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Crunches: proper technique will help avoid pain and produce better results

Years ago the importance or desirability of performing crunches, probably the most iconic and certainly the most common of core exercises, has been questioned and actually many trainers advice to be cautious in how to perform these exercises and in their amount.

When your spine constantly undergoes
forward flexion (performing a crunch),
your intervertebral bodies are compressing
the front end spinal discs causing the disc
to be pushed back in the direction of your
spinal cord. When this happens many times
you are at risk for a herniated disk.
 Research by Dr. Stuart McGill (professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and author of the book “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance,”) and others has shown that repeated bending of the spine, such as occurs when most of us do crunches, can over time contribute to damage of the spinal discs. When cadaver pig spines were placed in machines as part of a series of recent experiments and bent and flexed hundreds of times, the pigs’ spinal discs almost always ruptured, eventually.

Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx and an author of a recently published review article about core exercises titled “To Crunch or Not to Crunch.”  precised that no one needs to perform hundreds or even dozens of crunches. And while everyone needs some basic minimum of core strength — getting up out of a chair requires a certain amount of core strength; serving a tennis ball requires more – “six or eight crunches would be plenty,” he said, “and only a few times a week.” It’s also important you perform them correctly, Dr. McGill said.
So let's see here the proper technique to avoid pain and produce better results.

Lynn Merges, a personal fitness trainer at Gold's Gym in York, says she tells her clients to focus on the area they want to work. "Mind in the muscle,' I always say."

1. Lie down with your back flat to the floor.
2. Elevate your feet so your knees are at a 90-degree angle to your body. It may be easier to rest your feet on a chair, or keep them on the floor and just bend your knees.
3. Cross your hands in front of your chest. For more advanced crunches, put your hands behind your head, but with the fingertips lightly touching the head, not clasping the head or neck.
4. Make sure there is a fist's worth of space between your chin and chest.
5. Draw your belly button in to the base of your spine.

6. Sit up until your elbows or chest reach your knees. Be careful to use abdominal rather than back, leg or neck muscles.
7. Exhale as you sit up. Inhale as you lie down.


Crunches for the obliques
1. Lie down as if you were doing a regular crunch, elevating feet off the floor so your knees are at a 90-degree angle to your body.
2. Cross your legs so that the ankle of your left leg is resting in front of the knee of your right leg and it looks like the number 4.
3. Cross your arms in front of your chest.
4. Lift and rotate the left shoulder toward the right knee, focusing on decreasing the distance between the left rib cage and the right hip.
5. Repeat few times.
6. Switch your legs around and repeat to tone the other side.

To decrease difficulty
Those who are overweight or out of shape may want to begin by doing hip rolls or tummy tucks before progressing to crunches.
1. Lie down as if you were going to do a regular crunch and roll the hips back against the floor, tucking the tummy toward the floor. This will begin to activate the stomach muscles.

To increase difficulty

- Place an exercise ball between your knees: look for one that allows you to plant your feet on the ground with your knees as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. 
Stretching backwards over the ball as much as is comfortable gives you more "room" to lift your core back up and perform the crunch.
- Be sure to crunch on a ball with the same form you would use for a regular crunch. Avoid curving the spine or pulling on the neck by bringing the shoulders toward the ceiling

Common mistakes

1. Holding your breath

Merges (personal fitness trainer at Gold's Gym in York) says your breathing technique while doing crunches is vital. "You need the oxygen to circulate through the blood and go to the muscle," she says. "If you're holding your breath, you could get cramps or get tired quicker, and you don't want that."
2. Going too fast
Abdominal exercises should be done in a steady, gradual manner with slow and controlled movements that are never jerky. 
3. Using leg, back or neck muscles to pull you up
"All the pull should come from the abdominals, not the neck," Merges says. "If your belly button is down, you're going to be pulling from the abdominals."Merges says abdominal exercises of some sort should be part of everyone's workout. They improve posture, stabilize the core of the body and contribute to ahealthy back. "When you understand how vital it is ... (your abdominal area) basically holds you up," she says. "It's the center of your being."

Amy Rawhouser Erdlen, physical director of the York and Southern York County YMCA, says most people want to improve the way their stomach looks. "Flat abs are extremely hard to get," she says. "You almost have to have a genetic disposition to have that six-pack look, but you can improve what you do have."
Both Erdlen and Merges caution that all the crunches in the world won't do much good if they're not accompanied by cardiovascular exercise to take off layers of fat covering the stomach muscles. "Crunches will draw your abdominals in, but it won't take the fat off around the abdominals," Merges concludes.

Pregnant women If you are pregnant, consult your doctor or fitness trainer before doing crunches since exercising while lying on your back can increase weight on the pelviccavity.