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How to Perform Crunches Properly

Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Crunches are an abdominal exercise aimed at strengthening your core muscles
  • A basic crunch is done by lying down on the floor and crunching your abs by lifting your shoulders slightly. The lower back must still be in contact with the ground
  • There are many variations of crunches to help target other muscles surrounding the rectus abdominis

One of the many goals people set when they start strength training is to get a toned and flat stomach. In this regard, they start doing crunches, repetition after repetition. While crunches are a great exercise to achieve this, you can be injured when performing it. If this has happened to you before, it's time to rethink your form.

Crunches, when done properly, can help strengthen your core. Furthermore, proper form can help add definition to your abs. When you add in proper nutrition and high-intensity exercise, crunches may help you get the "six-pack" you've always wanted.

What Are Crunches?

Crunches in their simplest sense are a free-weight exercise that strengthens your abdominal muscles.1 Training your core is an important part of staying fit and healthy, especially if you're an athlete. Research shows that strengthening your core may help improve muscle endurance.2

Even if you're not into sports, you may benefit from training your core in many ways. A study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science explains that core strength exercises may help alleviate chronic low back pain.3

What Muscles Do Crunches Work?

Exercise and sports science professor James Graves, Ph.D., states that crunches target your abdominal muscles. In addition, training the surrounding core muscles such as your obliques and lower back may help improve posture and minimize the risk of developing back pain.4

Aside from movement, your abdominal muscles actually serve many roles. A study published in Progress in Neurobiology explains that your abs are also responsible for many biological processes such as breathing, vocalization, coughing, sneezing and vomiting.5

How to Do Crunches for Beginners

Crunches are an essential workout if you want to strengthen your core. In fact, the American Council on Exercise states that this exercise is more effective in building your abs compared to using abdominal equipment.6

In other words, if you want to get abs, you're going have to do it the old-fashioned way — lying down on the floor and crunching your core. Before crunching your abs, it's important to learn how to do them properly to lower your risk of injuries. Here are the steps, according to Paige Waehner, a certified personal trainer:7

1. Lie down on the floor (preferably on an exercise mat) with your back straight and your knees bent. Your hands should be behind your head or across your chest.

2. Engage your abdominals, pulling the muscles into the floor before crunching.

3. Contract your abs, lifting your shoulders 1 to 2 inches from the floor.

4. Exhale once you reach the top of the movement. Your neck should be straight and your chin up.

5. Hold the movement for a few seconds, and slowly back down while inhaling.


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11 Types of Crunches You Should Try

In addition to standard abdominal crunches, variations of crunches target other muscles to help increase activation, ensuring a well-balanced body. Below are some of the most popular examples:

Bicycle Crunches

According to the American Council on Exercise, bicycle crunches are one of the best exercises for hitting your obliques, which are muscles found on both sides of the abdominal muscles.8 Coach magazine outlines the steps to do this exercise:9

1. Lie down on the floor. Your head and shoulders must be slightly raised.

2. Place both hands on your sides or ears. Lift one leg and extend it, then lift the other leg and bend it while pulling it closer to your chest similar to pedaling a bicycle.

3. Engage your core by twisting it, making sure the opposite arm meets the bent knee. There is no need to have the elbow touch the knee.

4. Lower the leg and arm at the same time, then repeat the same motion for the other side.

bicycle crunches

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Reverse Crunch

As the name implies, the reverse crunch is a maneuver wherein you do crunches backward. You will be pulling your legs closer to your chest, instead of your torso curling forward. This targets the lower portion of your abdominal muscles. To perform this exercise, follow these steps outlined by Paul Rogers, a licensed personal trainer:10

1. Lie down on the floor and start with a normal crunches stance.

2. Bend your knees and engage your core, slowly lifting your legs until your knees are over your hips.

3. Exhale as you curl your abdominal muscles. Make sure you're only lifting your hips off the floor.

4. Inhale while you return to the starting position. Your hips should touch the floor again.

reverse crunch

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Side Crunch

Side crunches mainly target your oblique muscles, while secondary muscles include the core. To perform this exercise, follow these steps:11

1. Lie down on the floor with your knees bent and close together.

2. Place one hand behind the ear.

3. Engage your core, slightly lifting up the torso, while bringing the bent elbow to the hip as close as possible. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

side crunches

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Oblique Crunches

According to Men's Health, the oblique crunch is one of the first variations of abdominal crunches people do after learning basic crunches. It is geared for beginners, making it a good foundation for more complicated oblique-oriented exercises in the future. Follow these steps to do the exercise:

