When it comes to functional strength, you can’t beat core conditioning. Not only do fit, fired-up abs, obliques, and back muscles improve your posture (and even your confidence), they also support the muscles along your spine, lessening your risk of injury. (Which is key, because how can you maximize your #99daysofsummer if you’re stuck recuperating on the couch?)
And for many years, the gold standard when it came to activating that coveted core was crunches. Lots and lots of crunches. But recently they’ve fallen out of favor in some circles, with certain fitness pros arguing that the ab move does more harm than good.
“Crunches are an effective ab exercise…but only if performed properly.”
But is the problem with crunches themselves—or just the way that you might be doing them? “Crunches are an effective ab exercise that work the rectus abdominis obliques and transverse abdominis and even back muscles, but only if performed properly,” says Ariane Hundt, founder of Brooklyn Bridge Boot Camp.
While they certainly aren’t the only move you should be doing when it comes to strengthening your abs (hello, planks), Hundt believes that “for someone whose goal is to get a lean midsection, crunches are a quick and effective way to create muscle fatigue to a degree that creates change in the core.” In other words, you can make these old-school moves new again—and more intense than ever. Your Wonder Woman-esque abs will thank you.
Here are 4 mistakes to avoid, all in the name of making crunch time as effective as possible.
1. You’re doing them too fast
“You want to do crunches slowly because the longer the muscle stays engaged, the more muscle fatigue you create. And with more fatigue comes faster progress in creating a lean and defined muscle,” Hundt says. After you’ve lifted all the way off the mat, make sure to hold for a second or two at the top. “You do more work on the eccentric move—[that is], on the way down—than on the way up, so slow it down, control the move,” she says.
2. You’re putting too much pressure on your neck
“Crunches can reinforce poor posture, and people tend to strain their necks when executing them,” says Lauren Williams, Nike trainer and instructor at Project by Equinox. If you’re doing them with your hands placed behind your head, use your abdominal muscles to gently lift your head and shoulder blades off the ground instead of pulling on the back of your neck.
3. You’re letting your body cave in
The movement of an abdominal crunch should be up, not in—so you should be lifting your upper body toward the sky, not crunching it forward toward your knees. “Think of keeping the chest open with the elbows pointed out to the side, not up to the ceiling,” Williams says. Caving in can lead to poor spine alignment and neck tension, she adds.
4. You’re only doing crunches
“If your goal is core strength, I would recommend building your program around exercises that target all the core muscles,” says Williams. “Get creative! Try controlled, slow, straight-leg sit-ups with the arms crossed in front of the chest.”