What Are Crunches?

Crunches are a classic core exercise that help strengthen our abdominal core muscles, which are known to support better balance and stability, improve range of motion, and make it easier to complete our daily activities.

Crunches, like other core exercises, are often a part of workouts to help build a “six-pack” and tighten up the look of the torso. They work the abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis muscle and transverse abdominis. Depending on the specific exercise, it’s also possible to work additional muscles throughout the lower and upper body, such as the hip flexors and obliques. 

There are many benefits of adding crunches to our workout routine. They can:

  • Tone and strengthen the abdominal muscles.
  • Burn calories.
  • Help build a strong core for better posture.
  • Improve balance.

It’s possible to see a reduction in belly fat, too, as we lose weight or tone up.

A strong core is an integral component in overall fitness, and building your abdominal muscles can make you look and feel great.  Crunches are one of the easiest exercises to do – and one of the easiest exercises to do the wrong way.

Most of us remember having to do sit-ups in gym class, and the fatigue and back pain that came along with it.  We most likely weren’t taught that the best way to do a sit-up actually ISN’T a sit-up, but the better and safer alternative: crunches.   Sounds simple, right?  Lie on the floor, flex your abdominals, partially sit up, lie back on the floor, repeat.  There is actually much more to doing proper crunches, and following these guidelines can make the difference between being fit and just hurting yourself:

1. Lie flat on the floor, knees bent, and feet flat.  Loosely cross your arms across your chest or cup hands behind your head.

2.  Contract your abdominal muscles.  While exhaling, slowly lift your shoulders off the floor, making sure to keep your neck and back in alignment.  Aim for a distance of 4 to 6 inches from the floor and hold the position for several seconds.

3.  Begin inhaling, and slowly lower yourself back to the ground, maintaining back and neck alignment.

4.  Repeat 10-15 times, then rest before doing another set.

Advanced Variations of Crunches

Several crunch variations help avoid strain on the neck and can work additional muscles for an effective ab exercise. Here are three common crunch variations. 

Bicycle Crunches

With bicycle crunches, we do the following:

  • First, we start by lying on our backs. Bending the knees 90 degrees, we keep our fingers laced behind our ears.
  • Next, we bring the head and shoulder off the ground. The right armpit should move toward the left leg.
  • We should extend the right leg at the same time.
  • Finally, we reverse the movements for the other side.

Oblique Crunches

Oblique crunches come in a few styles, but side plank oblique crunches are particularly beneficial for stability. To do a side plank oblique crunch:

  • We start by propping ourselves up on the right forearm and foot, making sure to maintain alignment from head to foot.
  • We brace our cores, bringing the left elbow forward to touch the left knee.
  • We then reverse this position to do the same on the other side.

Reverse Crunches

To do reverse crunches:

  • We lie down on our backs and lift our legs up, as if sitting in a chair.
  • We then place our hands under the lower back and hips for stability.
  • We hold our cores tight and begin to extend our legs.
  • We then hover our legs and make sure they don’t touch the ground.
  • After we extend our legs fully, we then pull them back into the “chair” position.

Common Crunch Mistakes That Lead to Neck Pain

There are a few mistakes that we tend to make when performing crunches. These mistakes might lead to injuries or simply make the crunches less effective. 

Some common abdominal crunch errors include:

  • Arching the back during each crunch.
  • Straining the neck.
  • Sitting up too high with each rep.
  • Not having the correct arm position.
  • Curling with the shoulder muscles.
  • Not squeezing (or activating) the core muscles during each crunch.
  • Not maintaining proper form.

Remember, a crunch should begin at the abdominal region and engage the entire core, and not place strain on the neck and shoulders. To avoid neck pain, we must improve our postures. We have to keep the neck in alignment while we sit up. Don’t let it sink backwards, and don’t jut the head forward. 

How can we make sure the head and neck are in alignment? The easiest thing to do is to tuck our chins. Imagine holding an orange between the chin and throat, and keep that position throughout the crunch. Doing this will help keep the head and neck in better alignment and may relieve neck pain that was experienced in the past. If neck pain continues, another option is to try a variation of the basic crunch that doesn’t require the head and neck to move, like a reverse crunch.

Never pull up on your head while doing crunches, this can severely injure your neck and back.  If you find yourself hurting, dizzy, or out of breath, rest a few minutes.  Don’t push yourself until you are hurting; instead, build your endurance over time.

Crunches can help you create a strong core, but crunches alone will not give you the best results-or a six-pack.  While this exercise will build up your abdominal muscles, they do nothing to any layers of fat that may be on top of your muscles.  Add weight training, aerobic exercise, and a healthy diet to the mix to get the results you desire.