1. Lie down on the floor, but on your side.

2. Place your free hand on your ear (the one facing the ceiling).

3. Engage your core, mainly focusing on the obliques to crunch up sideways.

4. Pause at the top of the contraction, and return to the starting position.

oblique crunches

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Vertical Leg Crunches

This exercise is an intermediate-difficulty variant of regular crunches. Its main movement is still crunching your abs, but the difference is that your legs are straight up, pointing to the sky. This recruits more muscles such as the obliques and lower back muscles.12 To do the exercise, follow these steps:13

1. Lie on the floor and place your palms behind your head to support your neck.

2. Raise your legs so they are perpendicular to the floor. Remember to keep them close together and straight.

3. Engage your core and lift your shoulders and upper back from the ground, like performing normal crunches. Hold the position for a second and then slowly lower your body again. Remember that your legs should still be pointed to the sky throughout the whole exercise.

vertical leg crunches

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Double Crunches

This maneuver makes use of your entire core region. Aside from flexing your abs forward, you also crunch backward by bringing your knees to your chest. To perform this move, follow these steps outlined by Muscle & Fitness:14

1. Lie down on the floor or mat and place your hands behind your head. Bend your knees and keep them together.

2. Perform a standard crunch by curling your core forward. Simultaneously, bring your knees to your chest using your lower abdominal muscles.

3. Pause at the top of the movement, and return to the starting position.

double crunches

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Cross Crunches

Cross crunches (or crossover crunches) have a similar movement to bicycle crunches, wherein you will twist your core to perform the exercise properly. The difference is that your legs will be stationary. Follow these steps by Elizabeth Quinn, a licensed trainer:15

1. Lie down flat on your back and place your hands behind your head with your elbows flared outward.

2. Cross your left leg over to your right leg, with the left ankle resting on your right knee.

3. Exhale and crunch your abs like a normal crunch. Twist your core to your left knee as you raise your core. Your right elbow must meet your left knee.

4. Slowly lower your body and return to the starting position. Repeat for the other side.

cross crunches

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Decline Crunches

Decline crunches take their name from the declined starting position of the exercise. This is an intermediate-level exercise because the declined angle adds intensity to your abs when curling forward. Follow this procedure to perform decline crunches, according to James Gold from Born to Workout:16

1. Position yourself properly on a decline bench approximately 30 to 45 degrees. Place your hands behind your head and lie down straight on the bench.

2. Curl your core by pushing your back down. The shoulder should rise by around 4 inches only, and your lower back must stay on the bench.

3. Contract your abs at the top of the movement and return to the normal position.

decline crunches

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Kneeling Cable Crunch

A kneeling cable crunch requires the use of a cable station in a gym. Adding weights to the exercise increases the intensity of the workout, which can work to the advantage of people looking for a bigger challenge. Here's how to do this exercise according to Men's Journal:17

1. Using a rope handle, get down on your knees a few feet away from the base of the station. The weight should be heavy enough to challenge you, but not impede good form.

2. Focus on keeping your weight on your shins and knees. Keep your arms relaxed so that the cable pulls them. This creates a light stretch on the core.

3. Crunch your abdominals downward. Your forearms should meet your knees and your head to the floor.

4. Return to the starting position.

Spiderman Plank Crunch

The Spiderman plank crunch isn't a traditional "crunches" exercise, but will strengthen your core nonetheless. Aside from your core, secondary muscles targeted include obliques, chest, shoulders and arm muscles, making it an intensive workout.18 Men's Journal outlines how to do it:19

1. Start with a plank position. Keep your forearms on the ground and your body straight.

2. Bring your right knee forward to your right elbow. Return to the starting position.

3. Repeat on the other side.

spiderman plank crunch

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Butterfly Crunches

Butterfly crunches involve bringing your feet together and flaring your knees outward, which can help improve lower abdominal activation when curling your core.20 To perform this maneuver, follow these steps:21

1. Lie down with your back straight. Your feet should be together, but spread your knees.

2. Crunch your abs toward your pelvis. Your arms should be extended in front of you.

3. Return to the starting position.

butterfly crunches

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Situps vs. Crunches: Which Exercise Is Better?

Situps and crunches are exercises aimed at strengthening your core. Both have similar movements, but their main difference is the range of motion. In crunches, you only raise your shoulders to the point where your abdominals contract or "crunch." Situps, on the other hand, raises your torso until you're almost upright.22

But which one is better? The answer depends on your goals, as both can be used to great effect for strengthening your abs. According to an article published in the International Sports Sciences Association, situps target your core, as well as your hip flexor muscles. Crunches isolate your abdominals only. Obliques and other muscle groups are not targeted.23

How Many Crunches Should I Do a Day?

