Bicycle crunches — one of the top 3 exercises for your abs, according to the American Council on Exercise — engage your entire core musculature, including your obliques (muscles at the side of your torso). They can also help improve spinal mobility and hip flexor strength.
But if you lacking in any one of those areas to begin with, this move might pose a bit of a challenge. You don't have to suffer through it, though. Use the cues below to help narrow down what areas of your body need work, as well as how to stretch and strengthen it.
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While a certain amount of soreness and discomfort is to be expected, if you’re experiencing sharp, extreme or persistent pain, or if you find you’re unable to perform the workout as specified, your body is trying to tell you something. Discontinue the exercise and get to the root of the pain so you don’t cause any damage.
1. Your Obliques Are Weak
Bicycle crunches require rotational strength powered mainly by your obliques, which extend along the sides of your body and are responsible for bending your torso to one side and rotating your body.
But if you haven't been focusing on strengthening those muscles, you may be adding strain they aren't ready to handle yet.
To assess your oblique strength, perform a side plank on both sides. If you can't hold it for at least 30 seconds without pain or breaking form, your obliques could use some shoring up, says Karen Joubert, DPT, a Beverly Hills-based physical therapist who specializes in preventive and rehabilitative medicine.
Joubert suggests adding side planks, leg extensions and bird-dogs to your workout routine to help build the oblique strength needed to support bicycle crunches.
Move 1: Side Plank
- Lie on one side, either propped up on a bent elbow or on your hand with your arm straight.
- Lift up to a side plank while holding a neutral spine.
- Hold for 15 seconds.
- Repeat 3 times.
- Repeat on the other side
Move 2: Leg Extension
- Lie on your back with your spine neutral.
- With both knees bent, slide and extend one leg, then return to bent knee.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Perform a total of 20 reps.
Move 3: Bird-Dog
- From all fours, find your neutral spine by arching, then rounding your back, then find the area in the middle, and gently tighten the abs.
- Lift your left arm and right leg, hold for a count of 3
- Lower, then repeat on the opposite side for 10 reps.
2. You Lack Thoracic Mobility
Quick anatomy lesson: Your spine can be divided into five parts: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper and mid-back), lumbar (lower back), sacral (sacrum) and coccyx (tailbone). But for bicycle crunches, you rely most heavily on thoracic mobility — the ability to move and twist through your midsection.
To test your thoracic mobility at home, Joubert suggests you sit with your feet flat on the floor, your back against a supportive chair and cross both arms over your chest. Rotate to the left and right. You should be able to go at least 45 degrees without pain. If you can't, this could be what's tripping up your bicycle crunches.
While it's a good idea to consult with a doctor or physical therapist for personalized recommendations, Joubert suggests these two exercises that can help you at home.
Move 1: Cat-Cow
- Start on all fours.
- Arch then round your back.
- Repeat this 12 to 15 times.
Move 2: Windmill
- Lie on your side with your legs bent at 90 degrees and your arms stacked on top of each other and extended in front of you.
- Lift your top arm, leaving your bottom arm and legs where they are, and open your chest, rotating your body until you're lying on your back.
- Return to starting position and repeat 12 to 15 times.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
3. You Have Weak or Tight Hip Flexors
You need a certain range of motion in your hips not just for your workouts but to complete everyday tasks as well.
"You need a least 60 degrees of hip flexion to go upstairs and 110 degrees of flexion to bend down and tie a shoe," Joubert says. "Even getting up from a chair, your hips have to flex more than 100 degrees."
To assess your hip flexor mobility, sit on the edge of your bed with your knees bent. Lie back slowly, allowing your legs to hang freely. Lift one leg to your chest with both hands. If you can't keep the other leg down without your back arching up, you probably have tight hip flexors.
To assess your hip flexor strength, lie on your back with your legs straight. Lift one leg about 10 inches off the floor. Hold for 1 minute, then repeat on the other side. Next, lie on your side with your legs straight. Move your top leg back behind your body and hold for 1 minute, then repeat the other side. If you have trouble holding either pose, improving hip flexor strength will help your bicycle crunches.
To improve your hip flexor mobility, Joubert recommends the following hip stretch.
- Kneel on the floor with your hips directly above your knees.
- Place your left leg on the floor in front of you with your knee above the ankle at 90 degrees.
- Hold for 60 seconds. If you aren't feeling anything, then hinge forward gently at the hips.
- Repeat on the other side.
Joubert recommends starting this exercise gently and slowly. Aggressive stretching will only cause more problems.
If strength is the issue, Joubert's main advice is to take your hip-strengthening exercises off the floor. The following three moves work the front, side and back muscles of the hips.
Move 1: Hip Flexion Forward Lift
- Standing near a wall or chair for support if you need it, with both legs straight, lift one leg forward for a count of 5.
- Lower it slowly for a count of 5. Do not let the foot touch the floor.
- Repeat 25 times, then switch legs.
Move 2: Hip Abduction Side Lift
- From standing, lift your leg to the side, aiming to get it 10 to 20 inches off the floor.
- Perform 25 small pulses, not letting your foot touch the ground.
- Repeat on the other leg.
You should feel this in the glute of the working leg as well as contractions in the opposite glute of your supporting leg.
Move 3: Hip Extension
- Face the wall or chair, trying not to hold on.
- Straighten one leg behind you, lifting it 10 to 20 inches off the floor.
- Perform 25 small pulses, then repeat on the other side.
If you can perform the following exercises without the support of a wall or chair, you’re getting an added bonus of working the opposite hip as you try to maintain your balance.