Crunches Are Bad For You. And This Is Exactly Why...

I Refuse To Do Crunches 

I used to feel bad about it. 

I would lay on the mat in the dark with everyone else and and pretend to be adjusting this or that on my clothes,  maybe stretching some tight muscle, or even feigning more significant fatigue.

It was a little dance I'd have to coordinate without disrupting my very near-by neighbors to get out of doing crunches in yoga class any time my favorite teacher was absent.

I just had this terrible fear, that whichever instructor was substituting, would see my refusal as a sign of disrespect.

I'm a coach. I know what it's like to be thrown into the fire, in front of someone else's loyal followers. You can literally feel the skepticism and ambivalence as you call the class to attention.

But see the thing is, those crunches that many instructors like to begin class with, are actually disrespecting me and my body. They're not "lighting up the core," as they are so innocently intended to.

 These abs were not built by crunches....

These abs were not built by crunches....

So instead of acting out my silly pantomime, that stresses me out and turns my focus away from my body, I now just kick back by the candlelight, lay still on my mat, and come back to my breath.

Why am I so literally unmoving in my stance?

Joint-By-Joint Theory

Well, I have very few beefs with the practice of yoga. I personally practice yoga once a week religiously. And I'm actually completely convinced that some of our more typical yoga exercises and principles that I do disagree with, are more likely good intentioned but ill-advised Americanized interpretations of said ancient practice. See also: We're doing it wrong.

And one of those misinterpretations is the idea that the lower back, or lumbar spine, needs to be any more flexible and mobile than it already is.

In fact, most of the population already has wayyy too much movement going on there, and that needs to be put in check.

Joint-by-joint theory is also an old concept, not quite as early as yoga of course, as I believe it dates back to the late 1800's. But even by then, we had real evidence from Vladmir Janda to support our "crunches are bad" statement.

Joint-by-joint theory is the idea that the body is made up of joints that exist in alternating priority as we travel from the ankle, all the way up to the neck.

We have joints that are more mobile, sandwiched between joints that need to be more stabile. If we honor these differing responsibilities, we can build a strong and resilient body while protecting ourselves from excess stress and injury.

Let's look at the ankle as an example. in order to run, jump and walk with good mechanics, our ankles need to move really well. 

If our ankles do not move adequately, and we continue to go about our business without addressing this issue, we will likely end up with breakdown of the connective tissues in the knee as it attempts to pick up the slack.

This is why one knee surgery usually turns into two and three down the line -- by ignoring the dysfunction of the surrounding joints.

When we address the symptom without addressing the original cause, we don't actually fix the problem.

But what does this have to do with crunches?  Hang on. We've got one more principle to discuss.

The Four Knots

When we go further up the line, we find that the hip is even more important, as most of our movements as humans originate from the four knots, that is the two hips and two shoulders.

You can liken the kicking of a soccer ball to the crack of a whip. It all starts at the hip, with the leg following in a whipping action that terminates at the foot as it strikes the ball. This is how most movements happen. 

When our hips are not mobile, and I mean mobile, not flexible. It's important here to note that you may be passively very flexible in the hips, folding into a pigeon pose that leaves your chin on the floor in front of you with zero effort.

But, if you cannot control those ranges with strength, your hips are not actually mobile. And as you move about on your feet and get into a squat, or are even further taxed by dumbbells or barbells, that flexibility will be lost to you. 

But we as humans can be very determined when we step into the gym or onto the mat. We often disregard that the cost is higher than the benefit and risk injury for the sake of our pride (this is part of the argument against that no pain-no-gain mentality).

And when you do attempt something that is say outside your range, or past the edge (that's yoga speak for all you non-yogis), your lower back will have to move more than it should to account for the inadequacy in the hips. Can you say lower back pain?

Crunches Disrespect Your Body

So back to our original point. Why are crunches so bad?

You are probably already drawing the correct conclusions in your brain. The reasoning is two-fold.

1) Crunches violate joint-by-joint theory

Your lower back, that includes all of the vertebrae there, falls in the stability category. Instead of teaching us to protect our lumbar spines and limit movement there, to keep good space between the joints with muscular strength; crunches demand that we shorten the space between each vertebrae and add unnessecary stress to all those tiny joints. 

You would be much better off with exercises that increase the stability in your lower back, that honor the proper function of the joints like dead bugs and planks. And there are limitless variations on these two alone to keep you busy.

2) Crunches violate the theory of the four knots

It's like taking violation number one to the next level. Not only do we ask our lumbar spines to move, but to further create the motion that we are trying to execute. This creates a bad pathway in the brain. If we know we can rely on this shortcut, we'll probably just keep using it as an alternative strategy to get by in other situations beyond the crunch. That's just natural adaptation.

You need to work on your hip mobility to be able to create a better and more efficient pathway to that super low chair pose (narrow-kneed squat) you desire, as crunches will certainly have zero translation here. I'm a big fan of the high tension 90/90 stretch.

Honor The Way You Were Meant To Move

So please please please, stop doing crunches.  If you want that deep definition that separates a super strong midsection from the silly superficial abs (and who doesn't?), cut the crunches.

Focus on appreciating your body and loading up exercises that honor the way we were meant to move. As I love to say, a real good front squat with a well braced midsection is an honest 6-minute ab miracle. 

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