Abdominal crunches are a much welcomed update to those dreaded sit-ups everyone remembers from elementary school gym class. They are the perfect exercise to strengthen and tone the abdominal muscles, and there is no need for anyone to hold your feet.
Traditional Abdominal Crunches
Most people have at least a vague idea of how to do abdominal crunches. The problem is many of them are probably doing them incorrectly. Bad form can put a lot of extra stress on both the back and the neck. This is often why people stop doing crunches before reaping many of the benefits.
Correct form is as follows:
- Lie down on a mat or towel with your back flat against the floor.
- Keep your neck straight and focus your gaze on the ceiling above you. Don't curl your neck into your chest.
- Bend your knees so your feet are flat against the mat and shoulder width apart.
- Put your hands on your shoulders with your arms across your chest or place them behind your neck with your elbows pointing outward. (Keep your elbows behind your ears.)
- Contract your abdominals and lift your shoulders about two inches toward the ceiling, exhaling as you lift up. Let your head lift with your shoulders as if they were one unit, keeping your neck in alignment.
- Slowly release back into the floor, maintaining the contraction throughout the abdominals, but do not let your head touch.
- Do the exercise another 15 times to complete one set.
Since the traditional form of abdominal crunches can get a bit boring after a while and become less challenging over time, there are several ways to mix up the exercise. Here are some of the most common.
Stability Ball Crunch
Do your abdominal crunches on a stability ball instead of on a mat. This makes your core work even harder since it has to keep you balanced and stabilized.
Crunch and Reach
Reach your arms straight out in front of you as you contract your abs. Consider holding one hand weight or a medicine ball with both hands. Ensure you don't allow your neck to strain as you reach forward or momentum to take over as you crunch - you'll find the crunch much more challenging without the benefit of your arms behind your head.
While maintaining control of your movements, twist your torso as you crunch to work the obliques, which are the muscles on the sides of the abs. For more challenge, add a reach of your arm across the opposite knee.
When you release to the floor, do it two stages. Hold for a two count at a 60-degree angle and then at a 45-degree angle from the floor. Alternatively, try doing the crunch very slowly, such as an eight count up and eight count down - you will feel the extra effort needed for the stabilization of a slow crunch.
Targeting the lower abdominal muscles, a reverse crunch is a small movement that involves the lower body. Lying on your back with your feet raised in the air, contract the glutes and abs to raise your lower body slightly. This shouldn't be a rocking motion, but instead should remain controlled throughout the movement.
Things to Avoid
Abdominal crunches should not hurt. You will definitely feel your abs working, but you shouldn't feel pain in other parts of your body. If you are, you're probably doing one of the following things:
- Lifting your head so that it is out of alignment with your neck. If you find you can't get all the way up without doing this, you're not yet strong enough to complete more crunches. Rest and try again later.
- Using momentum to complete your abdominal crunches instead of relying on your abs. This can lead to banging your head or buttocks on the floor since you're no longer controlling your movement. Also, when momentum takes over, it's no longer a strengthening exercise.
- Misaligning your spine by twisting it to help yourself lift. Again, a better thing to do is rest and try again later.
- Not keeping your elbows out to the side. When you bring them in you end up doing potentially painful "neck crunches" instead of abdominal crunches.
- Exaggerating the moves. They should be fairly small. So, yes, stop doing those elementary school sit-ups where you come all the way up to your knees! They can be murder on your lower back.
Benefits of Crunches
When done properly, crunches are a good way to help strengthen your abdominal muscles. While this move alone will not help you lose weight or obtain a "six pack," when combined with dietary changes and other exercise, crunches can certainly help flatten and define your abs. If you have osteoporosis or other musculoskeletal problems, consult your doctor before doing crunches.