Crunches are rubbish. Here's 8 solutions.

July 10, 2018

Show me a study which demonstrates key markers supporting the hypothesis - "Sniffing Artichokes before a workout improves progression rates for crunches" - I'll show you a study which demonstrates the contrary.


The same can be found for whether crunches (or sit ups) are good or bad for you. Here's the thing, we need to be absolutely clear on our definition of 'good'.


Good for what exactly? Your ability to contract your sphincter?


If the preface rings to the tune of "Studies show that crunches improve core function" Without much in the way of how or why, take it with a pinch of salt. It certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel.


Because if all you're going off is "Studies show". It must be said, how confident can one be in verbiage which is at best vague, at worst deliberately obscuring?


We need to know.

If your goal is to develop rippling abs for the sake of superficial improvements, then crunches - performed correctly - are the ones for you. Muscle Hypertrophy is all about slow controlled movements, lots of TUT (Time Under Tension), taking the muscle through a full range of motion with the highest mechanical tension/loading possible.


If your goal is to improve the function and performance parameters of the core, more specifically relating to the demands you experience as a martial artist, then crunches are best relegated to the bottom of the exercise library. Not out, just at the bottom.


The goal today is not total abolishment of crunches worldwide - As it is goal and technique dependant - Rather, to offer far more effective and spine friendly core training variations within the martial arts space.

The overarching 'blanket statement' goal of a martial artist? Be strong, mobile, and as light/fast as possible. Without enduring or exacerbating low back pain, nor promoting excessively taut sphincters.


Crunches are not congruent with this endeavour.



So why are crunches rubbish?


Let's look at the motion being performed. We're repetitively flexing our lower back and returning back to the start position. More often than not - In my now 16 years within marital arts - I see it done incorrectly, with the spine going from an extended state, jolting the arms forward through to spinal flexion and back again.


Tell me where this motion occurs during punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, spinning, jumping and arm wrestling Gregor Clegane?

Nor will you see this motion occur through the top dogs of strength development such as carries, pulls, presses, squats and deadlifts. All of which go a long way in boosting performance parameters.


Sometimes even, I'll see the entire torso lift from the floor without any spinal bend whatsoever. So really we're talking about a hip flexor exercise. Since this motion is derived predominantly from the Psoas Major. Looking at the attachments gives us a visual on how this occurs.


It is important to appreciate this with respect to promoting/exacerbating back pain. All things equal, if we're to repetitively wedge the lower vertebrae over time, plus pay little to no attention to core musculature which is far more important for spinal stability - The net result is a diminished overall core balance.

This leads to reduced lumbar stability, which the nervous system duly responds to by kicking up the Psoas Major into tightness mode. So as to pull downward on the lumbar vertebrae effectively stacking the joints for subsidiary stability.


That is, until the real core musculature is up and running again.


I have already discussed how the body can rob flexibility/mobility in light of instability here and this is yet another example.


Furthermore, we should understand the function of the abs. What's their role? Put simply, their job is to resist and control spinal extension. The video below will show you exactly what that looks like during leg raises.



Leg raises are another popular core exercise, which I'd also say takes a higher precedent than it deserves. In reps 1 & 3 my lower back raises off the floor as my legs come down, unhappy spine anyone? This means my abs aren't upholding their function adequately. Reps 2 & 4 is the abs doing their job while the hip flexors raise my legs.


Another hip flexor exercise huh?


Crunches actually do little in the way of training the abs to uphold this role.

Planks do a wonderful job of training a client to brace their core properly. Though once again, we must resist spinal extension.



But planks are all vanilla and boring aren't they? Nobody wants to do those.


So what can we do instead then, knucklehead?


Let's start looking at the core as a force stabiliser instead of a force producer. With that in mind, we can start to appreciate which exercises support training for function over anatomy.



8 core exercises you can do instead - Both in the Dojang/Dojo and the gym.


It's great to get down to the gym and get our hands on some heavy stuff. It's also great to have a repertoire of exercises

available without the inclusion of weights. We'll be dipping our toes in the less ventured waters of rotation, anti-rotation and stability.


I'll start with all the exercises that can be done during a class. All you'll need is a resistance band and a bunch of cool people who like kicking and punching stuff.


Bear Crawls - Anti-Rotation/Anti-Extension



How do I do it?


It's pretty self explanatory.


Whilst the usual fun and games is to partner up and turn it into a Grand Prix start, what we get is about 20 sets of buttocks flailing around up and down the room. There's zero core control.


