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The Reason You Should Stop Doing Crunches, According to an Expert

Popsugar logo Popsugar 10/07/2018 Tamara Pridgett
a person sitting on a table © POPSUGAR Photography / Kathryna Hancock

Whether you work out every single day or hit the gym every blue moon, you're probably familiar with the popular ab exercise crunches. If you had to take a guess, how many crunches do you think you've done in your lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? You more than likely did them in your high school gym class, during a quick at-home ab workout, and you probably do them during your favourite group fitness class. It's understandable why crunches are such a popular exercise — they're simple and can be done anywhere, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're good for you.

World-renowned professor of spine biomechanics, Stuart McGill, PhD, found that crunches and sit-ups place 3,300 newtons (340 kilograms/749.60 pounds) of compressive force on the spine when it's in a flexed position. The repeated force of crunches can cause the discs in your back to bulge (the gel nucleus of the disc bulges), pressing on nerves causing lower-back pain and potentially causing a herniated disc. Whether you're a regular at the gym or love to do cardio dance workouts every now and then, a disc injury can sideline you for quite some time.

If you're currently experiencing lower back pain or would rather not run the risk for injury, Dr. McGill came up with the "Big 3" exercises to strengthen the core, focusing specifically on stability and control. If you're looking to expand your repertoire of ab exercises that are back-friendly, consider the following moves for a strong core and a healthy back.

Side Bridge

Side Bridge © POPSUGAR Photography Side Bridge

Both the side bridge and side plank are great for building strength in the transverse abdominis and other muscles used to stabilize the spine. If you cannot hold a side plank or if engageing the abdominal wall causes pain, start with the side bridge.

  • Lie on your left side with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle and your elbow underneath your shoulder.
  • Push your hips forward, lifting your thighs off the ground. Rest your right hand on top of your right hip, and hold for 10 seconds.
  • Be sure to keep your knees, hips, and upper body aligned. If you experience discomfort in your shoulder, place your right hand over your left shoulder with your fingers spread apart, and pull your right elbow down across your chest.
  • Set one: six reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set two: four reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set three: two reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.

If you can maintain a side bridge without pain, progress to the side plank.

Side Plank

a person posing for the camera: Side Plank © POPSUGAR Photography Side Plank
  • Begin by lying on your left side. Bring your left elbow directly under your left shoulder. Engage your core, press your left elbow into the floor, and rise into side elbow plank.
  • Place your top foot in front of your bottom foot, or stagger your feet if your balance feels off.
  • If you feel discomfort in your bottom shoulder, place your right hand on your left shoulder and pull the left elbow down across the chest.
  • To make this more challenging, place your right hand on top of your left hip.

Bird Dog

Bird Dog © POPSUGAR Photography Bird Dog

Bird Dog spares the spine of high compressive loads and targets not only the lower-back muscles but also works the hip extensors, like the glutes and the hamstrings.

  • Begin on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • Pull your abs into your spine. Keeping your back and pelvis still and stable, reach your right arm forward and left leg back until they are parallel to the floor. Don't allow your pelvis to rock side to side as you move your leg behind you. Focus on not letting the rib cage sag toward the floor. Reach through your left heel to engage the muscles in the back of your leg and your butt.
  • Return to the starting position, placing your hand and knee on the floor. Hold for six to eight seconds.
  • As you begin to progress, add a rep to each set.
  • Set one: four reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.
  • Set two: three reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.
  • Set three: two reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.

Plank With Shoulder Tap

a close up of a dog: Plank With Shoulder Tap © POPSUGAR Photography / Kyle Hartman Plank With Shoulder Tap
  • Begin in a plank variation with your feet slightly wider than your hips for added stability.
  • Keeping your torso stable, bring your right hand to your left shoulder, then return your right hand back to the mat.
  • Bring your left hand to your right shoulder and return it to the mat. This counts as one rep.

TRX Knee Tucks

  • With the straps at mid-calf length, place your feet into each of the foot cradles.
  • Lift your knees off the ground, coming into a plank position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Your back should be flat and your core should be engaged (there should be no arch or dip of the torso visible).
  • Bring both knees in toward your elbows at the same time. Extend your legs, returning to your starting position. This completes one rep.

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