February 27, 2021

Indoor exercise upgrade: crunches

As autumn dawns and we turn to indoor exercise, many of us risk performing common exercises in ways that increase the risk of pain or injury. Crunches are a case in point. They seem simple enough, but common technique errors can wreak havoc with your spine. Before you aim for 100, upgrade your form with these physio tips.

As the weather cools, days shorten and exercising outdoors becomes less appealing, many of us turn to indoor exercise. And while low-intensity workouts including resistance work and floor-based exercises such as sit-ups sound safer than many higher intensity options (e.g. running), common simple form or technique mistakes in even the most basic exercises exacerbate pain or injury. (Have you thought that your lower back twinge or neck pain may result from your ab work?)

Many people perform sit-ups in an attempt to strengthen the core and, in turn, strengthen and support the lower back. After all, it sounds logical.
But contrary to popular belief, sit-ups may exacerbate or worsen lower back pain by placing undue stress on the lower back as they pull you into a seated position from the waist. It’s asking the lower back to do something it wasn’t designed for.

The anatomy  

Conventional sit-ups place excessive demands on the hip flexor muscles — which link the thigh bones and lower back. When hip flexors, which connect to the front of the lumbar spine, are overworked, it can lead to a knock-on effect of anterior pull on the lumbar vertebrae.

What to do instead? 

Partial crunches on a mat

Lie with knees bent and feet flat on the floor or mat. Place your hands behind your neck or cross your arms over your chest (avoid using your arms to pull your neck or head off the floor). Tighten stomach muscles and raise your shoulders off the floor, breathing out as you ascend. Hold for a second before slowly lowering all the way. Repeat 8 to 12 times. To prevent placing undue stress on your low back, keep your feet, tailbone, and lower back in contact with the mat throughout.

Partial crunches on a stability ball (see above for technique)

Partial-crunches on a stability ball may circumvent another common cause of sit-up related back pain, when the spine is pushed into a hard surface, potentially placing extra pressure on the posterior part of the spine. Another advantage of a stability ball is that it supports lumbar spine curvature and promotes a full range of motion that is difficult to achieve on a mat. As a bonus, crunches on a stability ball also call upon the engagement of the glutes and hips (how’s that for multi-tasking?).

But wait, there's more...
If you are using crunches of sit-ups to get increase core strength (which has a protective effect for the spine as well as increasing power in movement), don't rely on a one-trick pony. Sit-ups use only a few muscles at the front of the mid-section and fail to target all areas comprising core strength. Whether you're targeting a six-pack, looking to enhance athletic or exercise performance or just want to protect your spine from everyday hazards, consider complementing sit-ups or crunches with other exercises that use muscles on both the front and back sides of the core.

Some science-based indoor exercise ideas...

  • Front plank
  • Side plank
  • Glute bridge
  • Standing lift (hay bailer)

If you are experiencing persistent or worsening low back pain, consider consulting a physio for advice on the best exercises to promote recovery and comfort and technique guidance to optimise movement and performance.

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