6 Ways to Do Crunches Safely

Crunches are a common way to work out your core, but they’re also easy to do incorrectly. If you aren’t crunching properly, you may experience aches and pains during or after your workout.

We cover six ways to perform crunches safely, though some styles are easier than others. If you’re new to crunching, we suggest starting with the basic crunch. Move on to other crunches only after you’ve mastered this first one.

Basic Crunches

The traditional crunch is performed on the ground, so make sure you have enough empty floor space for your body. Lay out an exercise mat beforehand for added comfort—if you don’t have one, a towel or rug will do.

  1. Lie down on the mat, your back to the floor. Bend your knees up so that your feet are close to your torso (about 12 to 18 inches away from your tailbone). Your feet should remain flat on the floor, and your knees and feet should be hip-width apart.
  2. Cross your arms over your chest, your fingertips falling on your clavicle. This minimizes the risk of neck and back strain. Once you’ve developed a good form and feel confident, you can increase resistance by holding a 5 to 10-pound plate weight.
  3. Take a breath as you contract your abs. Then, lift your shoulder blades off the ground while your lower back, tailbone, and feet maintain contact with the floor. Raising your entire torso can cause lower back pain.
  4. Hold the raised position for a second or two. Your neck should be relaxed and neutral, not tucked against your chin. Fixing your eyes on the ceiling can keep you from over-curling your neck.
  5. Take another breath and lower your torso. Use a smooth motion to carry you carefully down to work your muscles and prevent injury.
  6. Pause before you do another crunch. If you don’t pause and let momentum carry you through your crunches, you increase the risk of a back injury. You’ll also minimize the work your muscles are doing.

Once you’ve mastered the proper way to do basic crunches, you can try some more advanced crunches we list below.

Mistakes to Avoid

Use your core muscles and not your head or neck to move your upper body. Relying on your head and neck for momentum can cause neck pain or injury.

Placing your hands behind your head is okay. However, save it for when you know the correct form in and out. Otherwise, keeping your hands behind your head can strain your neck. If you keep your hands there, make sure you bend your elbows to level with your ears and extend to your sides.

For a Challenge

To work out more muscles, you can perform basic crunches on an exercise ball.

  1. Sit on the ball, then move your feet forward while you recline back, so your back is on the ball, your knees are at a right angle with your feet directly underneath, and your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  2. Place your hands behind your head to support it, and only to support your head. Do not use your hands to push your body forward.
  3. Follow the basic crunch technique to raise and lower your upper body. Repeat.

Bicycle Crunches

Bicycle crunches work your abs and your oblique muscles on the outer sides of your body. The name comes from how your leg movements mimic pedaling a bike.

  1. The initial setup is the same as a basic crunch. Lie down on your back, with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, and your legs hip-width apart.
  2. However, do not cross your arms over your chest. Instead, bring your hands to your head with elbows pointed outward.
  3. Raise your legs, so your knees are above your hips, bent at a 90-degree angle. Your calves should be parallel to the floor. Brace your abs and lift your upper body. This is your starting position.
  4. Breathe out and rotate your “trunk,” which consists of your shoulders, chest, back, and abdomen. Rotate from your core, not your neck or hips. Your left elbow and right knee should move toward each other, while your left leg straightens out.
  5. Pause and breathe in, then move back to the starting point.
  6. Breathe out and move your right elbow to your left knee, stretching out your right leg.
  7. Pause again for a breath, then return to the starting position. You’ve finished a rep.

Make sure your lower back stays on the floor and your shoulders are away from your ears. Otherwise, you might strain your muscles.

Reverse Crunches

  1. Lie on your back, arms at your sides with palms facing down and flat on the ground. Alternatively, you can stretch out your arms so you resemble a “T,” with palms still on the floor. This second position provides more support.
  2. Take a deep breath in and out, lift your legs, and bring your knees over your hips in a smooth, slow motion. Your arms should maintain your balance. Knees should form a 90-degree angle.
  3. With your knees still in the air, take another breath and lift your hips and tailbone, curling them over your upper body. Your arms, head, and upper body should remain on the floor, with your arms providing only balance and not momentum. Your knees should come close to your face while maintaining a 90-degree angle.
  4. Hold this position for a second or two.
  5. Breathe and bring your hips back down in a controlled, gradual movement. Knees should remain bent and over your hips as you get your lower torso back to the ground.
  6. Pause for a second to breathe, then lift your hips again for another rep.
  7. Repeat to complete a set. Once you’ve finished your crunches, slowly unbend your knees and lower your legs.

