This research was enough to drive thousands of fitness professionals off crunches for life.
But, like most things in the health and fitness industry, there is more to this story.
This research was not performed using human subjects. It was performed on the spines of dead pigs.
As strange as this sounds, I should note that if you look closely, pig spines are eerily similar to yours and mine.
That’s not actually the issue here.
The issue is that they were dead.
The Walking Dead (Spines)
See, living human tissue has the capacity to adapt to load. This means that when a stress is applied, it becomes stronger, and better able to tolerate that stress.
It is this process that highlights how you become stronger after strength training, or fitter after running.
But obviously dead tissue does not have this same capacity.
The other thing that needs to be stated here is that in the research mentioned above, disc herniation typically occurred after thousands of crunches.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this is not how I exercise.
I go in, do a few sets of 6-10 (maybe 12 if I am feeling a bit frisky), then take a couple of days to recover before doing it all again.
In short, I place a moderate amount of stress on my body, and then give it time to adapt.
I don’t do thousands of reps and wait for my body to explode.
So Crunches Aren’t Bad for My Back?
Whoa, hold up just a minute!
I didn’t say that (well not completely anyway).
What I can say is that I don’t know of any research showing that crunches cause back pain in healthy, living, humans.
In my mind, damage might occur when the load placed on the spine exceeds its ability to adapt. Which is something that is going to change on an individual basis, and is likely dictated by several different factors. Such as:
How fast the load is increased during training
In fact, one could even argue that, because our spinal discs can adapt to load, crunches mayactually have a positive effect on spine health. Of course, this would only occur if the exercise is performed in a safe and progressive manner.
And again, this is speculation on my part. As far as I know, there is no research demonstrating that crunches do improve spine health either.
Should I Do Crunches?
While I would argue that crunches have been unfairly demonized by the health industry, I certainly do not think that that they are a good fit for everyone.
As I alluded to earlier, it all comes down to context.
The General Gym Goer
Every single day you flex your spine in some way, shape, or form.
It could be to tie your shoelaces, pick up your child, or simply get into the car.
It is something you need to do.
With this in mind, I would argue that you need to train the ability to flex your spine under load in some capacity (note the word ‘some’ here). This will increase strength in these positions, making you more resilient in the process.
Therefore crunches may offer a way to help you better control and stabilize your spine.
I suspect you will also reduce your risk of an innocuous lower back injury occurring.
So what about more athletic populations? If you play a sport, should you do crunches?
And the answer would be a bid old maybe…
Spinal ﬂexion strength and power is important for many sports. I mean, think about wrestling, track and field, tennis, martial arts, baseball, cricket, golf, and literally any team sport, and it becomes apparent that you need to move your spine explosively to perform well.
Don’t believe me?
Try and throw a tennis ball without moving your trunk at all and see how far it goes.
Then do the same thing with trunk movement.
Trust me when I say it will go a lot further…
With this in mind, to optimize performance exercises that work the muscles of the trunk in a manner that replicates these movements is integral.
And some variations of the crunch may fit the bill here.
But I Have Low Back Pain
Now, this is a group of people that I would very much encourage to avoid crunches.
Or at least for the time being, anyway.
While crunches may not directly cause lower back pain, I honestly believe that they can exacerbate it.
When someone presents with low back pain, I do believe that it can be the result of muscular weakness. In short, the muscles of the trunk (and often hips) are not strong enough job to stabilize the spine. This results in all the muscles of the lower back tightening up to splint the spine.
This tightness then leads to a heightened pain response.
Although this will not be true for everyone, it is something that I have seen enough in enough people to know that it is a common occurrence
And this is where crunches become a bad idea. Because they take the spine through a large range of motion, they can ‘turn up’ this splinting response. This can increase sensations of pain and tightness, rendering the exercise useless.
This does not mean that these guys should avoid crunch-type exercises for ever. But they should avoid them until they have developed enough abdominal strength using spinal stability exercises first.
After which,they should be able to tolerate them safely.
