Like most constantly changing gym-goers, I eventually realized that I needed to start doing additional core work. However, when I incorporated numerous variations of crunches into my usual routine, it wasn’t my abdominal muscles that became fatigued – it was my neck. The discomfort dissipated like typical muscle soreness, so I assumed it simply meant that my neck was feeble. Feeling embarrassed, I didn’t think much of it until I was exercising with a friend, and halfway through a set of abs-strengthening exercises, she spontaneously mentioned that she didn’t feel it in her core like she expected, but rather in her neck.
“Experiencing neck pain during crunches is extremely common,” assures Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a trainer based in San Diego and host of the All About Fitness podcast. Additionally, you can’t truly “strengthen” your neck, and even if you could, it wouldn’t solve the issue much anyway, he adds.
If you’re encountering the same problem of neck pain during crunches, continue reading to discover the correct way to perform crunches, which will alleviate that soreness. Also, explore the notable benefits of crunches and how to incorporate them into your routine. (In the meantime, it might be worth your while to investigate one of these incredible neck massagers).
How to Perform Crunches
First, a brief introduction on how to correctly execute crunches.
A. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet firmly planted on the floor. Draw your lower back in and down towards the floor to create a slight backward tilt of the pelvis. Bring your chin towards your chest and place your hands on your forehead instead of behind your head to minimize neck pain.
B. Slowly and with control, engage your abdominal muscles and lift your shoulder blades off the floor. Pause at the highest point of the movement, then lower back down to the starting position.
Simply bringing your chin towards your chest both before and during a crunch can decrease the muscle activity in your neck because it activates the hyoid muscles – which extend from your chin to your collarbone – to function as stabilizers, explains McCall.
In fact, a study conducted in 2016 in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science discovered that when individuals tucked their chin and lightly touched their face during a crunch, it relaxed their sternocleidomastoid – the thick muscle that stretches from the ear to the collarbone – and alleviated neck pain, as opposed to when they performed a basic crunch.
Try it: Visualize clutching a peach between your cranium and your throat, suggests McCall. If you refrain from applying pressure, you’ll drop it, but exerting excessive force will squash the fruit, causing the juice to spill everywhere. (If visualization alone is ineffective, try folding up a towel and compressing it between your jaw and your chest.) Instead of positioning your hands behind your head for the crunch, which encourages you to tug on your head and create additional strain, position your hands on your forehead to minimize discomfort in the neck while performing crunches.
Another pointer on how to do crunches? You also want to draw in your lower back and abdomen towards the floor, as this introduces a slight backward tilt of the pelvis, preventing independent movement of the upper spine, says Joel D. Seedman, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta. And ascend slowly to avoid neck pain while doing crunches. “People often believe that during a crunch, they need to lift their torso off the ground with a grand gesture. But it should truly be a small, condensed motion,” he elucidates. Remember, your objective is to activate your core, not to raise your shoulders and head. By eliminating momentum and affixing your lumbar spine to the mat, you send a signal to your nervous system to generate contractions in your core, effectively working your abdominal muscles in a manner that enhances strength and keeps you free from pain.
The Crucial Advantages of Crunches
When executed in conjunction with other exercises targeting the abs and core, the crunch can deliver functional benefits to the entire body.
More Effective Than Abdominal Equipment
At times, it’s preferable to adhere to the fundamentals rather than investing in shiny new products that may or may not yield results. A study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise found that the traditional crunch exercise activated the abdominal muscles to a greater extent than using products such as the Ab Wheel and the Ab Circle Pro.
“Obviously, lying on the ground doing the traditional crunch is not suitable for everyone,” remarked Edward Stenger, M.S., the leader of the research team, in a press release. “But for the average individual who wants to strengthen their abdominal muscles, alleviate back pain, and reap superior health benefits, all they need to do is find a comfortable spot on the floor, lie down, and perform some crunches,” he emphasized.
Can Enhance Posture
Having a robust core is about much more than aesthetics. Your core is responsible for supporting your body throughout your everyday life, which is why fortifying those muscles is crucial. A strong core helps maintain an upright and erect posture whether you’re active or seated at your desk, as Meredith McHale, P.T., D.P.T., regional clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy, previously stated.
Performing crunches and variations on crunches can assist you in strengthening that support system. However, relying solely on traditional crunches is not advisable, as they mainly target only one abdominal muscle.
Aids in Injury Prevention
Just as the core is pivotal for everyday movements, it is also essential for preventing injuries during almost every other exercise. “If I could alter the world’s perception of one thing, it would be the understanding that every single exercise relies on your core. Whether you’re lifting weights overhead, performing lateral raises, or engaging in exercises with heavy weights resting on your body (such as hip thrusts), even if it’s a shoulder or leg exercise, your ability to push more weight and do so safely without injuring your lower back is entirely dependent on your ability to activate your core effectively,” explained Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in New York City, as previously mentioned in Shape.
TL;DR – Ensuring that your entire core is strong will safeguard you against injuries in the long run.
Muscles Targeted by Crunches
If performed correctly, crunches will focus on the rectus abdominis muscle, also known as the two sheets of abdominal muscles responsible for the “six-pack” appearance. However, incorrect form can result in straining your neck muscles. “Most individuals execute crunches using their upper body instead of engaging their abdominal region, which strains the neck muscles and not in the desired way,” explains Seedman. To avoid activating your neck muscles, remember the form tips mentioned above while performing crunches. If executed correctly, you will also feel the effects of this movement in your external obliques.
Variations of Crunches
Even if you have been performing crunches for an extended period, it is worth double-checking your form to ensure you are not unintentionally performing the exercise incorrectly. If you have mastered the exercise and want to add some flair, try incorporating different variations of crunches. (These variations will also help target additional core muscles and prevent muscular imbalances.)
Try reverse sit-ups to focus on the lower section of the rectus abdominis as well as the transverse abdominis, also known as your innermost abs muscle. Including a twisting lift at the top of your sit-up will activate the oblique muscles (your side abs) and the abdominal wall.
Common Sit-Up Errors
So what can go awry when doing sit-ups? Imagine your spine like a noodle: It can flex backward, forward, and around, but the structure remains connected in one continuous line at all times. The exception to this is your cervical spine, which is the upper part that extends from your shoulders up into your skull. Despite being physically linked, your head has the ability to move independently from the rest of that “noodle.” And when you go to do a sit-up, your head may lag behind, disrupting the perfect curve and causing strain on those supporting neck muscles due to gravity, explains McCall.
If done properly, sit-ups will keep your spine aligned from lower back to head. But if you allow the head to lag, you’re exposing your neck to potential strain. ″Imagine each disc between your vertebrae as a jelly doughnut,″ says McCall. ″If your head is protruding forward, it puts excessive pressure on the front and squeezes jelly out the back,” he notes. Best case scenario, this slight compression results in mild discomfort that will prevent you from performing enough repetitions to actually see abs in the mirror. However, with enough pressure, this incorrect form can lead to a protruding disc, which is accompanied by severe pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.
How to Incorporate Sit-Ups into Your Fitness Routine
Reminder: Your abdominal exercise routine should not solely consist of sit-ups, but they can be beneficial to include in your workout if you execute them correctly. If you still experience neck pain after making adjustments to your technique — or you want to minimize the risk of injury altogether — consider replacing sit-ups, which solely target the rectus abdominis muscle, with other exercises that engage your entire core. Think: core exercises that activate your obliques, rectus abdominis, and transversus abdominis (your deepest abs muscle) all at once, such as the bird-dog, woodchop, and spider plank.
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