Think abs exercises, think crunches. That’s how it used to be. When looking to build a decent set of six-pack abs, the age-old impulse was to bust out as many crunches as possible. Nowadays, the path to a six-pack has taken a detour down a route that involves more bracing of the core rather than contraction – think planks and their variations. Nevertheless, the crunch still offers significant benefits, and we’ve put together a handy guide to help you get the best out of this classic move.
Crunches can cause back and neck problems if you try to get the move going by throwing your head forwards and straining your neck and back – but that doesn’t mean the crunch should be discarded altogether. When done right, it can help you target your lower or upper abs for a balanced set of stomach muscles. Just remember, abs are primarily made in the kitchen, so make sure your diet is on point or you’ll have too much belly fat concealing them regardless of how many crunches you crank out.
Lie on your back on a mat. Bend your knees and keep your feet firmly placed on the floor. Keeping your hands folded across your chest and your lower back fixed to the mat, raise your shoulders and the top half of your torso until you begin to feel a stretch in the upper portion of the abdominals. Lower slowly.
A superb core workout, this crunch variation brings all kinds of abdominal muscles into play, including the tricky-to-target obliques. Lie on the ground with your head and shoulders slightly raised and your hands resting lightly on the side of your head. Lift one leg just off the ground and extend it out. Lift the other leg and bend the knee towards your chest while twisting through the core and moving the opposite elbow towards the knee (they don’t need to touch). Lower your leg and arm at the same time while bringing up the opposite two limbs to mirror the movement.
Your lower abs are harder to hit than the upper abs, but this move targets them by using your legs for resistance instead of your torso. Keep the back of your head and shoulders in contact with the ground and lift your lower back off the floor. Bring your knees towards your chest, then squeeze your abs for two seconds and reverse to the start.
Dumbbell pull-over crunch
You’ll need to build the fast-twitch muscles in your abs to get a killer six-pack, and this heavy resistance move will do the job (just make sure your core is warmed up before doing it). Lie flat, holding light dumbbells or a weight plate in your hands. Contract your core as you bring the weights and your legs together. Pause then lower slowly to the start.
Hitting your core from the sides takes the focus off the muscles down the middle of your stomach and ensures that all the muscle fibres in your midriff are working. Lie flat on your back but with your hips turned so your weight is on your right. Keeping your neck neutral, curl your left arm, shoulder and chest towards your middle, then lower slowly. Repeat on the other side.
Gym ball crunch
Lying on a gym ball works your core harder to stabilise your body and allows for a greater range of movement when doing the crunch. Lean as far back on the ball as you can to arch your back in its natural range, then contract your core to bring your upper body off the ball.
Adding weight and slowing down the standard crunch will give your abs a better, safer workout than doing a high volume of reps. Hold a dumbbell on your chest. Keeping your neck neutral, squeeze your abs to curl your upper body off the floor. Pause, then lower slowly.
Driving down against the constant resistance of a cable machine keeps the muscles under tension for longer, helping them grow stronger. Use a high cable and rope handle. Lean forwards, keeping your body straight and your arms and hips locked in position, then crunch down, using your abs as the driving force. Pause, then reverse the move slowly.
This is a variation of the oblique crunch, with a shorter range of motion to make it slightly easier. Lie flat on your back but with your right leg crossed over the other. Keeping your neck neutral, curl your left arm, shoulder and chest towards your middle, then lower slowly.
There’s plenty of kit that claim to assist your crunching efforts. Here’s what to consider and what to avoid.
The Abmat provides more lumbar support to your lower back so your spine flexes naturally when lying down and because your spine is in a neutral position, it means your abs work like they are meant to in order to help you sit up. The AB-2 is also more dense than the original model, meaning you have to apply more force to generate proper movement and can’t just bounce off the mat with each rep. roguefitness.com
Crunch resistance machine
As with all resistance machines, our advice is to use them with caution. Resistance machines typically force your body into one set plane of motion. This means you target your primary muscles for the move – in this case the rectus abdominis muscles that make up the visible six-pack – but they can neglect the supporting muscles needed for effective core strength. To make the most of this kit, keep the weight relatively high, reps relatively low and speed of movement slow and controlled. Warm the abs up thoroughly before with some bodyweight crunches or planks, use the machine to challenge your strength, then use a more functional core move like the hanging leg raise as a challenging finisher.
This contraption has been around since the dawn of modern fitness – the 1980s when aerobics took fitness into mainstream – but it can be responsible for a host of the technical issues to avoid. It can put your neck in a vulnerable position, it removes the focus from your core because you use your arms to generate some of the force and it restricts you to a very small range of motion that isn’t functional and doesn’t all of your abs muscles. Short of throwing it out completely, use it to warm-up your abs with slow, controlled movements and try to roll forwards as far as you can to engage more muscles. amazon.co.uk