Thinking about ditching boring crunches for planks or the latest abdominal exercise equipment? Not so fast. According to an April 2014 research report, the traditional crunch is king when it comes to targeting your ab muscles.
The folks at American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned the study from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse to compare the effectiveness of the most popular abdominal exercises and equipment to the traditional crunch. Researchers looked at a variety of equipment including the Ab Circle Pro, Ab Roller, Ab Lounge, Perfect Sit-Up, Ab Coaster, Ab Rocket, Ab Wheel and Ab Straps. They also evaluated core exercises such as the yoga boat pose, stability ball crunch, decline bench curl-up, captain’s chair crunch, bicycle crunch, side plank and front plank.The result: None of these were as effective at strengthening the abdominals as the traditional crunch.
Surprised? So were we. Crunches seem to have fallen by the gym’s wayside recently in lieu of “better” or more “natural” core exercises. But if you ask Jacque Ratliff, an ACE certified personal trainer and exercise physiologist, the traditional crunch is still the best option for stronger abs.
“Although we may not think [crunches are] ‘natural,’ there are several sports and daily activities in which this movement is found,” explains Ratliff. “Examples include getting out of bed in the morning, playing with kids on the floor, getting up from a fall and sports such as wrestling, gymnastics and MMA. Although the results of the study may seem surprising to some, it really just reinforces the fact that, when done correctly, the traditional crunch is still one of the best ways to effectively target the abdominals.”
And the results speak for themselves. Researchers placed electrodes on the upper and lower rectus abdominis, external obliques and the rectus femoris of participants. After testing all of the available exercises and equipment, the crunch was found to have the greatest muscle activation. In fact, the Ab Wheel, Ab Circle Pro, side plank and front plank all had significantly lower muscle activation in the upper abdominals, and the Ab Circle Pro, side plank and front plank also had decreased muscle activation in the lower abdominals.
So does that mean we should ditch all other ab moves? Nope. “The traditional crunch is a great exercise for improving abdominal strength,” says Ratliff. “However, it may not be appropriate or safe for everyone. When asking yourself, ‘What is the best ab exercise?’ it is important to think about your goals. If your goal is to improve trunk stability, then the traditional crunch may not be the best option; however, if you are looking to strengthen your abs during forward flexion, then the traditional crunch is a great move.”
The key to actually reaping the ab-toning benefits of crunches is to do them properly. Here’s how, according to Ratliff:The traditional crunch starts with lying on your back on the ground. (The ACE study was done with knees bent and feet on the ground). Place your hands on the back of your head—not on your neck—and curl your shoulders and upper back off the ground by pushing your forehead toward the ceiling. “A common error that people make is tucking their chin to their chest and using their hands to pull their head forward, which places undo stress on the cervical spine,” notes Ratliff. “The hands should simply serve as a resting place for the head and the abs should be used to curl the rib cage toward the hip bones.”
Bottom line: Crunches may not be for you if you have back problems. And if you love your planks or the latest ab gadget, you don’t have to give them up. Instead, consider adding some proper crunches into your ab-blasting routine to target and tone those pesky stomach muscles.