My Go to Abdominal Stability Exercises
Before prescribing any dynamic trunk ‘movement’ type exercises (AKA crunches), I like to make sure that the person has a good amount of trunk stability. I like to think of this as ‘protective strength,’ which ensures that you are able to tolerate more demanding exercises safely.
And here are my favorites:
1. RKC Plank
The RKC plank is a great variation that forces a lot more abdominal engagement that a traditional plank. It also teaches you how to actively stabilize your spine, and even recruits the glutes for good measure.
In short, it is a great bang-for-your buck exercise.
I like 3 sets of 15-30 seconds is more than enough with these guys.
2. Pallof Press
If you have ever trained at iNform, then you have probably done one of these bad boy — and for very good reason too.
The pallof press teaches you how to stabilize your spine against rotation. This makes it an extremely effective abdominal exercises that is a must do for improving core strength.
3 sets of 12-15 per side is good here.
3. Bird Dog Row
And third on the list, we have the bird dog row.
Despite its rather ridiculous name, this great exercises trains your abdominal muscles to resists extension and rotation. It is one of the most effective trunk stability exercises on the planet.
3 sets of 8-10 per side is ideal with these.
My Go to Dynamic Abdominal Exercises
Alrighty then — now lets imagine you have spent 8-12 weeks hammering the exercises above.
You have developed a strong and resilient set of abdominals that can resist force coming from any direction. You have no back pain, and feel comfortable transitioning into movements that involves spinal flexion.
Then you might want to give these guys a bit of a go.
I should also note that while these are not the same as traditional ‘crunches’ they are crunch variations. These are my personal preference when it comes to improving dynamic trunk strength in a safe and effective manner.
So, without further ado:
1. Reverse Crunch
As its name suggests, this exercise is almost like a backwards crunch that has you moving your legs rather than your torso.
The reason I really like this variation is as you are moving your legs, it is really hard to move too much through your lower back. This makes it a much safer alternative (in my opinion).
I like 2 sets of 8-10 slow and controlled reps here.
2. McGill Curl Up
Earlier on in this article I mentioned that the reason crunches fell out of vogue was because of some interesting research on pig spines. What I failed to mention that this research was performed by a very highly regarded therapist by the name of Stuart McGill.
And while I may be a little bit critical of some of his research, I truly believe that when it comes to back health, he is the dude.
This is a little exercises that he came up with that teaches you how to stabilize your lower back while creating movement through your thoracic (upper) spine. As a result, it is a great crunching option for practically everyone because it is safe and effective.
2 sets of 15-20 reps here please.
3. Myotatic Crunches
Last but not least we have the myostatic crunch.
While I have no idea where this exercise actually comes from, I happened to stumble across it in a book titled ‘The 4 Hour Body’ by Tim Ferris (which, despite its name, took me a lot longer than 4 hours to read…).
The reason I am such a big fan of this exercise is because it takes that spine through a good range of motion without being excessive. It also requires you to pause at the start of the movement and the top of the movement every single rep.
This makes it an excellent way to increases your abdominal strength while also improving your ability to stabilize your spine in challenging positions.
2-3 sets of 10 reps (with a 1 second pause at the top and bottom of the moment) is going to be more than enough with these bad boys.
Crunch Technique: Some Important Notes
While I believe that the exercises listed in this article are a great place to start, I also appreciate that after a while you might want a change.
You might even want to give some more traditional crunches a go.
And really, why the hell not.
But, before you dive on in, I thought I should give you some tips to make sure your are doing them in the best possible way:
Keep it slow: Make sure the movement is slow and and controlled. This means taking a full second to get into the top position, and a full second to return to the bottom second. This will stop the movement from becoming ‘jerky’.
Maintain good neck position: I see way too many people performing crunches by initiating the movement by ripping their head forward. This is bad. Instead, try and keep your chin tucked (make a double chin) so that your neck is in line with your spine.
