To Crunch or Not to Crunch?!

Spring is upon us and soon enough we will all be dressing in fewer layers…

And along with the cardio, the weights, the yoga and the Pilates, many people will be doing a lot more ‘core’ work. If you don’t want to be sending out this message: “Attention: Due to recent setbacks, my summer beach body will be postponed another year.  As usual your patience is appreciated.”….then you will want to read on!

Crunches or sit-ups (aka Ab Prep /Chest Lift) are probably the most commonly known and practiced ‘core’ exercise but are traditional crunches a good exercise?

There are different views on this. Some love their crunches /sit-ups or ab prep/chest lift because they feel them!

Making the crunch more challenging by using a BOSU or  ball will intensify the abdominal feeling even more, however, they aren’t the most functional movement as we don’t wander around throughout our days in that position a lot. They are also not safe for someone with a diastasis (postnatal split abdominals) and definitely not comfortable for someone with a hernia.

But are they a ‘bad’ exercise?

Cathy Watson, a physiotherapist, pilates instructor and colleague recently commented on crunches or sit-ups …. “If you are going to do crunches/sit ups, make sure your deep support system is working optimally during the movement so there isn’t any pooching, your lower belly isn’t pushing up to the ceiling and your pelvic floor contents aren’t being pushed down. If you aren’t able to keep this system intact during the crunch, then that exercise shouldn’t be in your repertoire. “

In other words, without core stability this exercise will be doing the opposite of creating flatter abdominals.

So how do you know whether you have engaged your core stabilizers prior to performing this exercise?  Let’s take a brief look at the anatomy involved.

What comprises the Core /Pilates Cylinder ? It is not just your abdominals!

Core is everything that surrounds and protects the abdominal organs, supporting the pelvis, spine, and shoulder girdle.  They are postural muscles that are local and close to the spine.

The Pilates Cylinder houses the abdominal organs, pelvic floor, transversus, internal/external obliques, rectus abdominals, spinal erectors, multifidus and the thoracic diaphragm. So both front AND back body muscles support your spine, shoulder girdle and pelvis.

How does one know if your deep core stabilizers are engaging during a crunch, sit-up or any flexed position ?

Visually  As you flex forward and up your belly should not be pooching upwards.

Touch  Place your hand lightly on your lower belly to feel for this movement of low belly bulging out into your hands.  If so, you have lost the action of your deep stabilizing muscles…primarily your transverse abdominis muscle. If your belly remains pretty much in the same position as when you started and the only movement is the lower belly moving in (towards your spine) because you are exhaling air out and engaging your pelvic floor and transverse abdominals, you may have a handle on your deep system.

When you’re not engaging  the deep stabilizers of your pelvic floor and transversus, the bladder is pushed downward (towards the feet) when someone lifts their head up to go in to a crunch. This is definitely not the direction we want our bladders to go. Ideally, we want to see no movement or, if the pelvic floor muscles are doing their job, we want to see upwards movement of the bladder.

While many people are working hard to better tone their abdominals, they are often doing it incorrectly…or without the proper underlying support. Those deep muscles are there for a reason.

When your  front  and back body is not balanced or engaged in flexion, this can result in Injury or  improper movement patterns that can affect the rest of your body.

Core Stabilizers  Are muscles that lie most closely to our spine and pelvis. They need to be on or engaged BEFORE you get up out of chair or lift something heavy for example. The pelvic floor forms the lower part of the support system, the multifidus the rear portion, the diaphragm the upper portion and the transverse abs the front portion.

Connecting to your Pelvic Floor + Transverse Abdominals

As you’ve heard in our Pilates classes, the pelvic floor and transverse abdominal muscles work together. They need to be working prior to all movement or exercises. Always exhale on exertion.

Pelvic Floor

The dynamics of breathing related to core pelvic floor connectivity

Inhale: Diaphragm contracts downwards + Pelvic Floor Releases, Abdominal organs expand away from spine

Exhale: Diaphragm retracts upwards + Pelvic Floor Engages/Contracts as low, mid upper ascend upwards and pull the abdominal organs in towards the spine.

Your Pelvic Floor aids in firing your Transverse Abdominals. This is a great video below showing the pelvic floor anatomy with great cues, some of which I’ve used but additional cues I will be utilizing!  

Transverse Abdominals

This Cathy Watson video  shows lateral breathing, then exhaling with a focus on breathing into the lower belly.  As you inhale, your low belly rises, as your abdominal organs move away from the spine.  Your transverse abs, if working pull the abdominals organs in towards the spine and the belly moves inwards towards the spine, on an exhale.

Abdominal Sequencing is pelvic floor first, then transverse abdominals.

Unsure whether or not you have good connection with your deep abdominals?

You can book a private online from our website at  under Contact Us for a session or review of the deep core stabilizers.

So to Crunch or Not to Crunch?!

With support from your deep core stabilizers of the front body (pelvic floor and transversus), you can successfully achieve proper form and alignment while engaging in this abdominal flexion.

Without proper contraction of your deep core stabilizers, you will not achieve the strong and flat abdominals most are looking for.