Why Are We Still Doing Crunches?

Even the US Military is rethinking sit-ups, which have been shown to do more harm than good.

Myths take a long time to die, if they ever do.

Two centuries ago, French neurophysiologist Pierre Flourens removed slices of brain tissue from a variety of animals, including pigeons and frogs. From his studies he concluded in 1824 that humans only use ten percent of our total brainpower. While this has been definitively proven false, the allure (and misinformation) remains. The mysticism surrounding potentially tapping into a mysterious neurological treasure trove is too seductive to abandon.

As goes our brain, so goes our body. I’ve taught at Equinox Fitness for a dozen years. In that time I’ve many seen ridiculous trends and movements masquerading as fitness. One favorite is standing on seated abductor/adductor machines, butt swung out while pressing open the knee pads with a ridiculous overarch in the lower spine, a certain pathway to chronic injury.

I won’t even mention what I’ve witnessed on treadmills.

And then there’s the sit-up (as well as the modified crunch) which is perhaps the longest-standing myth of health and physique. In some ways it makes sense: this thing we call ‘exercise’ is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of history our ancestors moved as part of their daily existence. Relegating movement to something we do for a concentrated hour or two a few times a week is still in its early phases—and, to be honest, will hopefully disappear if we’re able to better integrate movement into our lives, not just at the gym. There was bound to be a lot of trial and error. The crunch is an error.

Yet it persists. I can understand why: it burns, and people often confuse working out with burning. Ripping through a hundred sit-ups feels like it does something. In fact it does: it greatly increases your chance of a back injury.

Health experts at Harvard University are pushing for smarter core conditioning, including my favorite, planks. The difference is one of functional training: you want to exercise in ways that mimic how you regularly move through the world. In a plank you retain proper alignment: ears above shoulders above hips above ankles, with various muscular engagements driving the conditioning.

In both sit-ups and crunches you’re exacerbating already poor postural habits. If you’re driving or sitting at a desk (or worse, both) all day, your hips flexors are already shortened and tight. While doing a sit-up, the natural curve in your back is being flattened as you drive your chin forward and down, the same terrible pattern we do every time we stare at the phone in our hand. The combination of these actions tug on the muscles of the lower spine, resulting in spinal flexion. From there, chronic pain and injury is near.

To try it out yourself, mimic the posture of a plank while standing. Notice how you can achieve shoulder, core, and quadriceps engagement without losing a thing; in fact, your standing posture will feel stronger.

Now mimic the position of a crunch, and ask yourself when you’d ever need to be in such a position, save if you were ever being punched in the stomach. Even then, planks would have better conditioned you to withstand the impact.

Even the Navy is calling for an overhaul for solider conditioning. From an editorial in the Navy Times:

It’s well past time…to deep-six the sit-up, an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries. Experts say there are better measures of core strength that have the added advantage of being less prone to cheating. The plank, for example, more accurately measures core strength and because it's done by holding the body arrow straight while resting only on the toes and forearms it does not subject muscles to strain by motion.

We’re conditioning our core in most exercises, if we’re doing them correctly. Spot core conditioning is not nearly as effective as range-of-motion and strength training, in which abdominal muscles are being utilized within the context of a full-body movement or static hold. A plank, for example—I prefer planking on my hands, but for those with wrist or shoulder problems, forearm planks are wonderful—works your arm and wrist strength, shoulder stability, legs, and mental focus. Some of my favorite other options for integrating core work into larger movement patterns include TRX, VIPR, and kettlebells. 

As exercise science evolves, we need to let go of movements that do more damage than good. It is true that some fitness routines might be fine for some and toxic for others. At this point, however, everyone can safely remove the crunch from their regimen and not lose a thing. In fact, one of the best things to do to promote the growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is constantly changing up your workouts. Forget crunching and open yourself to an entire range of better core condition and stabilization exercises.

Hopefully the myth of the crunch will soon perish. In the world of fitness, where trends and hot new workouts by ‘experts’ offer the illusion but not necessarily the intelligence or integrity of movement science, we need to be educated about the long-term arc of living a healthy lifestyle, and not only buy into what appears to work in the short-term. Most importantly, we need to give up our illusions when the curtain is pulled open.

Fortunately for fitness fanatics, eleven-dollar bottles of detoxifying juice, each containing thirty-five grams of sugar, offers quick and perfect nourishment, right


Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.