With so much focus on having toned abs, some people are “abdominal crunch” happy. It’s true that abdominal crunches build strength and endurance in the rectus abdominis muscles, the most prominent muscles in your core region. Strong abdominal muscles help stabilize your torso and make you more resistant to back injuries. Crunches come in a number of different varieties. For example, oblique crunches also target the abdominal oblique muscles, which run up the side of your abs and help stabilize your core and trunk. Yes, crunches should be part of your routine – but make sure you aren’t making these common abdominal crunch mistakes.
Using Incorrect Abdominal Crunch Technique
There is good news and bad news about the standard abdominal crunch. When the American Council on Exercise used EMG to measure abdominal muscle activation while participants did crunches, crunches elicited less muscle activation than other ab exercises. The good news? Another study showed crunches outperformed other exercises in terms of ab muscle activation. Researchers believe the discrepancy can be explained by differences in form.
The reality? Most people don’t do crunches correctly. The biggest mistakes are using too much momentum and lifting the upper body too far off the floor. When doing a crunch, your head and shoulders should lift no higher than 45 degrees off the floor. If you go higher, you’re working your hip flexors more than your abs.
The other way to ruin a good abdominal crunch, and injure yourself at the same time, is to place your hands behind your head and use them to lift your head off the floor. Not only does this make the exercise less effective, but it also places a strain on your neck. A better alternative is to place your fingers next to your ears.
How solid is your form when you crunch? One way to find out is to have a friend use their iPhone to videotape your movements as you do a crunch. Being able to see what you’re doing when you do certain exercises can help you correct problems and get more out of crunches and other exercises.
Not Doing Enough Abdominal Crunch Variations
Standard crunches are only one way to work your rectus abdominis muscles and obliques. You’ll get better results if you hit your ab muscles from different angles. Add some variety and a different type of challenge by doing V-crunches, reverse crunches, crunches with legs vertical, oblique crunches, crunches on a stability ball and bicycle crunches. Doing crunch variations more fully engages all of the muscles in your abdominal region and keeps things from getting boring.
A study carried out at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University using EMG found bicycle crunches are the variation that activates ab muscles the most. The same study showed ab crunches on an exercise ball were superior to standard crunches for ab muscle activation.
This study also laid to rest the idea that abdominal gadgets like the Ab Rocker have merits. The Ab Rocker was the worst for activating the abs among all the exercises and ab equipment they tested. On the other hand, medicine balls, stability balls, and kettlebells ranked high as equipment that aids ab development.
Doing Too Many Crunches
Although most people realize when you do umpteen reps of an exercise with minimal resistance you’re building muscle endurance rather than strength and size, they forget it when doing crunches. Instead, they have the mindset that more is better. To tone your abs, you don’t need to do hundreds of crunches during a single workout or train your abs every day. You can do ab training as little as twice a week and build strength and definition.
Reduce the number of crunches you’re doing and focus on doing the ones you do using impeccable form and with as little momentum as possible. When they begin to feel too easy, hold a weight in your hands for added resistance. Place the weight on your chest or extend it above your torso when you do an abdominal crunch. When you add even a small amount of resistance, you’ll feel your abdominals working harder. Before holding weights, strengthen the muscles in your lower back with exercises like back extensions. Doing this will help you avoid injury.
Focusing Too Much on Ab-Centric Moves
Abs respond best to a variety of exercises, including compound exercises that work your abdominals indirectly like squats, lunges, and deadlifts. These exercises call multiple muscles into play, including abs and ab stabilizers, while crunches are an isolation exercise. You’ll also burn significantly more calories with compound exercises. Too much abdominal fat is a sticking point for many people on their journey to a six-pack. Focus a larger portion of your workout on compound exercises that work your abs and burn fat while doing it.
Don’t forget about planks, a move that not only works your core and stabilizer muscles but targets the transverse abdominis. Strength in this deep abdominal muscle helps hold everything in place and helps you get those hard-to-get washboard abs. For an added balance challenge, do planks with your elbows on a stability ball.
The Bottom Line
Crunches are an effective exercise for targeting your abs when you use proper form, but they aren’t the only game in town. Don’t be a “crunch queen” and do hundreds of crunches when you work out. You’ll get better results if you do a variety of abdominal crunch variations, planks and compound exercises like squats and deadlifts that work your abs and stabilizing muscles. Be sure you’re also strengthening your lower back with exercises like back extensions.
Finally, think about nutrition. Only by focusing on what you put into your mouth will you eliminate the stubborn layer of fat that covers your ab muscles. Abs are built with weights and an exercise mat but uncovered in the kitchen.
Poliquin Group. “These Are the Best Bulletproof Ab Exercises”
Mercola.com website. “Crunch: The Best and Most Popular Abdominal Exercises”
The Men’s Health Hard-Body Plan. Larry Keller and Editors of Men’s Health Books. Rodale Publishing. 2000.
Anders, Mark. “New Study Puts the Crunch on Abdominal Exercises.” ACE Fitness Matters Magazine, 5/14/2001.
ACE Fitness. “American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises”
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