Abdominal Training: Are Ab Crunches Damaging to Your Back?

A woman on an exercise mat doing crunches as part of her abdominal training.

What’s your go-to exercise for ab definition? For many, it’s the ab crunch. In reality, abdominal crunches come in different varieties. We’re all familiar with the standard crunch, but oblique crunches target the oblique muscles and bicycle crunches work all of the superficial muscles in the abdominal region. You can even do crunches on an exercise ball. When the American Council on Exercise used EMG to measure muscle activation with 13 different abdominal training exercises, crunches on the exercise ball was in the top three best exercises.

No doubt crunches effectively target the superficial abdominal muscles. Yet, every time you do a crunch, you’re flexing your neck and spine. In fact, crunches are one of the exercises that some physical therapists and health care professionals tell you not to do if you have back pain. Are ab crunches harmful to the health of your back?

Abdominal Training: Sit-ups vs. Crunches

First, let’s distinguish between sit-ups and abdominal crunches. With abdominal crunches, you lift your head, shoulders, and upper back off the floor but your lower back stays in place. With sit-ups, your entire back comes off the floor. With crunches, you’re mainly working your abdominal muscles, while sit-ups activate muscles in the neck and lower back that stabilize as well as hip flexors.

But what about crunches? Well, crunches flex your neck and upper spine as well. So, they too, suffer from some of the same disadvantages as sit-ups. Yet, with crunches, the range-of-motion is less and you get less compression of the spine. So, abdominal crunches are safer than sit-ups, although they too place compressive forces on the spine. However, crunches can be damaging to the cervical spine if you don’t keep your neck in a neutral position or pull on your neck when you come up.

What about effectiveness? Crunches have an advantage over sit-ups in that they target the ab muscles more directly than sit-ups that also work hip flexors and stabilizing muscles. When you consider the benefit to risk ratio, there’s really no place for sit-ups in a routine since properly performed crunches and are more effective and place less stress on the spine.

Abdominal Training: Crunches vs. Other Abdominal Exercises

Crunches and their variations are a classic abdominal exercise that mainly target the superficial muscles of the abs. More recently, there’s a been a move toward working the entire core region as opposed to specifically targeting the abs. One of the best ways to do that is with planks. Like crunches, there are a variety of plank variations that make the exercise easier or more difficult.

The beauty of planks is they place less compressive force on the spine. The drawback is the exercise can be hard to hold if you have weak core musculature. The best way to correct it is to start with a traditional plank, with your hands on the floor and try to hold it for 30 seconds. Gradually work on increasing the time. Then step up to an elbow plank. The elbow plank recruits the core muscles even more than a traditional plank. Once you can hold a traditional and elbow plank for a minute or longer, add a few advanced plank exercises. Planks are one of the safest exercises for targeting the core.

Abdominal Training: Do You Even Need Abdominal Crunches?

Few abdominal exercises specifically target the abs as well as crunches, not even planks. If you have a healthy back and use impeccable form, including crunches in your ab workout will help you build abdominal definition faster. The best approach might be to do crunches, but not overdo them. Too many people make the crunch their primary ab exercise. As a result, they don’t target the other muscles in the core as well. Try shifting the ratio of ab exercises to one-third crunches, one-third planks, and a third of, say, standing ab exercises or other ab exercises. That way you’re targeting your abs directly with crunches but still hitting your entire core with planks and standing exercises. Variety is important for building ab definition.

Abdominal Training: Ab Exercises Alone Won’t Get You a Six-Pack

It’s a common myth that you can get ab definition from crunches alone. Some people still believe that crunches burn off abdominal fat. Of course, spot reducing is a myth and crunches alone don’t burn enough calories to vanquish tummy fat. That’s why ab exercises should always be part of a larger workout structure designed to lower body fat. You likely won’t see ab definition, even if you do lots of crunches until your body fat percentage is below 20%. Losing body fat requires calorie-burning exercise, like high-intensity interval training or other aerobics, compound weight training using heavy resistance, and attention to diet. It’s a trite saying but abs really are made in the kitchen.

The Bottom Line

Ab crunches can be hard on your spine if you use incorrect form or pull on your neck when you lift up but they’re safer than sit-ups. Don’t give up crunches, unless you have a bad back, but place more focus on planks and compound strength-training exercises that burn calories. Remember, you have to burn fat to see your abs. When you do abdominal training exercises, focus in on your abs so you’re emphasizing them with each repetition.

Don’t forget about cardio. High-intensity cardio is effective for burning stubborn abdominal fat that keeps your abs from showing. Just as importantly, be patient. Ab definition doesn’t come quickly and it takes a multi-faceted approach – exercise, good nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Get these factors right and don’t be surprised if you start to see a few ab ripples start to show through!



American Council on Exercise. “American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises”


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