Crunches Are the Go-To Ab Workout—But Are They Actually Bad for You?

The desired “crunch,” as it’s known. Crunches are usually the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to abdominal workouts, and with good reason. It’s been dubbed the “portal to the land of six-pack abs” for quite some time: You’ll have abs as powerful and Herculean as the Greek hero himself if you do enough crunches. If you’re anything like me, you’ve believed in this promise and spent countless hours crunching. If you, like me, have been wondering why you’ve been experiencing lower back discomfort, what I’m about to tell you might be life-changing: crunches may be harming you more than helping you, and it’s time to switch things up.

What is it about crunches that makes them so bad?

While crunches aren’t intrinsically “bad” and do build your abdominal muscles (and perhaps even lead to a six-pack), they just engage the top layer of your core, according to two experts on the subject. When just the upper abdominal layer (also known as the rectus abdominis) is engaged, the deeper layer (also known as the transverse abdominis) is left in the dark. “The six-pack, or rectus abdominis, is a portion of your core unit, but it’s not the full story,” said Jesse Truelove, a personal trainer who also serves as the program director and coach for both the Birth Recovery Center and the Move Your Bump apps. “People with a six-pack are more likely to have hyperactive back muscles or persistent back discomfort.”

The strength of your core is severely hampered when your transverse abs are neglected. “This can contribute to core damage and dysfunction, like as back discomfort and diastasis recti (separated ab muscles),” explained Leah Keller, founder and COO of the Every Mother fitness app. Diastisis recti is a condition that we usually only hear about in the context of pregnancy, and even then, it is rarely mentioned. Because the strain of a developing baby bump can pull the abs apart, it’s more typically linked to pregnancy. Truelove noted, “Performing crunches in these instances might cause excessive intra-abdominal pressure downward into the pelvic floor and lower abdominals.”

Bottom line: If you’re pregnant or just gave birth, see your doctor about the best workouts for you. If you’re not focused on entire core strength, crunches aren’t the be-all and end-all.

Should crunches be avoided at all costs?

Crunches aren’t intrinsically hazardous for you, therefore they don’t need to be avoided entirely, according to these experts (unless your doctor, trainer, etc. have advised you to stay away). Instead than depending on crunches, it’s about strengthening the core’s deeper layers for optimal core health (beyond just what a six-pack could show). So, if you enjoy a good crunch series, don’t feel obligated to give it up as long as you keep the transverse abdominis in mind (or the deeper layer that crunches do not work).

Truelove stated, “The TVA is a muscle group that works as a corset around your body.” “It’s the deepest layer of your core unit, as well as one of your most powerful spinal stabilizers.” The back, lower abs, and pelvic floor will all benefit from strengthening this region of your core. “We elicit a natural co-contraction of deep core muscles, including the pelvic floor, lumbar multifidus, diaphragm, and quadratus lumborum, when we activate the transverse abdominis,” Keller concurred. Isn’t that a lot more appealing than a six-pack?

How should the transverse abdominis be worked first?

At least in the beginning, a little direction may go a long way. You might search “transverse abs” into YouTube and explore the results, but if you already have back discomfort, ab separation, or pelvic floor difficulties, I’d strongly advise working one-on-one with a professional (just a few sessions can make a difference). They can teach you how to notice when your transverse muscles are engaged and provide you with workouts that are tailored to your individual needs.

Workout applications such as Keller’s Every Mother and Truelove’s Move Your Bump have been quite beneficial to me. They’re designed for people who are or want to be pregnant, but I think they’re useful for anybody who wants to learn how to engage their deep abdominal muscles. “Instead of choosing for thousands of reps of standard core workouts, the general population would benefit enormously from getting more in-tune with their deep core and pelvic floor,” Truelove added. I completely agree with all you’ve said.

In fact, I began using the Every Mother app to help with lower back discomfort even before I planned to become pregnant. When I practiced the exercises on a regular basis, I saw a significant improvement. My back discomfort subsided, and while I wasn’t exactly building a six-pack, my abs did begin to appear flatter as a result of pulling my abs in rather than pushing them out. As my TVA became stronger, I found it simpler to keep a better posture throughout the day. When I did became pregnant, I continued to utilize the app, and guess what? It worked! Diastasis recti never happened to me. Furthermore, my abs appeared to mend much faster than anticipated after having my baby.

What’s the best way to tell if you’re using the proper muscles?

Unlike the upper abs, feeling your transverse abs engage isn’t intuitive (and you don’t want to waste time on workouts that aren’t working). Fortunately, there are a few ways that might help you figure out whether or not your abs are working. Keller recommended doing things one step at a time: “Exhale on engagement to safely manage intra-abdominal pressure and protect the back, core, and pelvic floor; squeeze and lift both the navel and the pelvic floor ‘up and in’ while exhaling; and avoid any movement or flexion that bulges the abdominal wall forward, as this can compromise the abdominal wall’s integrity and lead to injury.”

The pubic bone connects the two hip bones in an upside-down triangle, in my opinion. Imagine pressing the triangle points together as you exhale, as Keller recommended. This assists me in drawing up and in a natural manner. Instead of pushing out, Truelove described it as a flattening of the abdominal wall. Working with an expert in person is, of course, the most effective approach to figure out where you are and whether you’re engaging those deep muscles efficiently.

In place of crunches, what should you do?

Keller recommends doing a modified plank with knees on the floor instead of crunches. “Pulse your belly button toward the spine in a calm, controlled pattern that matches each expiration with a firmer core clench and each shallow inhale with a soft, partial release,” she added. Exercises like dead bug, cat cow, and Pilates 100 are also good options. Keller stressed the need of resting when you’re tired, no matter which workout you pick, to keep your core activation under control.

Truelove suggests tackling crunches with greater focused awareness if you don’t want to give up your tried-and-true crunches. “Belly pooching outward, pressure on the pelvic floor, leakage, back discomfort, and other symptoms indicate that your core isn’t up to the task and it’s time to alter.” If this is the case, she recommends slowing down and limiting the range of motion until your body is able to take the crunch’s pressure. “When you execute a crunch or other abdominal workout, your tummy should be able to stay equal and flat.”

At the end of the day, your body is yours, and you have complete control over the activities you do. Start doing crunches if that’s your thing. However, just because something is popular does not mean you have to continue with it. You may be more confident in your choices if you have more tools in your toolset. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and in this instance, physical strength.