Are Crunches Consistently Damaging Your Spine? Know the Risks & Alternatives
Have you always been in awe of Justin Bieber’s ripped abs? Or have secretly envied JLo for sporting that kind of sculpted stomach even when she’s half a century old? You see, a lot of us tend to believe that doing CRUNCHES, as part of daily workout, is the ultimate and most effective way to great looking abs. I was included in this troupe too, until the last year. And then I realized something that’s not really impressive about making crunches a portion of your daily exercise. Specially if you’re aiming for a postpartum weight loss (particularly losing the tummy fat), or creating a toned set of abs!
Why the doubt about Crunches being risky?
For a great deal of time, crunches have been regarded as the cornerstone workout for toning the abdominal muscles AKA, the CORE. But, our core muscles are not just made up of the abdominal muscles. There’s so much more. Our pelvic floor muscles, the side muscles of the torso (oblique muscles), the lower back, and the glutes majorly consist of what most of us should mean by the ‘CORE’.
Our CORE MUSCLES give us not just a strengthened stability but also help us develop the right posture while protecting our vital organs inside.
Do the conventional Crunches engage the Core completely?
As per a popular opinion of the experts, the standard crunch works ONLY on the abdominal muscles. Plus, that’s also the ONLY benefit of the workout.
What are the common Risks involved with Crunches?
The CLASSIC CRUNCH is more susceptible to be caught up with a WRONG FORM.
Here’s how it should be ideally done:
- Lie on your back and place both your feet apart on the floor. Bend the knees and place your arms under your head. Pull your ab muscles inside, basically suck in your navel as you deeply inhale.
- While exhaling, lift your torso, without bending your back or exerting any strain on the neck.
- Inhale slowly while getting back to the position in Step 1.
What do the experts say?
Dr Stuart McGill, the famous professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, after decades of research over the dynamics of the human spine, states that:
Crunches and traditional sit-ups place 3,300 newtons (that’s almost 340 kg!) of compressive force on the spine when bent in flexion. These forces can squeeze a bent disc’s nucleus to the point that it bulges – pressing on nerves, causing back pain, and potentially leading to a herniated disc.
According to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, anything > 3,300 N is unsafe.
Dr. McGill further elucidates that it’s not just ONE crunching session that can screw your spine. “Very few back injuries, however, result from a single event,” says McGill about the fact that most workout injuries related to the lower back are usually the result of damage done over a period of time.
Hence, to avoid potential injury owing to flexion, Dr. McGill recommends the following version of a crunch where the hands are placed below the lower back to prevent any strain out there while keeping the head and chest steady in alignment towards the ceiling.
Check out the following video to understand this version of crunches better:
Simrun Chopra, a popular certified Fitness Trainer and Nutritionist from Bangalore, shares with us her insight on doing crunches the right way:
Crunches according to studies are bad for your neck and back in the long run since it strains those areas and can cause disc bulge and disc herniation over time for many. Safer alternatives are a plenty but my top two favorite ones which are more effective for your abdominals are planks – and all its variations and hanging leg raises.
Can Crunches burn Belly Fat?
If you have a flabby tummy or belly fat that you think can put even Garfield and Kumbhakaran to shame, well, my friend, I want to tell you something. Of course, you’re not alone!
A lot of us have just one dream in our life. To have a flat stomach or good-looking abs. Or at least something under your shirt/top that doesn’t continue to shake even seconds after you stopped jumping/running or dancing.
But crunches are not the only ab workout we know and must follow. Like a lot of experts & chiropractors, there are hundreds of variations of exercises that target the entire core muscles’ set of our body.
The Myth around tummy fat
What do we know about Brian Shaw?
Well, we know him as the World’s Strongest Man. And the number of crunches he’s able to pull off in one session can send our amygdala into a tizzy!
But WAIT! Does he have a flat tummy or the kind of abs you have been fancying about?
The entire thing around reducing tummy fat boils down to just one thing – REDUCING OVERALL BODY FAT!
Spot-Fat reduction is a popularly touted myth in the fitness industry. PERIOD. You cannot expect to eliminate the portion of unwanted fat from just one part of the body, particularly the belly area with a certain exercise or diet. Likewise, it would be extremely wrong to think that only CRUNCHES or CRUNCH VARIATIONS will help you lose all the fat jiggling in your lower abdomen.
