The Worst Exercise You Should Never Do!

Ah, the problem with attention grabbing headlines. The exercise in question is NOT "the worst exercise you should never do," unless you are doing it wrong (pictured above), or have specific exercise needs that prevent you from doing it correctly. See, I read this article the other day that states, "It’s about time everyone knew the truth about crunches and why they aren’t the exercise for you."  The headline, Six reasons you were right to hate crunches, definitely grabbed my attention, as my post tile here probably grabbed yours, but upon finishing the article and discussing it with my personal trainer and mentor, the piece left me with some serious concerns as both a certified personal trainer, and a journalist, and I want you to know the actual truth.

The article outlines six "reasons" why crunches are basically the worst exercise ever, but the reasons given describe ways of doing a crunch that are incorrect to begin with, and it does not give real direction for how to perform the suggested alternative exercises properly. I would like to show you how to do a crunch correctly, because a crunch done correctly can be useful for many (but not all) people! I'll also show you how to correctly perform some abdominal crunch alternatives, too.

 This is a sit-up, not a crunch, done badly, and this could cause injury. Do not do this. 

This is a sit-up, not a crunch, done badly, and this could cause injury. Do not do this. 

Since I am more than halfway through my pregnancy now, it IS unsafe and uncomfortable for me to do most crunch-type exercises but my wonderful husband volunteered to demonstrate for you! Above he is showing you a sit-up, done badly. His abs are not engaged correctly, he has let his pelvic floor go, he is straining his neck and letting his lats (shoulders) go. In the article, the author describes,

"When performing a crunch, the work is being done by the superficial muscles in the abdomen and the hip flexors, which shorten and tighten with each repetition...Next time you are at the gym, watch people doing crunches and pay attention to their abdomen – you will notice the tummy pooches outward, which is the opposite of the so-called purpose of this exercise. You will also notice that the shoulders round, the head tucks forward, the butt tucks under and the breath is often held. This is disastrous to the core and pelvic floor and only serves to exacerbate the terrible posture we live in all day."

What she is describing is what my husband is doing here. THIS IS NOT A CRUNCH! 

A crunch, performed correctly, is a very small movement with minimal spinal flexion. To do one, you lay on the floor with your feet also flat on the floor, hip-width apart, and your finger tips behind your head in line with your ears. Placing your whole hand behind your head may make you apply pressure to your head and strain your neck so please avoid doing that.

First, you want to engage your lower abdominals  - you can lightly press your lower back into the floor, drawing your belly-button in toward your spine and your ribs down towards your hip bones, to feel the correct muscles engage.

Then, using just your abs, still drawn in and engaged, lift your shoulders off the floor while keeping your shoulders away from your ears, aiming for a small crunch movement that does not make you curl your spine or use your hip flexors - those muscles at the front of your hips between your hip bone and the tops of your thighs. Your tummy stays engaged and flat, and the movement is not forced.  Like this:

 How to do a crunch correctly. Fingers light on the back of the head, abs fully engaged, feet remaining flat on the floor, shoulders lifted slightly off the floor. It is not a big or exaggerated movement.

How to do a crunch correctly. Fingers light on the back of the head, abs fully engaged, feet remaining flat on the floor, shoulders lifted slightly off the floor. It is not a big or exaggerated movement.

Lifting the shoulders off the floor while keeping all of your abdominals and your lats engaged is very challenging. By keeping the movement small and focusing on using all of the correct muscles, you can also keep your pelvic floor engaged (it's part of your core! Ladies, think Kegels. Gents, the muscle behind your man parts that your can feel tense and move up like an elevator going up into your pelvis), preventing the article's fear-inducing description,

"Crunches only weaken your core, mess with your alignment and set you up for back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction."

The author listed, in small print at the bottom of the article, is, "Kim Vopni, known as The Fitness Doula, is a certified pre/postnatal fitness consultant, co-founder of Bellies Inc. and owner of Pelvienne Wellness Inc." Given that little detail, most of the author's experience is likely with pregnant or recently pregnant women who definitely have special exercise needs. The article does mention women a lot, but nowhere specifies that she means crunches are a bad choice for women only, pregnant women or women trying to get back into shape after pregnancy. I'm pregnant right now and I'm all too familiar with the modifications that need to be made in my workout program, but the article paints the exercise with too broad of a brush. 

A crunch done correctly can be a useful exercise for building core strength and may be necessary for someone like a soccer player who uses their abs with spinal flexion when doing a throw-in. If you decide to work with a certified personal trainer, the key here is the word "personal." The workouts I, and any good trainer, would give you are targeted and tailored for you! Whatever your ability, desires for fitness and physical requirements, you would be given an exercise program designed to help you reach your goals and feel better. Every exercise contains some risk but so does walking out the front door. It's a good trainer's responsibility to give you exercises that you can complete successfully and will help you safely reach your fitness goals.