Focus on using your abdominal muscles: This tip probably sounds a bit silly, but it still needs to be said. You want your abdominal muscles initiating the movement, so actively focus on contacting them as hard as possible. If you feel like you are using your arms or head to start the movement, then you are doing it wrong.
Use a slightly limited range of motion: Try and keep the range a little bit short. This means finishing the movement when your shoulders and upper back just leave the ground, rather than going all the way up until your chest touches your knees. This shorter range of motion makes it easier to focus on the abdominals.
And there you have it — a solid plan on how I would start integrating crunches safely.
Take Home Message
There is no such thing as a bad exercises — and yes, that even includes crunches.
In fact, when used appropriately they may even make your lower back more resilient, and improve sport performance.
Just make sure you are strong enough to perform them in the first place (and when you do perform them, you do so properly).
So I figured I might as well do the same with some upper body exercises.
As I alluded to in that previous article, I have been training my upper body for a fairly long time (much longer than my lower body, to be honest…).
The term ‘meathead’ would be an apt description.
However, because of this, I have had the opportunity to experiment with a number of different exercises over the years. Some of which I have found some to be much better than others.
It is these exercises that I have then used with my clients (with great success, I might add) — and it is these exercises that I am now passing onto you.
So, without further ado — and in no particular order — what I believe to be the 7 best upper body exercises.
1. Landmine Press
Boy oh boy do I love me a landmine press.
While this great exercises is not as sexy as a bench press, nor as handsome as a bicep curl, it does offer one serious point of difference.
The landmine press is one of the few exercises that allows your shoulder blade to move freely during the pressing motion, and therefore replicating how it acts in real world settings.
This has obvious carryover to tasks of daily living and a myriad of upper body performance tasks (things like throwing comes to mind).
As a bonus, because the landmine can move laterally, this exercise also improves shoulder stability. This is important, as it can directly enhance shoulder health, while also preventing injuries.
Oh, and I should also mention that because your shoulder moves freely during this movement, it is super shoulder friendly — making it perfect for those of you with cranky shoulders.
2. Inverted Row
The inverted row is one of the few exercises that feature in most of my clients programs, most of the time.
And for good reason too.
The inverted row is a horizontal rowing variation that targets all of the muscles of the upper back. This makes it perfect for improving posture and reversing many of the nasty side effects that come with sitting.
As an added bonus, it can be performed on a number of different pieces of equipment, including in a squat rack, on a smith machine, or even using a TRX.
3. Push Up
You didn’t expect me to leave the push up off this list did you?
Good — because I simply couldn’t.
Like the landmine press, the push up allows your shoulder to move freely, which makes it very shoulder friendly.
With this in mind, when performed properly, the push up offers a great way to improve should stability, as well enhance core endurance and increase upper body strength.
The trick lies with making sure you perform them properly…
And finally, they can also be loaded easily with the addition of weight plates and bands (so no, they are not just a ‘beginner’ exercise…).
4. Single Arm Dumbbell Row
I have a very special place in my heart for dumbbell rows.
Not only are they a great way to increase upper body strength, enhance shoulder function, and improve posture (all simultaneously), but I am pretty sure they are the reason I put any muscle on my upper back when I first started training.
And really, isn’t that enough?
I personally like performing dumbbell rows with both feet firmly planted on the ground, while supporting my upper body on a bench. When done in this way they also increase core engagement, which can only be a good thing.
5. Chin Up
I can picture it now.
The year is 2036, and the zombie apocalypse is finally upon us. I sprint through the streets. Lungs burning, I seek any means of escape. A thousand pair of feet shuffle quickly behind me. Groans fill the air. The taste of fear is thick in my mouth.
The cold embrace of death inches closer by the second.
Then I see it.
Down an alley way to my left, a small balcony. Slightly above head height — I think I can make it.
I turn sharply, moving down the alley as fast as I can.
Launching myself up towards the ledge, I panic — I’m not going to make it.
Somehow my fingers make contact.
I manage to hang on.
