We’ve all been there: a burst of motivation hits us and we go to YouTube, type in workout videos and titles like ‘exercises to get a flat tummy’, ‘how to build muscle’ and ‘10-minute ab workout routine’ jump out at us. I guarantee that most of these exercises will not only claim to spot reduce fat, but they’ll also contain crunches.
Crunches are not an inherently bad move. However, the idea that crunches give you a flat stomach and strengthen your core has become one of the biggest myths of the fitness world, one that has spiralled out of control. I'm sure we all know a friend who throws in a hundred crunches at the end of their workout and calls it a day (if you don’t then I’m sorry to say you may be that friend). I’m here to debunk this myth once and for all, and show you the correct way to build your core.
It’s crunch time
Crunches specifically target the rectus abdominis muscles that are a part of our core. However, these muscles make up the surface area where a ‘six pack’ would be. The deep core, which includes transverse abdominis, oblique and pelvic floor muscles, needs to be engaged in order to truly strengthen our core. This means that even if someone does 300 crunches a day and has a six pack, it doesn't equate to a strong core.
Crunches can be dangerous if done with the wrong form as they put a lot of pressure on the neck and back, and often times we do not have the anatomical knowledge of how slight alterations in form can affect our bodies long term. This risk is heightened if crunches are done in large quantities as there’s more room for error and injury.
The American Council of Exercise (ACE) states
‘Proper form is important for this exercise to prevent excessive stress on your low back. Individuals usually perform this movement too rapidly and recruit the hip flexors to assists with the upward phase. This technique tilts the pelvis anteriorly, increasing the stress on the low back and should be avoided (I).’
Excessive performance of crunches in poor form can also contribute to bad posture. Robin Konie, registered Somatic Movement Therapist and Movement Analyst also adds
‘Tucked bottoms result in flattened spinal curves which usually bring the shoulders slumped downward, the head forward, and starts to slowly work on that “old lady hump” in the back that nobody wants. I can always tell when someone does too many crunches almost immediately by their posture alone (II).’
So, unless you want your posture to be looking like this:
It's time to ditch those crunches and start doing other exercises that target your core.
Let’s get to the core of the issue
As I said before, the core is made up of a variety of different muscles, therefore it’s important we find exercises that can strengthen these muscle groups on a deeper level. The great thing is these mostly require no equipment and replacing crunches with these movements will prove more effective for your fitness goals.
I’m sure you’re no stranger to our good old friend, the plank. Whilst seemingly straightforward, this exercise should not be undermined, as it requires good form and focus, whilst importantly training your core. The great thing about the plank (I never thought I’d see myself write those words) is that you can tailor it to your strength levels; if you can only muster a 30 second plank then that’s great because you can set yourself small goals and work towards a longer target.
If you feel like you’ve conquered the plank, why not try this variation? Keeping the form of a plank, you rotate side to side in order to engage muscles on the side of your hips.
Ab rollers are a great piece of equipment to engage various core muscle groups. that Gia Calhoun, fitness expert and trainer, says ‘Ab rollers activate several muscle groups, including the triceps, lats and core. That’s because you’re dealing with the added challenge of balance as you hold yourself up during the roll outs’ (III).
Doing a few of these are guaranteed to get your heart pumping and your core activated. Because of the different movements involved in burpees they’re a great addition to your workout routine, and you only need to do a few before you feel the burn!
Push ups are a classic move and whist they engage your triceps, pectoral muscles and shoulders, they also work your lower back and core. Keeping good form and getting as far down to the ground as you can ensures a deep upper body workout whist engaging the core. If you’re struggling to do a full push up, you can try the modified knee push ups and work your way up from there.
You may have come across mountain climbers in circuits and core workouts before, and that’s because they’re a great exercise to engage your core. Depending on your ability level, you can slow it down or speed it up.
You’ll really feel the burn with this one. Keeping your back flush against your mat, lift your legs up and down, focusing on going slow and keeping your posture right.
It’s important to note that we cannot spot reduce fat. Engaging in exercises in the hopes of toning or losing weight in a specific place will not work. The fitness industry has capitalised on insecurity and because of this you’ll see an abundance of fitness challenges and buzzword videos that claim to help you get rid of x,y and z fat. Whilst certain exercises are more effective than others, it’s important we adopt a well-rounded workout routine in order to work all our muscle groups.