Side Crunches

  1. Get on your back with your knees bent.
  2. Shift your hips and legs to either the left or right side, so your legs are on top of each other, mimicking half of the side sleeping position. Your back should still be mostly on the floor, and your knees should remain bent.
  3. Place your hands on your chest or behind your head.
  4. Lift your upper body using the basic crunch technique.
  5. After you’ve completed a set of reps, shift position so that your legs are reversed. If you started on the left side, move your legs to the right and vice versa.

Overhead Crunches

These crunches can provide more challenge if you grow tired of basic crunches.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, and your arms stretched straight above your head. Your body should resemble a straight line.
  2. Maintain extended arms as you lift your upper back, otherwise following the same procedure as you would a normal crunch. Keeping your arms out increases resistance, forcing your abs to work harder. Once you’ve mastered basic overhead crunches, you add more resistance by holding a kettlebell or plate weight.

Cable Crunches

These crunches require cable pulleys. A local gym may have some if you’re interested in trying cable crunches.

  1. Kneel below the cable pulley.
  2. Grab the handle attachments at the end of the cables. Pull until the handles are level with your face.
  3. Breathe out and contract your abs. Your hips shouldn’t move as you curl your back and bring your elbows down.
  4. Return to the starting position, breathing in as you do.
  5. Take a brief pause to prevent momentum from carrying your movements.
  6. Repeat with steady, controlled motions.

Don’t tuck in your chin while you do cable crunches. Instead, keep your neck neutral, leaving a space between your chest and chin that could fit an apple.

Don’t Just Crunch

To have a healthy body, you need to work out all your muscles, not just the abdominal ones.

Crunches shouldn’t form the entirety of your core workout, as it’s only an abdominal exercise. Other parts of your core—your oblique muscles, pelvis muscles, lower back muscles, and hips—aren’t focused on and should be exercised through other routines.

On the other hand, it’s bad to work out every core muscle but your abdominal muscles. Doing so compromises your core’s strength, increasing your risk of injury and limiting your motion range.

Are you transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one? Consider the benefits of walking daily. You can decrease your risk of heart disease, boost your immune system, and reduce joint and muscle pain.

Walking also burns calories, helping you maintain a healthy weight. No personal trainer or gym membership is required. How many calories you burn depends on your walking pace and the distance you cover.

To prevent back pain, dedicate some time to lower back stretches—about two to three times a week should suffice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you do crunches wrong?

Yes, you can perform crunches incorrectly, causing back pain, neck problems, and muscle cramps. One common amateur mistake is holding your breath while crunching. If you’re not breathing properly, you may develop cramps or grow tired quicker.

Another mistake is moving too fast, jerking your muscles. Crunches should be slow, controlled, and gradual movements. A third mistake is relying on your neck, back, or leg muscles instead of your abdominal muscles.

Why do I shake when I plank?

Shaking during a plank signifies that your body is exerting itself. As you perform planks and other core exercises more, your muscles should strengthen up, and the shaking should stop. If it doesn’t, you may want to consult your doctor.

What’s the longest plank ever held?

The Guinness World Record for the longest time maintaining a plank position is held by George Hood, who stayed in the position for 8 hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds. Hood broke the previous record on February 15, 2020, in Naperville, Illinois. After breaking the world record, Hood performed numerous pushups!

Are planks better than sit ups?

Some experts think so. Harvard recommends plank exercises over sit ups for two reasons:

  • Sit ups are hard on your lower back, pushing your spine against the floor and causing muscles to tug on your lower spine.
  • Sit ups and crunches don’t strengthen your entire set of core muscles. Plank exercises work muscles along the front, sides, and back of the body.

How can I have a flat tummy?

If you want a flat stomach with well-developed abs, follow these tips:

  • Straighten up your posture. When you stand straight, your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should be aligned. Place an even weight on the balls and heels of your feet.
  • Work all of your core muscles when stretching and exercising. Focusing only on your abs won’t improve your body as much.
  • Consider your diet. A core workout routine will strengthen your muscles, but you won’t keep off belly fat if you’re not eating healthy. Focus on lean proteins and vegetables.
  • Keep your goals realistic and focus on yourself. Try not to compare yourself to a celebrity or professional athlete, expecting to match their flat abs. Remember that progress will be slow and steady, not an overnight success.

Did We Help?

Working out your core muscles can set you up for a successful daily life. Not only will exercising feel easier, but so will everyday tasks like reaching for something on a shelf or lifting an item off the floor. After all, they wouldn’t be called core muscles if they weren’t foundational to what you do every day.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Sarah Anderson, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a sleep, health, and wellness writer and product reviewer. She has written articles on changing and improving your sleep schedule, choosing the right mattress for chronic pain conditions, and finding the best pillow for you. Sarah Anderson has her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to working for Zoma, she wrote for a variety of news publications.

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