Crunches Are Bad For Your Back — Here Are 10 Ab Exercises to Do Instead
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 favorite 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.
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 engaging 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.
- 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 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.
- Come into plank position with your arms and legs straight.
- Beginning with the right side first, lower your elbow to the floor where your hand was. Then lower your left elbow to the floor where your left hand was (now you are in elbow plank, with your forearms parallel).
- Then come back into the starting plank position onto your right hand and then back onto your left. This completes one rep.
Standing Ab Rollout
- Place your palms on the ball, and stand with your legs wide, about three or so feet apart. Walk the ball out so your back is straight and your hips are in the same line as your ankles.
- From here, lean your body forward, allowing the ball to roll down your forearms. Stop once your elbows reach the ball and you're balancing on your tiptoes.
- Then use your core and legs to get your body back to the starting position. This completes one rep. Be sure to keep your abs engaged throughout this move.
- Start in a traditional plank — shoulders over hands and weight in your toes.
- With your core engaged, bring your right knee forward under your chest, with the toes just off the ground. Return to your basic plank. Switch legs, bringing the left knee forward. That completes one rep.
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.
- Start face down on the floor resting on your forearms and knees.
- Push off the floor, raising up off your knees onto your toes and resting mainly on your elbows.
- Contract your abdominals to keep yourself up and prevent your booty from sticking up.
- Keep your back flat — don't let it droop or you'll be defeating the purpose. Picture your body as a long straight board, or plank.
- Hold as long as you can. Aim for 20 to 30 seconds in the beginning and work your way up to one minute, as you get stronger.
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.
- Begin in an elbow plank with your forearms resting on the top of a ball.
- Keeping your core strong and your body still, use your arms to roll the ball in a small clockwise circle. This completes one rep.