Most people who do abdominal crunches do them to get rid of the fat on top of the belly muscles. At our training center, in fact, we often get new members coming through the door complaining of a “weak core” when what they really have is fat on top of a perfectly strong set of muscles. If getting rid of the fat is the goal, there are better ways than crunches. A recent study from the University of Virginia showed that you would need to do 250,000 crunches to lose one pound of fat. That’d be about 700 daily crunches for a whole year. Compare that to a well-designed fat-loss plan, which usually results in a steady loss of one to three pounds per week, and you can see why crunches are a bad idea.
A second common reason people do this exercise is to “strengthen the lower back.” In fact, I’ve heard of more than one doctor prescribing just this movement for low back pain. Stuart McGill, author of Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation (Back Fit Pro, 2007) and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (Back Fit Pro, 2004) is a world-renowned expert in back health. He explains that the flexing movement done in the crunch isn’t how we normally use the abdominals. These muscles are used to prevent or slow movement in the torso, creating stability for the limbs. In fact, his research shows that the crunch’s isolated trunk flexion actually damages the discs of the lumber spine. Needless to say, I don’t recommend my athletes visit crunch-prescribing doctors.
This is not to say that the core — lumbar spine, muscles of the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborium, and the back extensors — should go untrained, it’s just that it needs to be trained correctly and for the right reasons. It’s great to look good and to perform well in your sport, but the number one goal of training should be injury reduction.
Here are three great core exercises that will help maintain back health and increase strength in the muscles of the abdomen and core, in a lot fewer than 250,000 repetitions.
1. Stability Ball Cauldron – Place your elbows on a stability ball and bridge up with just your toes on the floor. Slowly rotate your elbows clockwise in as large a circle as you can manage with perfect form. Once the desired number of reps is reached, do the same rotating counter-clockwise.
2. Resist The Twist – This is a lateral cable static hold. Set up a cable column or elastic band at mid-torso height. Turn so that the column is directly to your left. Starting with the handle held right at the abdomen, just above the navel, press the weight out away from the body slowly (the load will try to twist you toward the column). Move steadily through the movements, then repeat the same number of reps on the other side.
3. Asymmetric Hold or Squat – In this exercise, you’ll hold a fairly heavy weight in one arm, at shoulder or chest level. For many people, just the hold will be enough to show improvements. More advanced athletes can add a squat to the exercise to increase its effectiveness.
By adding these three exercises to your weekly workout, you’ll see a substantial increase in lumbar spine stability and strength in the abdominal musculature. These are substantially more effective at creating the “six-pack” abs than standard crunches, but don’t be fooled — you’ll still have to eat right and do your metabolic training to get rid of the gut.