June 30, 2020 10 min read

It's not my abs...it's the neck! How many times have you heard or said this when crunches are the talk of the day? You’d be happy to do them if only your neck didn’t feel sorer than your muscles after a workout session. Or, at least, if the pain was beneficial and resulted in a stronger neck after all—which it didn't. 

Ok, time for a straightforward question. Are you sure you do your crunches the right way?

If you feel that you are pulling a crunch from the upper body, that means you are working your neck harder than your abs. “More pain, no gain” is hardly the way you want. 

So, where do your crunches go wrong? Your spine can go back, forth, and around, but it's still one long line that bands together. It connects to your head through the cervical spine, which runs from your shoulders up. This connection, or a barrier if you wish, is what gives your head its ability to move independently. So, when you do a crunch, the straight line of your body bends smoothly, but if your head doesn't follow, it disturbs the balance of the arc, forcing the neck to take additional pressure. 

Some people put their hands behind their heads to help their crunches by pulling upward. That's another way of adding unnecessary pressure on the neck. In most cases, the result is a mild discomfort that will prevent you from doing as many reps as you actually could. However, too much pressure can lead to a bulging disc, severe pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.

The proper crunch keeps your spine in a perfect arc all the way from the lower back to the head. It works dominantly on your hip flexors and abdominal muscles, leading to a stronger core. Naturally, this means your neck is absolutely not the place where you should feel the pressure if you're doing it right.

How to Avoid Neck Pain When Doing Crunches

There are several simple tips and tricks to start with. Try shifting your hand position to make sure you're not the cause of your back pain. Instead of pushing your neck forward, place hands pressing lightly into your jaws. Alternatives are to put them lightly behind your ears, with fingers spread, or resting on your chest. Some studies claim that tucking your chin toward your chest will reduce your neck muscle activity during a crunch. It makes sense since this move activates the hyoid muscles to act as stabilizers.

Another tip would be to pull your lower back and stomach into the floor. That way, you make a light posterior pelvic tilt, which works to keep everything in line more. Also, there's no need for sharp, quick, sudden twitches. Going slow, in a small, compact movement, will activate your core just enough. Reduce the overall range of motion by half. By smaller moves, you secure that your abs do the work while your back stays connected to the floor.

Work with your tongue, pressing it on the roof of your mouth and up against your front teeth. That adds some pressure, which, in return, engages deeper neck muscles and increases muscular support.

Use a workout towel, place it behind your head, and grab each end with your hands. Relaxing your head into the towel transfers to relaxing the muscles of your neck, so that they won't go too tight throughout the crunch. An additional benefit is that you work your arms a little by holding the weight of your head through the whole set of reps.

Avoid engaging arms in performing, use them only to support the neck and head. Keep the elbows open. Instead of pushing your head with your palms, try the opposite way to create some resistance.

To avoid lower back at the same time, keep the lower spine pressed to the floor. Your head and neck should always be in line with the upper spine. Lift the head and neck without pulling them forward and prevent your lower back from arching up.

Keep your eyes up or to the ceiling or fixed to your horizon, with the chin pulled slightly back.

Exercising all the major muscles will bring you more than just a six-pack if you do everything right. Such a workout enhances blood flow and burns calories. That way, you reduce fat and build muscle, improving your body composition and overall health.

If your neck hurts even after making adjustments to your technique, consider swapping crunches for other exercises that target your entire core. Turn to other core muscle exercises that activate your obliques, rectus abdominis, and transversus abdominis all at once, like the bird-dog, woodchop, and spider plank. After you become strongeror remove the cause of pain, you may slowly introduce crunches back to your workout routine.

A girl doing crunches.

How To Do Crunches Without Pain

  • Lay on your back, stabilize yourself with your knees naturally bent, and keep the soles of your feet firmly planted on the floor.
  • Your shoulders should be rolled back as you relax down your spine, leaving a tennis-ball-sized space between your chin and chest.
  • Initiate the movement from your core to start the crunch, using your breath to activate all abdominals at the deepest level.
  • During exhale, draw your navel toward your spine. At the same time, lift the torso off the ground until your shoulder blades are out of the floor.
  • Make a brief pause to inhale at the top of the crunch as it will help you better control the descent.

Some bonus advice:

Keep your legs bent at a 90° angle to reduce excess stress to the lower back while you are performing a sit-up. Try to do your sit-ups on a cushioned surface such as a mat or carpet and see if it works better for you. You should still be able to make the curve in your lower back, so it does not touch the floor.

Cross your arms over your chest, as that will help you avoid the risk of pressuring the neck during the upward movement. Cross your arms and focus on tightening your abs to lift your head and upper back slowly.

There is no need to sit all the way up when doing sit-ups, 6 to 10 inches are enough to make all the muscles in the abdominals work.

The best workout for your abs is to move slowly throughout the entire crunch. With slow, precise movements, you engage your abs thoroughly and secure proper form. That is at least equally important as the number of reps. Start at a slow, steady pace, and keep it as long as you can without premature burn-out.

Step-By-Step Painless Crunches for Beginners

Lie down, bring your knees up and place your hips, lower back, and feet flat on the floor. You should feel your lower back touching the floor and your abs squeezing tight.

Place your arms at your chest, or on the floor with your palms on top of your thighs. Lift your head, neck, and upper torso up and move toward your knees, letting your hands just slide up your legs.

When you first do this exercise, your focus should be on doing each crunch with the correct form. A total of 10 to 12 reps with little strain while doing them is quite enough. If you need to stop at 5, or even fewer, reps—no worries, that's totally fine. It's very important not to burn out, so you can do more the next day.

