If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if crunches are bad for you, I would be one rich personal trainer!

So, are crunches bad for you?

The answer: Yes and No.

If you have a hernia, disc issue or abdominal separation, then you should NOT be doing crunch exercises.  Doing so will only lead to further pain and injury.

If performed with proper form – and providing you are not doing a million of them every day – the crunch can be all right.

Crunch 101

Realistically, I am well aware that there are many people who love their crunch burn and will continue to do them despite what the latest research on crunches show, so let’s talk about a few basic facts on crunches.

1.   What is a Crunch?

The crunch: a small curl of the shoulders blades off the floor, while the lower back remains in contact with the floor.

2.   I love to do 100 crunches every day and it gave me a six-pack, so why should I stop?

Despite feeling the burn and developing toned abdominals, repetitive flexion places unnecessary load on the discs of the spine, potentially leading to pain and disc injury.

3.   Should I flatten my back to the floor?

No.  Pushing your back to the floor, takes out an important (lumbar) curve in your spine and forces the wrong muscles to work (see above question 2).

4.   Why does my neck hurt when I crunch?

Neck pain is a common complaint, because if you do not initiate the movement from the abdominals you will inadvertently pull on your neck in order to make the movement happen. Try pushing your tongue on the roof of your mouth to help proper neck stabilization.

5.   What’s the best Crunch to do?

I would advise crunching on a swiss ball instead of the floor as you are doing a fuller range of motion through your abdominals. Floor crunches shorten your range and tend to make you pull with your neck.

For an abdominal crunch that does not involve flexing your spine, check out the McGill Crunch, developed by Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics the University of Waterloo, who has done extensive research on the effects of loaded flexion on the spine.

Watch this video.

Potential Damage

The reality of the fitness industry is that often one ‘fad’ does contradict the last, but on-going (long-term) research continues to lean away from repetitive flexing of the spine.

Remember that damage is not always done in one session of training, but rather as a repetitive strain over time. Therefore, you won’t likely ‘feel’ crunches hurting your spine in any given workout.  It is not until down the road that you will be aware of any potential stress or damage you have inflicted on yourself.

On the flipside, crunches may not be the sole contributor to the damage.  If you are in the habit of bending over with your knees straight you can also cause disc issues and pain, but let’s leave that for another post.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, I don’t love crunches – there are many more superior exercises in my opinion. I do think it is important to be able to come to a sitting position from lying, as it is a basic movement pattern. For instance sitting up in bed, but that is something you need to be able to do once, not 100 times in a row.

I also think that form is everything. Whether you do a crunch with bad form (undue stress on your disc) or a plank with bad form (over compensating through other muscle groups) you are creating poor muscle recruitment and missing the point of the exercise.

So if you do decide to do crunches, make sure you are doing them with proper form!

What do you think about crunches?

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Written by Dawn Joseph
Dawn Joseph is an Online Personal Trainer who focuses on form and function! She loves to travel and kite board. Train with her online or ask her a question here.