Crunches are more effective on an exercise ball.
When you want to work your abs, crunches are probably the first exercise that comes to mind. However, fitness authorities such as the American Council on Exercise say crunches are safe but can be contraindicated for spinal health under certain circumstances. Not only that, but crunches are not necessarily the most effective abdominal exercises. To improve your ab workout, you can choose from a plethora of exercises, which is good news if you don't like crunches.
Get to Know Your Abs
Your rectus abdominis is the muscle that creates the "six pack" look, and one of its functions is to flex your torso forward at the pelvis and control the curvature of your low back. This function is the idea behind crunches, but the rectus abdominis is only one of a complex layering of muscles that make up your abs. You also have your transverse abdominis, which pulls your abdominal wall inward. Then there are your internal and external obliques, which have the job of flexing and rotating your spine from right to left.
When to Avoid Crunches
Avoid crunches in the morning when you first wake up, says ACE. Your spinal disks are at their highest level of fluid retention in the a.m., so the pressure in your disks is higher and it's more difficult for them to tolerate bending. Wait for an hour or so before you rush off to morning yoga class or the gym. Another time to avoid crunches is right after you have been sitting for long periods. Again, your spinal disks are at their maximum height, and bending can be painful or cause injury. After prolonged sitting, walk around for five minutes before any type of crunches. Lastly, if you have any spinal issues such as herniations or bulging disks, avoid crunches altogether.
Safe, But Not So Effective
Now that you know the circumstances that make crunches contraindicated for spinal health, you're probably wondering how effective they are. Crunches are not the best choice when it comes to working your abs. ACE says that crunches should not be the foundation of your ab workout, and exercises that mimic real-life function of the muscles are key. The main job of your abs is to rotate and bend your trunk from side to side and to support your spine and hold in your internal organs.
Four for Your Core
Medicine ball chops and lifts, lunges with rotation, inverted flyers and glute activation lunges are four of the top exercises that ACE recommends as the most effective. Your abs are part of your core and so are some of your back muscles and your glutes. ACE says these muscles should be worked together. Add these exercises in twice a week to your exercise program. Do two sets of each exercise for six to 15 reps. Choose a weight that challenges your muscles and makes the reps difficult to complete.
Go Ahead and Crunch
Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. If you love crunches and have no spinal issues, go ahead and do them. However, ACE says to perform your crunches on an exercise ball to increase their safety and effectiveness. The ball provides extra cushion and support for your spine and increases your range of motion, which helps to target your ab muscles more effectively.