If you still want alternatives to the crunch, one fabulous exercise is called the plank, or "prone iso-abs." There are several modifications of this exercise so it's very versatile. To  perform this exercise, move into a pushup position with your hands directly under your shoulders, shoulders pulled away from your ears, and your toes on the floor behind you, putting your entire body into a "plank" position with your abs pulled in and engaged to keep your back neutral and your hips in a direct diagonal line with your shoulders and feet. Once in position, hold for as long as you can maintain good form. To improve core strength, try to hold it a little longer each time you perform the exercise.

 Plank done in a push-up position. If this is too difficult, it can also be done from the knees with the feet lifted off the floor. In either position, imagine a straight line running from the top of the head, through the neck, down the spine and through the tailbone. If on your toes as pictured, extend that line through your legs to your feet. If on your knees, the straight line would end at your knees on the floor.

Plank done in a push-up position. If this is too difficult, it can also be done from the knees with the feet lifted off the floor. In either position, imagine a straight line running from the top of the head, through the neck, down the spine and through the tailbone. If on your toes as pictured, extend that line through your legs to your feet. If on your knees, the straight line would end at your knees on the floor.

This exercise requires that all of your abdominal muscles are engaged and held in an isometric way (tension without contracting the muscle) in order to maintain the position and prevent your back from arching, or your hips from either raising up too high or falling to the floor. If you can't feel where you need to be, try having someone spot you or do it in front of a mirror on the floor so you can look over and see where you need to be.

In the more advanced version, or the true prone iso-abs exercise, you would perform this from your forearms with your elbows under your shoulders. Here, gravity plays a bigger role and makes maintaining the plank more difficult.

Another increasingly challenging core exercise is the ball roll-out. For this exercise, you do need a stability ball and the smaller the ball, the harder it will be. The larger the ball, the more upright you will be and thus, the easier the exercise. An inch or two can make a big difference! To perform this exercise, kneel and place your forearms on the ball in front of you,  then lift your knees to get into a plank position with your arms on the ball instead of the floor, allowing your back to flatten into a neutral diagonal line from shoulder to ankle.

 Ball roll-out starting position.

Ball roll-out starting position.

It's ok and good to bring the ball in close to you with your forearms under your chest to start. The point is not to hold this position, but to extend the forearms away from your body as far as you can while keeping the abdominals engaged and the spine neutral, without allowing your low back muscles to take over. You will not be able to extend your arms very far. Try rolling out and in five or six times, or as many times as you can maintain good form.

 As you can see, my husband is very strong and this was challenging even for him. Beyond the abdominal work of holding the plank position and extending the arms, the ball introduces instability that must be overcome as well. I would not attempt this alone unless you are certain you can do it safely.

As you can see, my husband is very strong and this was challenging even for him. Beyond the abdominal work of holding the plank position and extending the arms, the ball introduces instability that must be overcome as well. I would not attempt this alone unless you are certain you can do it safely.

Most exercises incorporate using the core muscles in some way. If you aren't sure how to find or engage your core muscles, you can start with small movements to increase your awareness of them. While standing up, take a deep breath and let your ribs open and flare out. Then as you exhale, think about drawing your ribs back in and down, engaging your core. If you do it in front of a mirror, you may be able to see the difference when you use your core muscles.

Going back to the article, as a graduate of journalism school maybe my expectations of publications delivering news are higher than can be expected these days but this article was published in The Globe and Mail, a national Canadian newspaper, so I expected a heckuva lot more context and basis for the authors dismissal of this staple exercise. A crunch done correctly should not do any of the awful things she describes.

Maybe most people at the gym don't know how to do a crunch correctly and may be doing themselves real harm. Most gyms have personal trainers available, so if you have a question about an exercise, just ask! They may try to sell you a personal training package though so be prepared for the upsell. And if their direction makes you uncomfortable or leaves you feeling unsure, just skip that exercise until you are confident you know how to do it correctly!

If you are interested in working with a personal trainer, always look for someone who will listen to your needs, train your safely and not discount any fears or questions you may have. I am not accepting new clients yet but if you're in Southern California, I will announce when I am in my newsletter! Sign up for that below or above right. If you are not near me but are looking for a trainer, I'd be happy to try and answer any questions you may have about how to find the right one!

Do you hate crunches? Do you look for other ways to strengthen your core? Do you know how to use your core correctly? How does your body feel? Let me know in the comments below!

Big thanks to my hubby for posing for pictures. Happy exercising!

xo Maggie

If you're looking for a high quality stability ball (balance ball, yoga ball, fitness ball... they're all the same thing) that won't break the bank, we use SPRI balls at my gym! I love them and if you take care of them, they will last. The next level up in durability (anti-burst properties) is Duraball but they are pricey. Below is a link to the 65 cm SPRI ball. The ball my husband is using is one I've had for ages and wouldn't really recommend. The quality's not great but I'll use it until it bites the dust!
65 cm is a good size ball for MOST people but it depends on your height. When sitting on the fully inflated ball, your feet flat on the floor, your knees should be level or just below the hips, with your leg bent at a 90º angle or slightly greater. If you're knees are higher than your hips, the balls is too small.
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