I want to take a second to go over an exercise that has a bad reputation yet if done correctly, it can be a very functional movement.  Crunches.  You’ve probably been told countless times do stop doing crunches, that they are bad for you and all they do is hurt your neck, but take a second to read this and perhaps crunches (or upper abdominal curls as us Pilates people call them) could be a game changer.

First let’s chat about core. You probably hear “engage your core” at least once in your morning boot camp or yoga class, but what does that really mean? What is your core?  Without getting to into the science, you have a bunch of layers of abdominal muscles that surround your midsection. The deepest layer is your transversus abdominis and this is your main stabilizer. It doesn’t really do any moving but rather engages so that your other muscles can do their jobs properly. The next layers are your obliques (which you have two sets of, internal and external, on either side of your body) and the top layer is your rectus abdominis which is your sexy six pack muscle and the main muscle you use in upper abdominal curls. 

The job of your rectus is to pull your upper body (shoulder girdle) and your pelvis towards your midline (bellybutton). This action is called flexion of the trunk. But where most go wrong is pulling too hard on their necks. Sometimes this is due to just not knowing how to move properly (which is a simple fix) but other times it can be due to compensating for tighter areas in your body (like your lats, your shoulders and your mid and low back). Either way, follow these simple steps to make sure you can reap the rewards of this exercise.  

Pelvic Position
Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor hip distance apart. Make a triangle with your hands by placing your thumbs and pointer fingers together then lay that down onto your pelvis to check if your pelvis is neutral. If your pointer fingers are pointing down then gently lift your pubic bone up so your pelvis is up until your triangle is flat. If the tips of your fingers are pointing up then gently lower your pubic bone down. Once you have found neutral keep it there and place an imaginary band around your pelvis and imagine it squeezing your outer hips so tight. This turns on your transverse (the deepest ab layer).

Your breath is the key to this movement so whether you’re a master cruncher or a beginner neck puller take a few moments to feel how you breathe. Place your hands directly behind your head and with interlaced fingers, cradle your head in your hands while keeping your hands and head connected to the mat (for the first part of the breath work). Make sure to hug your front ribs in while pulling your shoulder blades down the back of the rib cage (if you have tight shoulders then have your elbows pointing slightly to the ceiling). Notice the space between your back ribs and the mat and as you inhale try to breath into that space, which helps your back ribs begin to pull away from your pelvis as well as draw your front ribs in deeper. Take a few breaths here, allowing the space to open and close. After 5 or so breaths take one more inhale, closing the space, then exhale and float your hands and your head off the mat (keep your shoulders down). Pause here for a few breaths to feel how your arms (and armpits) make a hammock to hold your head and the muscles below your ribs are keeping your head elevated. Take one more inhale then on your next exhale hug your lower ribs in deeper as you pull your belly button to your spine and curl your head off the ground. Pause for an inhale at the top then release down on your exhale. Do a few of these slowly, pausing at the top, before progressing to lifting on the exhale and lowering on the inhale.

The Movement
Think about lifting your spine from the top and working towards the bottom. Begin with the head elevated and supported in your hands then curl forward lifting the first vertebrae off the floor. Keep curling one vertebrae then the next then the next as if your spine was a string of beads you were pulling off the ground one bead at a time. Again, only lift to the point that your pelvis stays stable and you don’t push your head forward.

Things to think about:

Your pelvis should stay still.  I always have my clients pause at the top of their curl and look at the pelvis. Nine times out of ten their pubic bone has curled towards their center (their triangle tipped up) so I have them lower their pubic bone back down (which will re-engage their transverse) before they lower back down.

Your chin should stay down. It is very common to want to push your head forward so imagine you are holding a grapefruit under your chin throughout the movement.  

Your head should stay heavy in your hands. I like to cue my clients to keep the backs of their heads pressing into their hands as they lift. This helps to stop the desire to pull the head forward.

Keep your legs active. Make sure you are actively pressing your feet into the floor as you curl up. Activating your hamstrings will assist you in your forward fold.

Imagine a string. Place an imaginary string on the top of your skull and imagine as you curl up someone is pulling on the string to help lift you. This will ensure you keep space between your vertebrae, preventing you from compressing your spine.  

Start small. Only curl your upper body as high as you can maintain a level pelvis and you can keep your head heavy into your hands. As soon as you feel your pelvis tuck or your head press forward you’ve gone too far.  As you become stronger and your flexibility of your back improves you will be able to lift higher but properly.  I work with a lot of professional athletes and when I teach them how to properly curl they can barely lift their shoulders off the mat. However with practice and dedication they are coming to their mid-spine in no time.