With my feet scrambling and my heart pounding, I drag myself up, arms screaming all the while.
As I slide the final few inches, I feel a hand scrape the bottom of my shoe.
The angry shrieks of the undead ring in my ears.
I will live another day.
Thanks to chin ups.
In all seriousness, being able to perform even a single chin up with solid technique is a clear demonstration of upper body strength. It also means that you can control your own body through space, which is important when it comes to managing life on a daily basis.
More importantly, the chin up itself is great way to train all the muscles of your back, and it improves core stability.
In short, it makes you a strong and resilient human being.
6. Dumbbell Bench Press
I simply could not do it — I had to chuck in a bench press variation.
And while the dumbbell bench press is not quite as snazzy as a traditional barbell bench, it is arguably a much more readily available alternative.
The dumbbell bench press allows you to keep your shoulders in a nice neutral position, which makes it very shoulder friendly.
More importantly, it trains the muscles of the chest and hammers the triceps — so you know, beach muscles and stuff.
The strength developed in the bench press has a lot of carryover to various tasks of daily living (like getting yourself up from the floor) and a number of athletic based movements (think of Dustin Martins don’t argue).
In short, its good.
Yeah, I guess I’m a fan.
7. Single Arm Cable Row
And last (but certainly not least) we have the single arm cable row.
If you have ever trained at iNform, then there is a very good chance that you have done one of these bad boys during a session.
They not only offer a great way to train all the muscles of your back, but they also require you to rotate your thoracic spine. This improves your thoracic mobility, which can help enhance shoulder health and reduce lower back pain.
Importantly, as the exercise is unilateral (AKA uses one arm at a time), it is also perfect for ironing out any strength asymmetries you may have.
Talk about bang-for-your-buck.
Take Home Message
And boom — there you have it — 7 of the best upper body exercises on the planet.
Chuck these in your program and watch all the gain train come rolling in.
In this article I outline what I believe to the 7 best lower body exercises on the planet. Seriously, they are that good — so get them in your program.
When I first stepped foot into the gym, I did very little lower body strength work.
In fact, I did none.
I was adamant that running was enough to ‘keep my legs strong’.
To be honest, I was only in the gym to build some muscle, and lets face it — who cares about legs?
How naive I was…
But fortunately, things change, and as a result I began to see the benefits of training my lower body.
Over the years my love for lower body strength training has blossomed into a bit of a fetish. I am a vocal believer that everyone should strength train. And more importantly, I believe that everyone should prioritize exercises that strengthen their lower body.
As you age, your lower body strength is one of the first things things to decline. It is this decline that impairs your ability to perform normal tasks of daily living, lowers your quality of life, and simply makes everything harder.
Additionally, lower body strength is the foundation from which all other areas of performance are built. This means that if you want to sprint fast, change direction rapidly, run or cycle long distances, or play any type of sport, lower body strength is essential.
Which is why I am sharing what I believe to be the 7 best lower body exercises on the planet.
Now, just to be clear, these are not in any particular order. In fact, they are all great exercises in their own right, and they all deserve a place in your training program.
So, without further ado – the 7 best lower body exercises.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat not only has a cool name, but also offers a great way to improve lower body strength and single leg stability. In this manner, it is one of the most bang for your buck exercises on the planet.
This makes it perfect for anyone who wants to sprint faster, change direction quicker, or simply navigate life’s many daily challenges easier.
As a bit of a bonus, it can easily be loaded with barbells, kettlebells, or dumbbells, making it super versatile.
2. Front Squat
Many people describe the barbell back squat as the king of all exercises — and its not far from the truth.
However, for 99% of the population, I prefer its handsome younger brother, the front squat.
With the front squat, the bar sits on the front of the shoulders, rather than on the back. This allows you to maintain a more upright position during the movement, making it more back friendly. This also forces more core engagement, and typically helps people sink a little bit lower.
As a result, it has great carry over to almost any real life task you can think of — especially those related to athletic performance, such as jumping and sprinting.
in short, front squat it like its hot.
