In Defence of………The Crunch

Jamie says "Do Crunches"

Haven’t done an “In Defence Of……” for a while and it’s about time I did.

So today we are defending the Crunch.

Every exercise has people that are either for it or against it, but the poor crunch has taken a serious beating this last while, and honestly it’s not deserved. Most of the reasoning against the crunch comes from top scientist named Dr  Stuart McGill, whose work on back health is without peer. His stance is that flexion of the spine is dangerous and should be avoided. The same for rotation of the spine. And while his view point isn’t wrong, it just seems a little overprotective. if you have back problems, as I have had in the past, then yes, I agree, avoid forward flexion, if your back is ok, then go for it.

The main issue with the crunch and exercises in the crunch family, is that they are either performed poorly or are programmed poorly in a training program. Here’s an old video of mine showing how I like to do the crunch, you’ll notice that there is almost no movement in the lumbar region but a strong contraction in the abdominals. I focus almost entirely on pressing the low back through the floor, the “crunch” usually comes as a result of this. Kind of like pushing down into the middle of a cushion making the ends curl up.


In a recent conversation with Steve Cotter, he was telling us how he prefers to use abdominal exercises that involve the hip flexor, the reverse crunch in the above video being an example. Steve then showed us a few variations on the V-Sit that he uses. This raised a few eyebrows in the room as we had some of Ireland’s top coaches present, all of whom were more than familiar with the anti-flexion stance. Yet here is one of the most respected coaches in the world showing “banned” or at least frowned upon exercises. Steve is a kettlebell lifter, he runs the International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation (IKFF) and competes in Kettlebell Sport. If you’re reading this blog, you know that kettlebell lifting involves a huge amount of posterior chain work to extend the hip and spine during the swing/clean/snatch lifts. This constant extension must be balanced in some way and the opposite to extension is……..Flexion It is well known that many lifters and athletes have an anterior hip tilt, any good strength program will focus on Squats and Deadlifts as well as variations on those lifts, all of which extend the spine. It would do no harm to include some form of flexion into these programs.

The harm comes when Gym Bunnies get hold of an exercise. Crunches are (relatively) easy to do but squats and deadlifts are not. They are also banned in many “Health Clubs”. So we have a population of people who are working a shed load of spinal flexion with little or no extension. This then will cause a problem. Same as if you always press but never pull, or any other exercise that is never balanced by an antagonist action.

Today’s workout for the Lunchtime Fitness group at Wild Geese was the following: 1A: Front Squats 3×5 1B: V-Sits 3×12-15 2A: Double Swings (outside leg) 3 x 8-12 2B: Push Up (any variation) 3 x 8-12 3: “Lunges of Death” (90 meters of walking lunges with load)

Take a minute to look at the workout. Front squats, loaded with kettles, forces the torso to stay extended while working through hip and knee extension. This is alternated with the V-Sit or flexion exercise. Next we do Kettlebell Swings, this more than compensates for the flexion pattern of the V-Sit and Push Ups which cause an isometric contraction through the core (as in a plank). In other words a balanced workout, push ups balanced by the pull of the swing, flexion of the spine balanced by extension in both the squat and swing.

This brings me to the final part of my defence, the closing statment if you like. And for this I’ll call an expert witness, a man who is far far smarter than I and includes scientific references in his articles. Click on the image below and you’ll be taken to Brad Schoenfeld’s excellent site Workout911 and an article he wrote on the crunch:

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