There are many ways to do Crunches but I prefer the various Planks and the McGill Curl Up because they are safer and more effective to build your Core. There are many other exercises that strengthen your Core muscles, even in the various exercises that work other parts of your body but if you want direct stress on these muscles there are none more effective than Stuart Mc Gill’s ‘Big Three’: his McGill Curl Up, the Side Plank and the Bird Dog exercises. I give my clients other exercises such as the Rotating Plank, Toes to Sky and Supine Hip Raises, but these three movements mentioned above are the basis of their Core Strengthening program.
So why not Crunches as this has been the favored exercise to build the abdominal muscles for many years? Mainly it is because of safety in that the variations of this movement place undue loading on the structures around the spine. When you Curl your body in the Supine (face up) position you round your back and in this position the ligaments are in a weak position and very easy to injure. Also people do many repetitions of this movement in endeavoring to achieve the desired results, which places even more direct pressure on the spine, particularly when people are tiring.
So to go through the three exercises that provide ‘the core’ of my Core program –
McGill Curl Up or Crunch
Start this exercise by lying Supine with one leg bent (as in photo) and placing your hands under your lower spine to provide a stable platform. Squeeze your abdominal muscles before you lift your body from the hips off the floor. Keep your head in a neutral position (in alignment with the body). The body does not need to be higher than just off the floor (in fact, the higher you go the easier the exercise becomes). Your elbows should also come off the floor. Do the movement this way exactly. Now hold the top position for up to 10 seconds (you will have to build up to this). Do 1 set of 10 repetitions (yes just 1 set!)
The Side Bridge
To start the movement into the top position (as in photo) have your knees bent then straighten your legs so that the movement is actually forwards towards your head, not upwards from the hips. This is important as it doesn’t put any strain on the back but the key to maintain stability is to squeeze your abdominal muscles before you start the movement and keep this tension throughout the movement. Hold the top position for 10 seconds and complete 10 repetitions before rotating around 180 degrees and repeating it supported by the other elbow. The picture shows exactly what the top position should look like. So just 1 set of 10 repetitions each side. You can rotate around between each repetition to add variety or do a Prone Plank (face down) between.
The Bird Dog
Is performed in a Prone position as in the photo above. The key to this exercise as all strengthening exercises is to squeeze your abdominal muscles before you start the movement to provide stability as previously stated. In this movement you want to maintain the natural curve in your back as most people flatten their spine. I usually put a broom stick or foam roller along their back before my clints start the exercise to ensure they adhere to this rule. The stick or roller will fall if they round their back because they don’t have this abdominal stability. Do a total of 1 set of 10 repetitions of this exercise.
You don’t need to do any more than this and the three exercises take about 5 minutes. I always get my clients to do their Core routine first as it provides a great warm up in that they have to concentrate on what you’re doing. So it’s mental as well as physical for preparation for the rest of their routine.
I might add exercises such as the Supine Hip Raise (photo below) and its variations to add variety to the Core Routine. I also add an Extended Bird Dog (on hands and feet instead of knees) but only when they show perfect core stability.
You don’t need to spend a long time working your Core muscles and if you have a resistance program that has whole-body exercises that provide a lot of natural movement, you will be working your Core muscles anyway. But you need core stability. These exercises provide that.