3. Trap Bar Deadlift
Anyone who knows me knows I like to deadlift. I honestly think everyone should deadlift in some way, shape, or form.
It is the perfect exercise to build lower body strength. It places a premium on all the muscles of your posterior chain (think glutes and hamstrings). It even hammers all the muscles of your upper back.
As a result, it not only offers a great way to strengthen the lower body, but also improve your posture.
However, the traditional barbell deadlift can be quite challenging for a lot of people.
Which is exactly why I like the trap bar deadlift.
As the bar sits slightly higher than a normal barbell, it is more accessible (especially for those with mobility limitations). Additionally, the shape of the bar helps you keep a slightly more upright posture, which places less load on the lower back.
What more could you want?
4. Reverse Lunge
I am massive fan of exercises that not only build strength and stability, but also do so in a functionally relevant manner.
Which is exactly where the reverse lunge enters the discussion.
Like many other single leg exercises, the reverse lunge improves single leg stability. However, as it has you driving forward from the bottom position, it better replicates things like running, sprinting, jumping, and walking up stairs.
Even better, because it has you stepping backwards to initiate the movement (rather than forward like many other lunging variations), it makes it easier to load into the hip. This means that it tends to increase the work done by your glutes, while reducing the load on the knee.
5. Lateral Step Down
The lateral step down is the perfect way to improve single leg stability while moving in a lateral direction. With this in mind, it offers benefits for almost anyone on the planet.
The key with this exercise is to leave your ego at the door!
The load does not have to be heavy — in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. The key is to focus on slowing down the descent and keeping it smooth and controlled.
6. Single Leg Deadlift
As if I was going to leave this guy out.
If you have ever trained at iNform, then you would know that we are a big fan of single leg deadlift variations. They are the perfect way to improve hip strength and single leg stability, which is why they appear in so many of our programs.
To add to the appeal, they an be loaded using almost any piece of equipment, and can be performed assisted if balance is an issue.
Talk about versatile.
7. Barbell Hip Thrust
Last but not least, we have the hip thrust.
Popularized by the glute guy himself, Bret Contreras, this is a great exercises that absolutely smokes the glutes.
As a result, it offers a great way to improve athletic performance, help improve lower back pain, and build a sweet booty.
Seriously, what more could you want?
Take Home Message
Improving the strength of your lower body is a surefire way to improve your performance, function, and even quality of life — and the key lies with making sure you do it right.
Which is exactly why I have outlined what I believe to be the best 7 lower body exercises.
Start incorporating these guys into your training ASAP, and reap the rewards.
Did you know that if you start running, there is a 30% chance that within 6 months you will stop.
But evidence from studies such as this one from Fokkema et al (where I pulled that number from) can help people like me understand why, so I can share it with people like you!
So firstly, why do people stop. For the participants of the study linked above, the main reasons were:
Development of an injury.
A low perception of physical capability prior to commencement.
A lack of direction following an initial intro-to-running program.
The good news is that these pitfalls can be avoided if you acknowledge the fact that they exist before you start, and you implement strategies to get over them.
So here is what I recommend before you start running.
Listen to your body. Running is hard on the body, but this is not a bad thing. Our body responds favorably to loading but if this load crosses a threshold injury can occur. So build gradually. If you start getting sore, walk it off. If you pull up sore the next day, roll your legs over on a bike. Prioritise sleep as that is when our body heals itself. Drink lots of water and eat nutritious food. Basically treat yourself well.
Get Strong! If you doubt your physical capabilities, improve your physical capabilities. Getting stronger is simplest way to do this. Consult with a trusted Exercise Physiologist or Strength Coach and they can help you get stronger in a safe and appropriate manner.
Think long-term. Most running programs for beginners aim to get you from 0 to 5km in about six weeks. Plan a six month goal. A 10-12km event is appropriate for that time frame. Search for an event that you would like to do in six months of around that distance and commit to it. Seek out a reputable Coach who can help you plan from week-6 to month-6 and beyond. Running gets easier with increasing experience. And the easier it is, the more enjoyable it is and more beneficial it will be to your long term health.
