This is an important reason as to why anti-rotation is a must have in all programs!

So we have the basics to some of the various core exercises we can perform. Now how the hell do we program them into our training? Personally, I like to combine an isometric hold (plank) with one or two exercises from one of the above categories. Assuming it’s a 4 days lifting split, you could make it look something like this…

  • Day 1: isometric hold (plank) + anti-extension
  • Day 2: isometric hold (side plank) + anti-lateral flexion
  • Day 3: isometric hold (plank) + anti-rotation
  • Day 4: isometric hold (side plank) + rotation

Note: shoutout to Joe Gambino cementing this idea into my head through his blog awhile back, check him out! www.joegambino.wordpress.com

The options are limitless. Figure out what works for you. Let’s drop this crunching bullshit and expose our 6-packs a pain free, and ultimately easier way! Questions, comments, criticism, whatever, drop it below! Feedback is greatly appreciated and encouraged.

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