Slow it way down. You need to take small incremental steps and avoid any swaying or rotation of the hips. You need to keep your abs tight and your chin down. I like to tell my clients to pretend there's a cup of tea balanced on their mid back. Spill it? You get burpees.


People tend to bring drink bottles to training, use those.


What does it do?


As I mentioned earlier, it teaches you to brace your core properly and use it as a force stabiliser. This trains the nervous system to use it as such, so that the limbs can go about their job of being force producers.


Hollow Body Holds With A Twist - Anti-Rotation/Anti-Extension



How do I do it?


The Hollow Body Hold is a much better alternative to crunches. You tighten up your abs by drawing your ribs down toward your hips. You keep your lumbar spine flat against the floor, raise those legs and squeeze every single fibre. Especially the glutes. All of this goes towards stabilisation of the spine while the limbs do their job.


You add the twist into the mix and believe me, they'll make you hate my face.


What does it do?


Another force stabiliser pattern. The added twist should support the more Tul/Kata/Pattern dominant martial arts. Since we seek to create explosive power with crisp sharpness on the finish of the movement, this should complement patterns nicely.


Partner Shenanigans


Hollow Body Holds - Anti-Rotation/Anti-Extension



How do I do it?


Exactly the same as above, only your partner is going to push against the hands any which way to create a surge in intra-muscular tension. Good work Abi ;-)


What does it do?


Makes your face fall off.


Resistance band Horizontal Wood-Chop - Rotation & Anti-Rotation



How do I do it?


There's two versions. The first is Anti-Rotation of the core, where the force producers are the arms. Then second has a subtle change, a flick of the hips. Which makes it the exception of the other exercises, with the core being a force producer.

For the first. Plant the feed wide and flex your knees. Keep your arms straight out with soft elbows, fire the band away from the anchor point and breathe out sharp. Legs, hips and core need to stay fixed.


For the second. Plant your feet wide and flex your knees. Keep your arms straight out with soft elbows and do not allow the hands to deviate from the solar plexus line. It is so important that you keep your hands dead centre to your chest at all times.


Breathe out sharply each time you rotate the hips and core away from the anchor point, breathe in upon the controlled return.


I borrowed the most jacked dude I could find in order to have an anchor point, thanks Raoul ;-)


What does it do?


It's a more explosive way of training both Rotation and Anti-Rotation. Want great hip rotation during patterns in Taekwon-Do or Karate? Faster kicking speeds? These are the ones for you.


Gym Stuff


Farmer Carries - Anti-Lateral Flexion



How do I do it?


Pick up a Dumbbell, Kettlebell or a Plate that's really heavy, and walk.

Have a slight shrug of the carrying shoulder, slightly flex the elbow and hold the weight slightly away from you. Keep your hips and rib change stacked straight. Don't allow the hips to sway towards the weight.


Walk slowly until you can't retain the posture. Do a back flip and swap sides.


What does it do?


I mentioned the importance of balance throughout the function of the core. This trains the core musculature involved in resisting sideways bending of the spine. You'll also get a great kick from your grip strength and shoulder strength.


Cable High/Low & Low/High Wood Chop - Anti-Rotation




How do I do it?


You need a half kneeling stance, which needs to be super stiff, not lax. From this, you brace the core and keep everything stacked and neutral. Draw a deep breath in, start pulling the rope across and breathe out sharp.


What does it do?


Since these are preformed at an angle, it really gets the fascial continuity of the Spiral Line engaged. (I've touched base on this in the Martial Arts FB Group, if you want to learn more I will tag you on the post.) Which goes a long way to creating a strong supportive fascial sling around the Lumbar/Sacral region.


People tend to find the High/Low variations somewhat harder.


The great thing about a cable is you can adjust the resistance to complement overall strength. So go heavy at around 6-10 reps.


Transverse Box Jumps - Rotation



How do I do it?


Get yourself a Plyometric box set up at an appropriately challenging height (Max 10-12 powerful jumps, 6 each side.) Stand side facing to the box, squat down with your arms out to the side, breathe in, out, explode out of the hole and plant yourself on that box.


Include some Flossing and you'll improve the exercise by around 31%. Good show David ;-)


What does it do?


Another explosive rotation exercise, with a Plyometric cherry topping. I pinched this cheeky number from Erica Suter. Kudos.




That's all from me, I hope this article has served up some value. It's fundamental to longevity and performance to train smarter. Rather than simply harder.


If this has succeeded in enabling you to make more gooder choices when it comes to training the core, then I will sleep better at night.


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