Why Crunches Don’t Work (and What You Can Do to Better Target Your Abs)

If you’re like many other gym-goers who are on a quest for six-pack abs, you’re probably used to doing a few rounds of crunches. But if you notice your back is feeling less than optimal after multiple sets, it’s time to reassess the exercise. It turns out the traditional crunch may do a lot more harm than good to your body. Not only that, but this exercise doesn’t target your core as effectively as many others.

Crunches strain your back and can cause damage

Woman doing crunches

Woman doing crunches | iStock.com

You know the drill for crunches — you lie on your back with your hands resting behind your head or beside your ears, and your feet rest on the floor. Then, you engage your core to curl toward your center to complete one rep. Slowly lower back down and repeat.

Here’s the trouble with this movement: Men’s Health explains crunching involves rounding your lower back so you can bend forward. It may not seem too unnatural on the ground, but this movement is the same one that can cause you to throw out your back. In fact, the pressure from crunches can be so great that Steve McGill, a professor who has studied the effects of crunches for over 30 years, found this exercise can eventually cause a herniated disc, Livestrong.com notes.

They don’t effectively target all of your ab muscles

Not only can crunches hurt you in the long run, but they’re also not the most effective exercise to target your abs. When most people begin the move, there’s a tendency to pull on the back of the neck with the hands, which doesn’t work the right muscles. Alternatively, you may find yourself not properly engaging your abs, rendering the exercise useless.

If you want to make crunches actually work your abs, make sure to only lightly rest your hands behind your head (alternatively, try holding your hands straight next to your ears and clasping your hands above your head). This will guarantee you’re working your abs to lift your upper body and crunch forward. When you’re doing this exercise correctly, you’re likely to feel it in your upper abs — but that means your lower abs still won’t be getting equal work. Also, unless you’re adding a twisting component into the move, your obliques are also likely to be left out here.

The exercises you should be doing instead

If you’re tired of back pain (or you’re just not feeling the exercise), try these instead:

Mountain climbers:

Woman Doing Mountain Climber Exercise

Mountain climber exercise | Aleksander Kaczmarek/iStock.com

Not only is this the perfect exercise to add to any cardio workout, but it’s also great for strengthening your shoulders, abs, and back (minus the pain). To begin this move, start in a high plank position with good form. Then, alternate bringing one knee toward your chest at a time, moving quickly without allowing your back to arch. Make sure your shoulders stay over your hands to really feel the burn.

Hanging leg raises or knee raises:

This one’s tough — and if you’re having trouble with the hanging component, then you can also try leg raises on the ground. To begin, grab on to a pull-up bar and engage your shoulders while hanging (pull them down and back). Curl your hips under to engage the core as you lift with straight legs until your legs are at a 90-degree angle with your torso. Lower down with control for one rep.

Can’t stop swinging? Moving slowly through the move will prevent that, as will engaging the core the entire time. And if straight legs are too much of a challenge, try lifting the knees.

Hollow body holds: 

woman exercising and doing sit ups

Woman doing hollow body holds | iStock.com/kieferpix

This static hold seems easy — but after holding for 60 seconds, you’ll see how it’s much more difficult (and effective) than crunches. You’ll begin by lying on your back with legs long and arms straight overhead next to your ears. Begin by lifting the upper body off the ground while keeping your lower back glued to the floor. Then, lift straight legs off the floor (again, keeping your lower back touching the floor at all times). Hold for as long as you can.

To make this move easier, try lifting your legs higher or bringing your arms by your side. For the ultimate challenge, keep your legs as low to the floor as you can.

Side plank twists:

Don’t forget about your obliques. Start this move by getting into a side plank on your left side. Rest on your forearm with your left elbow under your shoulder, right leg straight and stacked on top of left. Take your right arm behind your head and twist down through your torso for one rep. Remember: Don’t let those hips drop! Once you’ve completed your reps, repeat on the other side.

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