Planks, the Ab Wheel, and Why the Hell Are You Still Doing Crunches?

I wasn’t going to write today but I recieved an email from one of my new clients asking about the validity of a recent article on the uselessness of doing crunches. You can check out the article here.

Ok, we are definitely getting much better but we are still not quite there yet. If you have stepped into any commercial gym recently I’m sure as shit that you will see people doing crunches on mats and even worse, the crunch machine.  I still see it every day at work and it just makes me feel like we are missing something.  Oh yeah, the meatloaf.

I have written about the deleterious effects of crunches here and here so I am going to avoid beating a dead horse silly.  As an industry, we have been trying to get people to stop doing crunches for decades but due to reject trainers (ex. Jillian Michaels) people continue to do them.  She looks like a dude, just sayin.

“People think the crunch is the equivalent of a biceps curl,” says Lou Schuler, co-author of the book “The New Rules of Lifting For Abs.” “You pick up a dumbbell, you bend your elbow, and you feel the biceps working. You know exactly what you’re doing, and why. So when you do a crunch, you feel the abdominal muscles shortening, and you think you’re doing the exact same thing. You’re making the muscles bigger and stronger.”

This may come as a surprise but core is meant to stabilize your spine to keep you erect and protect your spine.  I like to compare doing crunches to taking a credit card and bending it back and forth 5,000 times.  Picture that credit card as your spine.

I’m not saying you do crunches wrong, just that most people do crunches wrong.  So if it’s not helping why in the hell are people still doing them?

My honest opinion: they have been brainwashed by jackasses in the media (“The Situation”).

I haven’t used crunches in any of my programs for years and my clients are stronger, faster, and way more sexy than ever.

So what do I use instead?

Wouldn’t you like to know….just kidding.

I spend time with each of my clients teaching them to plank the right way and once proficient move them on to more challenging exercises like anti-rotation exercises, the wheel and a plethora of plank variations.  You can check out some anti-rotation core exercises here.

Today I wanted to go over the basics of anti-extension exercises such as the plank and the ab-wheel.  Just like any other exercise there is a right way and a wrong way.  Like my grandfather always used to tell me do it right the first time and don’t f*$% up.  Oh grandpa.

The basic plank is performed by placing your elbows directly under your shoulders, keeping your feet straight, raising your hips off  the ground, keeping your spine in a neutral alignment and holding.  Simple right?

It may seem like my back is excessively rounded which is only partially true.  My upper back is actually more developed than most due to my badass deadlift and back training but I do prefer a slightly rounded back while holding a plank.  This actually protects your spine by supporting the load placed on your core.  Picture a stone arch if you will.

Conversely, what I see many people doing is far from pretty and not very spine-friendly.  The hips sag, the lower back is arched and the head is flopped over.  No bueno.  Taking this next shot was extremely uncomfortable.

No, the plank will not give you sexilicious abs but it will give you a strong core to support your spine and other things that float around in your torso such as your organs.  Only semi-important.

One exercise that will rock your rectus abdominis is the ab-wheel rollout.    All I can say is that the wheel is the greatest invention since Wonderbread.  Actually, Wonderbread sucks but the ab-wheel is still badass.

Coaching Cues

  1. Begin with your knees on the floor or a pad and hands firmly on the handles.
  2. Slowly roll forward maintaining a “flat” back or slightly rounded back (posterior pelvic tilt).
  3. Only roll as far as you can control. In the beginning use less range of motion and progress as you get stronger.
  4. Your spine and hips should NOT move.  You must keep your core tight and shoulders stable.

This is an above average core exercise and I do not recommend it for every one especially if you have a history of low back pain.  Of course there will be someone that doesn’t listen to me and tries it anyways.  At the very least make sure that you do not arch your back while doing rollouts.

The two major causes of your back arching during rollouts are tight lats and/or tight hip flexors.  The lats begin at your pelvis and lower back and run all the way up to your shoulders.  Tight lats will cause your back to arch when your arms are above your head.  Tight hip flexors will cause your back to arch when your hips are extended.  Capiche?

Here is how NOT to do a rollout:

Doing those rollouts hurt my back like a mofo.  All in the name of science right?


6 Responses to Planks, the Ab Wheel, and Why the Hell Are You Still Doing Crunches?

  1. What are some good ideas for someone with lower back problems? I personally know you can feel those roll outs in the back. Any ideas?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Hey Lindsay,

    I would not recommend the abwheel for anyone with lower back problems or those who have excessive lordosis (curvature in the lower spine). If the rollouts cause pain in the back, make sure you are squeezing your glutes and core and the back is NOT arched.

    A good place to start before you get into using the ab-wheel would be stability ball rollouts. Also make sure you are proficient in the plank.

    [Reply]

  2. I quit the ab wheel.
    It gave too much tightening of the hip flexors which gave me back pain when just standing.Stretching the hip flexors/iliopsoas didn’t solve the problem.
    Never had that problem when doing the reverse crunch (or crunch )which was my favourite exercise before the ab wheel.
    I did the exercise on knees to a near total stretched out position.
    The abs get trained well this way.That’s the truth.
    But I think this exercise have a similar effect on the iliopsoas as the Roman Chair Situps and Situps have.
    Maybe some won’t have problems.

    [Reply]

    Steve Reply:

    Make sure that your back isn’t heavily arched when doing the rollouts. Instead of using your core muscles your body will rely on the integrity of your spine to hold your body up. This is not good. The other thing that may happen is your body will rely primarily on the hip flexors rather than your abdominals when you approach the end of the exercise. Also not good.

    [Reply]

    Renato Reply:

    Hi Steve,

    I am afraid there is strong hipflexor involvement ,even with good form.
    keeping the back not heavily arched is something I watched carefully out for.

    I’m a bit on this line of thought of Joseph Horrigan.

    http://www.ironmanmagazine.com/ab-exercises-the-good-the-bad-and-the-dangerous/

    I’ll stick to the reverse crunch and crunch.
    Especially the reverse crunch never game me hurt and did do fine for chiselled abs(low fat helps also ofcourse).

    But if someone feels fine and safe with the ab wheel.Go ahead with it.
    I am maybe a little prone to low backpain in the sense of lordose.I really have to watch that.
    I have done hip flexor exercises(knee ups with barbell up to 80 kilo) years ago.
    Even when lying in bed I could feel the tight hip flexors made my spine arch..

    [Reply]

  3. Update:
    I am back into doing the ab wheel exercise.
    And no problems with the lower back this time.

    I never had the problem while doing the exercise.
    It was only the day(s) after.
    A tight unpleasant feeling in the lower back.

    Now I’m doing several stretches of the iliopsoas a day.
    I think my ilopsoas were already tight,and doing the ab wheel made it more severe.
    Now I’m back on track.
    I find this an awesome exercise. The abs get really worked hard ,and it shows also.

    Wanted to say this for the people experiencing the same problems. Lower back hurt in the days after.
    Keep on stretchening the ilopsoas !

    [Reply]

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