Ditch the Crunch! Why sit-ups and crunches are no longer in vogue

Just because you see people doing crunches and sit-ups at the gym doesn’t make it good for you or right to do.  Why not?

The research has been and continues to be clear.  Repetitive rounding of the spine, particularly in an action like a sit-up or crunch, creates disc pressure and strain to the spine.  This can, with time and repetition, create disc herniations and debilitating injury.

Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, told the Wall St Journal that sit-ups are “an antiquity of exercise best left in the dustbin of fitness history”.     As of 2015, The US army put 10,000 soldiers through a pilot of a revamped physical fitness test that excludes sit-ups.  And one study found that 56 percent of all soldiers’ injuries related to the old fitness test was because of sit-ups.  

Someone whose research I follow and whose opinion I value highly is Stuart McGill, a professor who’s been studying the biomechanics of the spine for more than 3 decades at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Using both spine specimens and real people, he’s conducted studies to understand the effects of repetitive motions like flexion (rounding of the spine) seen in sit-ups and crunches.

What he’s found is that crunches and traditional sit-ups place 3,300 newtons (the equivalent of 340 kg or 749 lbs!) of compressive force on the spine when bent in flexion. These forces can squeeze a bent disc’s nucleus to the point that it bulges – pressing on nerves and causing back pain, and potentially leading to a herniated disc. According to McGill, There are only so many bends in your spine until the discs eventually herniate.”  Check out this enlightening interview with McGill, The man who wants to kill crunches.

Why do people still do them?
Because that’s what they were taught in school, on their teams, in boot camps etc.  Until everyone is up to date and on the same page with current science and research, people will continue down the same path of “no pain no gain” that they’re familiar with.  Your core — which includes your rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, etc. — is designed to help your body stabilize and brace against twisting and bending (not generate it). 

Sit-ups and crunches eliminate the bracing and can put your body into unhealthy positions like pulling your neck forward, rounding your shoulders and flexing the spine which can result in back pain.

So what specifically can we do to target our core and keep us safe? (videos below)  Don’t worry I’ve got your back!    These three exercises will target your core and keep you safe! 

  • BoneSmart Pilates Chest Lift
  • Bird Dog
  • Planks

1)  The BoneSmart Pilates Chest Lift

Performed with an inflatable mini ball behind the upper back, this exercise gives you the sensation of doing a crunch without the negative effects. Instead of taking your body from a flat, supine position, to a flexed rounded position, you begin in spine extension (slight back bending draped back over the ball, hands interlaced behind your head).

      • exhale as you begin with a chin nod to align your head and rise
      • lift your upper body, from your core, rising up only to a neutral straight diagonal spine position. Inhale here maintaining a still pelvis
      • on an exhale slowly drape back to the starting position

Doing it this way eliminates the flexion/compression component of your spine while maintaining the strengthening component.  View “Chest Lift” in action below!


2)   Bird Dog, the familiar exercise done on hands and knees, strengthens the core and muscles in the back of the spine by extending your arm and opposite leg parallel to the floor and holding it still for 10 sec or more. You get strong by bracing your core, breathing and isolating movement to occur only at the hip and shoulder, not in the spine. That combination of stabilization with isolation is the secret to the power of this exercise. Watch Bird Dog below!

3) Planks in various positions are perfect for strengthening and bracing your core. In my DVD’s I take you from standing planks in the Counter series to the more challenging straight arm, forearm and side plank series.  My BoneSmart Pilates Youtube channel has a Plank Challenge Playlist that offers you a variety of planks of varying difficulty to target all your key core muscles and get you strong while keeping you safe.

For 5 years now, I’ve been teaching active agers with a slant toward “neutral spine” training and avoiding flexion of the spine, particularly for those with back issues or bone density compromise like osteopenia and osteoporosis.  In 2013, the BoneSmart Pilates® DVD series was conceived. I began with Exercise to Prevent or Reverse Osteoporosis which targeted those with osteoporosis and avoided all flexion. 

Soon after, I realized that other active agers, not just those with increased bone loss, would benefit from this approach. The Aging Strong Series followed that first DVD and addresses a broader spectrum of the active aging population that also benefits from smart core training while focusing on additional areas important to aging. In all my DVD’s, we work on creating strength, flexibility and balance while honoring the integrity of our spine and discs.  There are no sit-ups, crunches or flexion (rounding of the spine) in any of my BoneSmart Pilates® DVD’s.  

To conclude, you don’t need to do crunches or sit-ups to get a strong core.  The science speaks for itself.   Ditch the Crunch”!