Maintaining this level, slowly increase the number of repetitions to 25 per set, and two sets per session. Repeat three times a week with two to three days in between, to give your muscles enough time to recover and regrow stronger.

When 25 reps become a piece of cake, start to increase the intensity. Keep raising your body higher with your hands placed loosely behind your head. Do not interlock your fingers and make sure to maintain good form with every move.

Once you can lift your shoulder blades off the floor easily, keeping your head and neck in alignment with no problem, you are ready for some greater challenges. This is a time to try some advanced versions of the standard crunch.

Advanced Crunches 

Seated Twists With Medicine Ball

This is a more advanced exercise that works the core and abs, particularly the rectus abdominis and the external and internal obliques.

Start by choosing the right medicine ball for your form. If the ball is too heavy, your form will suffer, and you will probably lose the balance and start swaying or rocking from side to side. Always start with a lighter medicine ball, check how it goes, and build up as you're progressing.

The starting position: sit at a 45-degree angle, holding a medicine ball in front of you firmly with both hands. Begin the movement by contracting your abs while slowly twisting your torso to the right. Tap the medicine ball on the floor beside you. In a quick but controlled motion, contract your abs and twist your torso to touch the floor with the medicine ball at the other side. Do 10-20 reps in one session, and rest.

The Bicycle Crunch

This one is on top of many lists of the best exercises to build strength and endurance by targeting the abs and obliques. It is easy to do, but many people get it wrong.

For proper form, lay flat on the floor with your lower back firmly pressed to the ground. Keep your hands behind your head but without pulling on your neck. Raise your knees to about a 45-degree angle and start making the bicycle pedal motion. Go slowly, touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to the left knee. Go for 10-25 reps on each side.

The V-Sit Ab Exercise 

This is a tough yet effective core exercise that works the rectus abdominis, the external obliques, and internal obliques. It also engages your hip flexors.

To properly form the V-sit, sit on the floor, contract your abs and core, and lift your legs to a 45-degree angle. Reach your arms straight forward as much as you can. Keep good core posture and a strong spine, and hold the position for at least a few seconds. As you get stronger, try holding the position longer, since endurance counts more than the number of short reps here.

Plank on an Exercise Ball

Doing planks on a ball is a challenging core workout for anyone. Maintaining the position on an unstable surface requires a lot of balance. It forces you to dynamically engage more abs across the entire core from shoulders to toes. You will keepconstantly adjusting your stabilizers with excellent muscle activation for as long as you can hold.

If that is not enough and you aim for something even more intense, try making slight circles with your upper body. Go clockwise and then counterclockwise, and we guarantee you'll feel the burn. Hold between 30 seconds and a minute, rest shortly, and repeat.

The Ab-Hold

Deceptively difficult, but a very simple and effective ab exercise will keep you well engaged. For a more challenging version, start on the floor with your feet outstretched. If this proves to be too challenging, feel free to slightly bend your knees with your heels on the floor.

Contract your core, lift the upper body from the hips until your shoulders are about 10 inches off the floor. If this is your first time doing exercise, place your hands behind your head with elbows out to the side. As you become more experienced, stretch your arms out along your sides with palms up, and aim to hold that position for up to a minute at a time. 

Hey, we did say it's deceptive, remember?

The Single-Leg Bridge

The Bridge exercise is a good way to keep your core strong and balanced. The single-leg bridge packs a stronger challenge than the basic bridge, targeting and strengthening the gluteus maximus and hamstrings. When done in a proper form, it also works on the posterior chain and the back of the body.

Remember to be careful. If it feels comfortable, you might just be doing it wrong. The most important part is to keep your hips leveled throughout all the movement. If you let one side of the pelvis drop, it will decrease the effectiveness of the exercise. If you have never done it before, begin with your hands placed on your hips to ensure they are leveled and flat.

Lay on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, placed directly under your knees. Lift your hips like for a basic bridge position, and contract your core and glutes. At this moment, start raising and extending one leg slowly. Make sure your pelvis is leveled, and don't let one side droop down.

Try to maintain a controlled position for up to 30 seconds. If you lose it, or your hips drop, rest and work on the other side.

A man helping a girl do crunches in a field.

Many Benefits of Core Exercises 

Many of us don't fully understand or appreciate the benefits of strength and resistance exercises like crunches. Strength exercises work all the major muscle groups of the body and, doing those regularly brings huge benefits in return.

  • Your muscles grow firmer and more powerful, together with your endurance.
  • You improveagility, coordination, and balance.
  • All of your daily activities become easier. Climbing stairs, carrying weight, playing golf, hiking, and playing with the kids become no-brainers.
  • The chance of falling and getting injuries gets much smaller. 
  • Your body composition changes as you build lean muscle and reduce body fat. 
  • Your overall health improves, reducing the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
  • Strength training prevents bone loss, helping with osteoporosis.
  • You look much better, shredded, firm, and elastic.

Working your core is vital for a stronger body and better posture, but you must not be hurting your parts during the process. If you feel pain in the wrong places, you are making mistakes that prevent you from gaining many benefits of ab workouts altogether.

Crunching Without Making Your Neck Hurt Is Easy

Mistakes are quite common with ab workouts. Maybe you feel the need for more guidance, especially if you're a beginner or if you workout at a gym alone. Many people start introducing exercises at home. They’ve never had a trainer to guide them through basic form techniques and positions. 

Hiring a personal trainer is a great way to teach you how to work out properly. It takes a lot of responsibility off your end, freeing you up to learn, practice, and build. It will give you all of the benefits of core-strengthening exercise without back, neck, or hip pain. Follow your instincts (and your trainer’s instructions) and listen to your body carefully, and the results will quickly prove you're on the right path.


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