Ah, crunches. Tough stuff. Never feels GREAT. But heck, they work.
Basically, anytime you bend your torso forward, your abdominal muscles contract. When you contract a muscle over + over, it gets stronger. Hence, fitness’ obsession with crunches.
I like a nice crunch, but the word “crunch” grinds my gears a little. “Curl” is nicer, or “lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the ground” is nicer even.
While there are better, more efficient ways to strengthen your core overall, here are some great ways to optimize your crunch form if you’re going to do crunches anyway, as I enjoy doing often. There’s something so satisfying about that upper abdominal burn.
*All of these form notes apply to a basic crunch, where your knees are bent, feet are flat on the floor, and your hands are behind your head. While there are a million and one variations on a basic crunch, these are pretty universal points to look out for!*
Do: Look at your kneecaps.
This has everything to do with the position of your head + neck. One of the best ways to guarantee an optimal position of your neck is to shift your gaze. As you crunch (even when you’re in between reps!), keep your gaze over your kneecaps so your eye line reaches up on a diagonal— toward where the ceiling and wall come together!
Don’t: Look at the ceiling.
The moment you complete crunch reps with your gaze at the ceiling, the muscles in the front of your neck are put under stress. It’s likely that you’ll feel neck pain before you feel any muscle fatigue in your abdominals! Neck pain is no fun, so be super careful about this particular form note.
Do: Relax your hips.
Especially when your feet are on the ground, there’s absolutely no reason for your hip flexors to be turned on. Try to isolate your crunching action to your upper body, that way you can be sure your abs are doing the work, not anything else! When the hips are relaxed, you should also find a gentle curve at your lower back, with a little space between you + the floor.
Don’t: Grib your hip flexors.
Gripping hip flexors are the worst. Usually, when the hip flexors grip, it’s to compensate for another muscle somewhere that should be doing the work instead! In the case of a crunch, hip flexors might take over for your lower abdominals— so try slowing down your repetitions and find an exhale out through your mouth each time you lift your shoulders.
Do: Drop your shoulders.
Especially as you fatigue, your shoulders might start creeping up toward your ears. Take a deep breath, and imagine a wide collarbone. Sometimes I talk about “showing off a diamond necklace”. Anything to encourage keeping your shoulders DOWN as your lift + lower in your crunch.
Don’t: Close your elbows up over your face.
This is a classic— when our head feels like it weighs a zillion pounds, we use our arms to actively lift ourselves off of the ground, all the way to the point of our elbows closing over our face. Step 1 to fixing this problem is correcting your gaze (see the first set of Do/Don’t), and Step 2 is dropping your shoulders! Everyone’s neck and shoulders are tight anyway from a myriad of things in life (kids, heavy bags, sleeping at a funny angle, desk job, studying for exams… it goes on). Don’t find another way to make your neck and shoulders even tighter.
Do: Lift all of your shoulder blades off of the ground.
When you crunch, your ENTIRE shoulder blade, in an ideal world, should float off of the ground. Often, I find myself lifting until the very bottom edge of my shoulders, and stopping there. But truthfully, a full crunch should involve the entire shoulder blade lifting each and every time. With an exhale and an extra squeeze, try to find your entire shoulder girdle hovering off of the floor!
Don’t: Use momentum to swing your torso off of the ground.
There seems to be 2 groups of people in the world: Group 1 is folks who are so used to bending over a computer at work that they have an easy time curling forward in a crunch. Group 2 is folks whose upper backs are so tight that they have a hard time lifting their shoulders off of the ground at all. Don’t stress if you feel like you’re in neither group. I’m just making a generalization from what I tend to see in class. Whether crunches are easy for you or not, it’s common for everyone to rely on momentum instead of their abdominal muscles. A telltale sign of using momentum is when the ribcage splays out in between repetitions! Take the swing out of your crunch by slowing down your reps. Sometimes the most effective crunches are the slowest ones!
Note: Prenatal women + those with osteoporosis should check with their doctor before doing any kind of abdominal flexion like crunches. If abdominal flexion is contraindicated, check out NO-CRUNCH ABS on-demand here.