For more information on this topic check out these blogs:
Do you find it difficult knowing how hard to exercise? The reasons could be many, but one comment I hear time and time again from our clients as they start their journey back to exercise is: I want to get back to it, but I want to make sure it’s safe. I want to be confident that I don’t hurt myself or overdo it.
We all know that exercise is good for us, and that probably we should do more of it. But there’s often a large bridge to build between that knowledge and actually having a plan to implement. And often a larger one when it comes to actually implementing the plan!
As exercise physiologists we are great at delivering tailored exercise sessions face to face with clients, considering all your specific needs. We are are also good at writing and teaching you programs that you can follow on your own in between sessions (regardless of the time gap between our contact with you), be it using your own gym, or home programs, or running, etc.
What we often hear though is: “I wish I could have you with me 24/7 to keep me accountable!”, and “but I wasn’t sure if I should exercise because of how I was feeling”… and this could be due to fatigue, sickness, etc.
Knowing how hard I should exercise
So our biggest challenge has been to find a way to help you know how hard you should exercise, and when. How to progress your exercise and activity based on your specific current fitness, energy levels, etc.
As university trained exercise professionals we know what you should be doing, and we can draw a very good line on a graph to suggest how that exercise should progress. But let’s face it: what sounds good in our studio may be very different to implement once the rubber hits the road for you; once you have to choose on a daily basis if, when, and how hard to exercise.
But wouldn’t it be great to have an exercise coach at home with you 24/7 – ok, maybe not one that will be nagging you consistently! – but one that can encourage to be more active, that can tell you its safe to go that bit further, to push a bit harder?
Well, after years of posing this challenge to ourselves, waiting for technology to catch up with our plans and desires; and months of in-depth research of the tools currently available to us, we have found the right partner for our collective needs! And it comes in the form of an unobtrusive, yet incredibly powerful wrist band called Whoop!
Whoop – my exercise coach at home
In a previous blog I described the way the Whoop band, worn around your wrist as in the picture featured above, monitors your sleep, and hence your recovery levels. It then uses that information to recommend how much exercise you can do that day based on your recovery.
What I love about the Whoop system is that it also takes into consideration the overall ‘load’ – they call it ‘strain’ – that you are under. In that blog I explain how all your life commitments, activities and pressures result in a measurable physiological ‘stress’, or strain. So Whoop takes into consideration how tired, fatigued, stressed – or full of beans (!) – you may be, and recommends the right level of activity you can do that day. This makes sure you progress appropriately to ensure it is safe!
My motivator to push a bit harder!
The picture below shows the display that Whoop gives you when you are exercising, if you chose to record an ‘activity’. What you see in the middle is a number showing you the amount of ‘strain’ (physiological load) that you have accumulated during that session. Around it is a guide showing you what the optimal level of strain for that session should be, based on your overall daily strain levels, and your recovery over the previous night – genius, right?!!
What you can see is that I was well within my optimal levels. So what that display did was to encourage me to push a bit harder, to go a bit longer, as I knew I could get away with it. It indicated that I could maximise that exercise session to get the best outcome from it without risk of overdoing it.
So now we have a perfect partnership. Our team of exercise physiologists can teach you the right exercises to do, specific for your needs. They can guide you through how to progress those exercises and when. And your Whop band can assure you of how hard you can exercise. And if your goals are to get fitter and stronger, Whoop can guide how hard you should exercise to maximise your outcome.
Because your Whoop band and phone app can unobtrusively guide your activity levels, by showing you your current levels of ‘strain’, it can be a great motivator to encourage you push that little bit harder to achieve your goals.
I would love to chat further with you about how this great piece of technology can you assure you that you are doing the right amount of activity, but most importantly, how it can motivate you stay on track!
Click here for more information on our Whoop health coaching service.