Looking to Build Your Core More Effectively?
Even if you can’t get back to the gym right now, a core workout is great for stability and mobility.
However, don’t stop what you’re doing and pound out 100 crunches.
Turns out that recent research shows crunches are not the best tool for core strength, and they may actually even cause damage, especially to people with lower back pain or spinal issues.
Core work, which includes both abdominals, lower back, and side muscles like obliques, are part of a full-body strength program for all ages.
I see a lot of people doing sit ups and crunches at the gym, especially using the seated pull-down machines that give me the willies.
Plus, during the pandemic, when many people are staying away from the gym, core work is always something you can do at home.
Sit-Ups and Crunches Can Damage Spine
Sit-ups and crunches can cause potential spine compression injuries. Research shows that for people who already have spine issues or lower back pain, crunches may cause lower back (lumbar spine) damage.
Further, since many only do crunches for their core work, imbalances between front and back core can easily result in lower back pain.
However, the author of this analysis of the research suggests that there is no current evidence that crunches should universally be banned from our exercise routine.
So if you are going to do them, the author says, make sure you also do spinal erector strengtheners like glute bridges or Supermans.
Crunches are Also Not Really Effective
A study in 2001 by the American Council of Exercise showed that of several different varieties of exercises to strengthen your core, the usual crunch was one of the least effective.
Plus the crunch works to strengthen the rectus abdominis muscle – your “six-pack” muscles – by shortening it. We become even more bowed forward than we already are from working on computers and looking at our phones.
It doesn’t make much sense, especially when there are such better options out there. There are better alternatives to crunches.
Gym Alternatives to Crunches
One of the most effective core strengtheners? One study recommended using the Captain’s Chair – the device where you rest your back and your forearms against cushions, then raise your legs. A bicycle crunch or a crunch on a medicine ball, which takes away use of your quads, were also effective.
Another of the most effective ways to stimulate your stomach muscles is through planks and suspension work like with the TRX. The key to planks, though, is pulling your belly button into your spine and alleviate some of the work done by your quads.
“Bracing” is an isometric exercise. And here are six ways to strengthen your core through bracing.
Unilateral Work is Also a Core Workout
Any unilateral work with either a single arm or leg will also require a great deal of work – and therefore stress – your core muscles.
For example, if you do a single dumbbell shoulder press, your core is required to stabilize your upper body. These are great alternatives to crunches.
Six Effective Alternatives to Crunches
Alternatives to Crunches 1: Hollows
Lie on your back and lift your arms over your head. Feel the small – or “hollow” – of your back lift.
Bend your knees and bring your feet to your seat. Push the hollow or lumbar spine into the mat and hold for five seconds.
To make this more challenging, lift your feet off the ground.
A full hollow is keeping your legs mostly straight, lifting them off the ground along with your upper body so that your lumbar spine is the only thing on the mat.
Alternatives to Crunches 2: Planks
For elbow planks, the most common plank, lie on your belly. Bring your elbows underneath your shoulders and your hands on the mat. Raise your hips so your body is mostly straight. Pull your belly button into your spine to keep your abdominal muscles engaged.
Dr. Glenn Wright, associate professor of exercise science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, says planks develop the core muscles in the way they were intended to be strengthened. “A lot of strength trainers realized that the main function of the abs is to stop, not start motion, and the plank came out of what the abs are asked to do, which is resist the spine from moving, such as when fighting off an opponent, and strengthening the lower back.”
Alternatives to Crunches 3: Side Plank
Lie on your side with your hips stacked on top of each other. Your elbow should be under your shoulder.
Raise your hip off the ground. Brace your belly by squeezing and hold for eight seconds.
To modify, keep a knee on the ground.
For an additional challenge, raise your top foot off the ground!
Alternatives to Crunches 4: Super Hero
Lie on your belly and extend your hands overhead. Raise your arms off the mat, then your legs and hold for five seconds. You can bring your arms back for less strain on your shoulders.
Challenge yourself by bracing. Push down from your lower spine into the mat and squeeze your belly.
Alternatives to Crunches 5: Pallof Press
Stand sideways with a cable machine, and pull the cable with both hands to your chest.
I typically keep the inside hand on top of the handle.
With tension on the cable, push out so your arms are straight. The cable will pull you to the side, so you have to resist that rotation.
You can also straighten your arms and hold the press for five seconds or more.
Alternatives to Crunches 6: Stability Ball Cauldron
With your knees on the ground, do an elbow plank on a stability ball.
Stay here, or lift your legs off the ground into a full elbow plank.
Continue with the full plank or move the ball in a circle with your elbows, maintaining your balance!
Core Work is Part of 6plusONE Full-Body Program
The ONE of 6plusONE is core work. With our customized full-body fitness program, we focus on exercises for the six main movements: chest press and pull; shoulder press and pull; hip hinge, and squat. All of the exercises are designed to strengthen your entire body, especially your core.
We use these and other alternatives to crunches for our core work.
Plus yoga is a great tool for building core strength.