Similarly, facts and myths about weight loss (read FAT LOSS) IS NOT only about being in a CALORIE DEFICIT. The quality of the calories is as important as the the quantity of the calories you’re consuming plotted against how many calories you’re able to burn every day.
Safer & Better variations of Crunches & Alternative workouts
It can never be denied that crunches do work on a specific set of abdominal muscles if done with the right intensity and form. However, having discussed the possible risks the traditional crunch poses on us regarding the dangers of injuring the spine and neck muscles (even permanent damage), here are a few variations of crunches which are relatively easy on the neck and spine. And these also largely reduce the chances of pressurizing the spine.
Legs Up Crunch (Vertical Crunch)
- Lie down straight on the floor, preferably a firm yet soft mat.
- Raise your legs up, extending them at 90 degrees to the floor with knees slightly bent. Ensure that your lower spine is still aligned with the floor.
- Squeeze your abs towards the inside before you raise your torso upwards. Keep your chin up and eyes looking toward the knees.
- While exhaling, raise your arms straight towards the feet with your fingers while drawing in your navel using your ab muscles.
- Stay like that for about 2-3 seconds.
- Descend towards the original lying position gracefully while inhaling. Do not make the descent a clumsy action. You may end up hurting your ankles.
Doing leg crunches like this for about 10 repetitions is mostly ideal.
- Lie flat on an even soft surface. Suck in your belly button as much as possible.
- Place your hands under your head and bring your knees towards your chest. Raise your torso (using the ab and not the spine!) only to allow your shoulders off the ground to subtend almost an obtuse angle with the vertex in your head.
- While straightening your left leg out parallel to the ground, turn your upper body to the right, bringing your left elbow towards the right knee. Don’t just move your elbows. Move your upper half in the process. This will only ensure that the workout targets the oblique muscles also and not just the abs.
- Next, switch the and repeat the same motion for the other side to complete one round.
A lot of trainers recommend doing at least 2 sets of 20-30 such rounds if you’re aiming to work on your core muscles and tone your stomach.
The Double crunches are a modified version of the regular crunch and these target not just the abdominal muscles but also the hip flexor muscles along with the thighs. Exercises involving postures similar to these are great for toning your inner thighs as well.
- Lie down on your back with knees bent and feet resting on the floor.
- While inhaling, hold the hands together behind head with elbows spanning wide.
- Lift your feet up until your thighs are almost at 90 degrees with the ceiling.
- At the same time, curl your knees towards the chest while exhaling and bringing shoulders slightly closer.
- Hold on for 2-3 seconds and release and decline to the original position very slowly.
Remember to always bring in the contraction force from your ABDOMEN and NOT FROM THE BACK/SPINE for all the crunches.
Common Mistakes people make at Crunches
“People think crunches are easy, so they rush through them with improper form,” says Jacquelyn Brennan, a personal trainer to collegiate and professional athletes, and co-founder of Mindfuel Wellness.
- Using the BACK to bend in order to lift the torso instead of contracting the abdomen and bringing the lifting force – This often leads to neck injuries and spinal problems
- Not inhaling and exhaling during the appropriate positions – This does not assist in creating the required contraction in the abdomen.
- Holding the Breath – This reduces the oxygen and the crunches make things worse. Remember to always EXHALE while lifting your torso and you’ll automatically INHALE while descending.
- Not using the hands to support the head and neck while rising – This obviously strains your neck and may develop serious sprains when done regularly. You can choose to intertwine your fingers of both the hands for better support behind the head/neck.
- Trying to look at your legs – This forces your head to bend further (which is unnecessary and a wrong form). Instead, maintain your upper half of the body as much in a straight line, thus looking at the ceiling or sky.
From my experience, I’d love to mention the Naukasana (Boat pose) of Yoga as akin to these different renditions of crunches. This Asana works the same set of core muscles and helps strengthening and stabilizing the core in every possible manner.
And the BEST CORE WORKOUT that works effectively on all the core muscles is the PLANK. Planks not just work on your abdomen and boost the fat-burning process, but also gradually help you strengthen your back muscles, spine and improve your posture.
CAUTION – If you already suffer from any back-related issues or injuries, or are pregnant, please avoid crunches at any cost. Or at least, consult your physician/orthopedist on whether crunches are safe for you.
Have crunches been part of your regular workouts? Or do you want to include crunches into your daily workouts for a better core? I’d love to know what you say in the comments. 🙂
I hope these points walked you through the preventive measures, safer alternatives and experts’ opinion about crunches.