As far as ab exercises go, crunches are a tale as old as time. This move has played a role in core workouts galore, from fitness newbies to the most avid gym-goers.
But even the most experienced workout enthusiast may make some common form mistakes while doing crunches, making this move way less effective and potentially painful. Next time you hit the mat for an ab workout, avoid these four errors and consider swapping your crunches for some superior, physical therapist-approved moves.
1. You're Straining Your Neck
Ever feel your the front of your neck start to get sore after several reps of crunches? If that's the case, you're probably holding your neck at an odd angle while you're performing the exercise.
But you're definitely not alone! Overextending and over-flexing the neck are among the most common mistakes people make when they perform crunches, says Sam Becourtney, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York.
Unfortunately, whether you're crunching with your chin too high (toward the ceiling) or too low (toward the navel), you can case muscle strain or pain in the surrounding joints, Becourtney says. This error can also cause you to use momentum to crunch up instead of your abdominals.
Although you may try to avoid it in all other circumstances, making a "double chin" is a good thing in this case. Tucking your chin slightly can help improve your neck position, Becourtney says.
2. Your Lower Back Lifts Off the Floor
Another frequent mistake Becourtney sees is a loss of core engagement and pelvis control. But this mistake defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Especially if you perform plenty of crunch repetitions, you may begin to lift your lower back and pelvis slightly off the ground as your muscles begin to fatigue. While a few sets typically won't cause an issue, you may experience some hip and lower back pain if this error becomes a habit.
Think about keeping the small of your back flat against the floor throughout the entire movement. In some cases, it may help to "imagine a water balloon beneath your spine that you want to pop," Becourtney says.
Or you can place a resistance band flat beneath your spine and ask a friend to pull it out. If you're in proper position, the band shouldn't budge.
3. You're Lowering Too Quickly
If you're doing crunches properly, you need to control the lowering portion of the exercise. But often, people tend to release the tension in the core, letting their body roll back or fall back to the ground.
Doing any exercise too quickly causes poor form, Becourtney says, which typically uses muscle groups that aren't meant to be part of the exercise. As a result, you don't get any benefit for the work that you're putting in (and who wants to do crunches for no reason?).
Keep your body weight controlled, especially when lowering yourself back to the floor. Take about two to three seconds on the way up and down from your crunch.
"You're better off doing fewer repetitions at a slower pace, focusing on form than trying to go for higher reps where form falls apart," Becourtney says.
4. You're Forgetting to Breathe
It may seem obvious but forgetting to breathe — or breathing incorrectly — during an exercise, especially crunches, is definitely a common error, Becourtney says.
Sometimes, it can feel easier to engage your abdominals while you hold your breath, but this isn't a smart solution, he says. Holding your breath for too long during exercise can lead to serious complications and may put your health at risk.
Align your breath and movement, Becourtney says. Inhale as you lower toward the floor and exhale as your raise your shoulder blades off the floor. "By lining up the breathing with the movement directly, it creates a more natural rhythm and helps minimize chances of holding your breath."
3 Ab Exercise Alternatives to Crunches
While crunches aren't necessarily a bad exercise, they're also not the most effective ab exercise. You can definitely include them in your core workout, but you may want to swap in a few more moves to get the most out of your session.
Planks, bird dogs and squats (see below) are three excellent alternatives. Unlike the crunch, these moves demand a neutral spine, whereas crunches require you to flex and extend with each rep. Isometric ab exercises where the back is neither flexing nor extending are preferable, as they can help decrease pain and injury risk and improve overall core function, Becourtney says.
1. Forearm Plank
- Lie face down on the floor, with your forearms on the ground, elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
- Extend your legs straight behind you, toes tucked.
- With your core braced, press into your toes and forearms and raise your body up off the ground.
- Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.
2. Bird Dog
- Start kneeling on all fours, palms in line with your shoulders and knees in line with your hips.
- Keeping your hips steady and neck long, reach your right arm out parallel to the ground.
- Simultaneously, raise and extend your left leg straight behind you.
- Pause here for a few moments, then return to the kneeling position.
- Raise your left arm and right leg, repeating the motion on the opposite side.
- Start standing, feet hip-width apart.
- Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to squat down. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
- Squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, or as low as you can go comfortably while maintaining good form. Your knees should be over your toes and your gaze should be straight ahead.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
- On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.