Are Abdominal Crunches All They're Cracked Up To Be?

Are abdominal crunches really worth your time? Learn what this popular exercise really does for your body.

Abdominal crunches remain among the top moves people use to strengthen their abs. Despite the multitude of other options available, crunches are the still the “go-to” move for many people, especially at the end of a tough workout. As a pilates and yoga instructor, I can suggest many other effective abdominal strengthening moves, but the truth is that an abdominal crunch is still a good, solid move to strengthen your core.

Unfortunately, crunches have gotten a bad rap over the years, mostly due to the improper form people use when they attempt to perform them. Pulling on the neck, using momentum instead of muscle, and engaging the hip flexors too tightly are among the most common problems that prevent people from getting the most out of this tried-and-true move. Let’s take a look at why crunches work and how to perform a solid abdominal crunch so it can be an effective part of your workout routine.

Let’s start with the truth: ab crunches alone will not flatten your belly. Just like bicep curls alone will not give you sculpted arms and lunges by themselves will not shape your legs. To “sculpt” or “shape” a specific area you need to lose the fat first through good old-fashioned clean eating and cardiovascular exercise. Crunches build the muscle in your belly, but they don’t shrink down the fat on top—that needs to be done by running, biking, swimming or some other type of aerobic activity.

Eating a good, clean healthy diet is, of course, the other half of that plan.

That being said, as you shrink the fat you also want to strengthen the muscle below the surface. This is especially important in your core not only because it looks better, but because it provides you with better stability, helps prevent back pain and improves your posture.

So let's get started! Proper crunches are not hard to execute, but they do require a little thought. Here are the things you should consider:

1. Start Strong

Yes, you begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. However, lying relaxed on your back is not the idea. It is crucial that you draw in your abdominal muscles—think of zipping up a tight pair of jeans—by drawing the transverse abdomens muscle inward. This way, you are already improving the strength of your core and low back, before you even start moving.

2. Head Position Matters

Once the core muscles are pulled in correctly, make sure to tilt your chin forward just slightly and create what is called the “c-curve” position for your neck. You can check it by placing your rolled up fist between your chin and chest. If your fist fits, you have the right amount of tilt. This will keep the weight of your head forward so that you can avoid straining your neck. Next, place the pads of your fingers behind your ears to support your head, but keep the palms open. This will remind you not to pull on your head, but rather just support it.

3. Relax Your Legs

Place your feet on the floor with your knees bent and relax your legs completely.

Make sure your legs and hips stay relaxed throughout the move. By tightening them up you are likely to strain your hip flexors while in the meantime you waste energy that could be used for tightening the tummy instead.

4. Crunch Away!

Now that your core is pulled in, your head is curved just right, and legs are relaxed, you are ready to move. Take a deep breath in to prepare and as you exhale, lift your sternum toward your thighs with a small, controlled range of motion. Gently release half-way back as you inhale. Continue to repeat this, always exhaling to lift and inhaling to lower. Do not lower completely to the floor every time.

Rather, just gently release partway back until you are finished with your last rep.

Done properly, you should feel muscle fatigue in your ab muscles after 20 reps or so—and build a stronger, more sculpted core in the process.