There is no definite answer on how many crunches you should do per day to see results depending on your goals. In one article published in Women's Health, a woman did 50 crunches per day for a month. By the time she was finished, she stated that her core felt stronger, but belly fat relatively stayed the same.24

If 50 crunches per day sounds like a lot for you, don't worry. You may see results with fewer repetitions. In a study published in 2011, researchers had participants perform seven abdominal exercises for two sets of 10 repetitions, five days a week. After exercising for six weeks, they had drastically improved their muscular endurance.25

You may experiment on your own, but consulting with a licensed trainer or instructor can give you the best results.

4 Key Benefits of Doing Crunches

Having strong abdominal muscles is probably the most important benefit of doing crunches. Improving your core strength is crucial because many motions you do throughout the day relate to this muscle group. Research has shown that core training may benefit your body in practical ways, such as:

  • Reducing back pain — A 2015 study notes that strengthening the core can help alleviate low back pain.26 Another research paper published by the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences supports similar findings.27
  • Maintaining weight — Regularly training your core can help keep away excess pounds. In a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, subjects who underwent a 12-week training program lost weight and improved physical fitness.28
  • Improve respiratory function — In another study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy of Science, participants who performed deep abdominal exercises were able to improve their breathing function, along with reduced lower back pain.29
  • Improve athletic performance — Strengthening your core has been shown to improve running economy, according to a 2019 study published by PLoS One.30

Now that you know how training your abdominal muscles can positively affect your well-being, how do these benefits translate to real life? Harvard Health Publishing outlines several things you do every day where you can immediately feel the benefits of developing stronger abs:31

  • Daily tasks — Simple things such as taking a shower, sitting or standing make use of your core. These movements become easier when you train your abdominal muscles.
  • Work-related movements — Sitting at your desk all day while using the computer can take a toll on your back. Training your abs can help mitigate this problem. Be sure to take breaks, as well, possibly by considering the use of a standing desk, where you can work without sitting.
  • Sports activities — People who partake in physically intensive sports such as swimming, tennis and biking may benefit from stronger abs because they require extensive use of core muscles.
  • Housework — Activities at home such as gardening, carrying items, mopping and cleaning can be easier if you have strong abdominal muscles.
  • Moving — Your core muscles play a huge role in maintaining your balance. Improving their strength may help reduce your risk of falling.

Is Crunches Equipment Effective?

You may have encountered many advertisements on television or the internet about abdominal machines. These products are touted to help you get toned abs faster than traditional exercises, but are they truly effective?

Apparently not, according to scientific research. In a study published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research, scientists compared the range of motion of traditional crunches to four abdominal devices. Results indicated that the equipment limited the range participants were able to do.32

An article by the American Council on Exercise posits a similar conclusion: Abdominal machines do not provide greater muscle activation than traditional crunches.33

How Many Calories Do Crunches Burn?

There's little information regarding how many calories crunches burn. However, situps, an exercise similar to crunches, burn 60 calories at moderate intensity. This can give you an idea of how many calories you'll burn when you do crunches.34 If you're looking to lose belly fat, just remember that crunches alone will not give you the results you're looking for.

According to Yuri Elkaim, a fitness expert and coach, targeted fat loss is not possible. An effective way of losing body fat to show your abdominals is getting your body to reach its fat-burning setting, which is achieved through high-intensity exercises that involve your entire body.35 Implementing a ketogenic diet may also help promote fat loss without affecting lean body mass,36 which can help achieve your fitness goals more easily.

Crunches Strengthen Your Core, but Don't Solely Rely on Them

If you're looking to gain the benefits of a strong core, crunches can set you on the right path. However, be sure to diversify your workout regimen by performing variations of crunches. This will help strengthen other muscle groups surrounding your abdominal muscles as well. But don't think doing crunches alone will give you the six-pack abs you've always wanted. You will also need to add a healthy diet and high-intensity exercises to lose body fat.

Frequently Asked Questions About Crunches

Q: What is the difference between crunches and situps?

A: The main difference between crunches and situps are their range of motion. In crunches, your shoulder only lifts a few inches off the ground. In situps, on the other hand, your torso lifts until it is almost upright.

Q: Can you get abs from crunches?

A: In a way, yes. Crunches can help strengthen abdominal muscles.37 However, you will need to a healthy diet and perform high-intensity exercises to lose body fat, which will help your abs emerge.

Q: Can crunches give you a six-pack?

A: Crunches is just one part of the equation in getting six-pack abs. However, you still need the proper diet and other exercises to help the muscles show.38

Q: Can crunches help you lose belly fat?

A: Crunches can burn calories, but they are not enough to help lose belly fat. A proper diet, along with high-intensity exercises, can help reduce belly fat so your muscles will show.39

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