Crunches are easily the most common of the abdominal exercises but they are certainly not the most effective way to strengthen your core.
Core training is about much more than flattening your belly. Working your core effectively can improve stability, maintain mobility, and reduce injuries of all kinds. If you are the lone soul in the corner of the gym doing hundreds of crunches and situps in hopes of achieving a six-pack, you may be crunching in vain.
Abs vs. Core
Unlike many coaches out there, I don’t have a problem with sit-ups, crunches, or most of their derivatives. I just don’t like it when they're called “core workouts.” Doing a ton of crunches can be an effective way to train some very specific abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis and to a lesser extent the external or internal oblique muscles) but what is often forgotten (or skipped) are all the other muscles that make up the core. Simply focusing on your abs alone is an improper way to use your torso and can lead to some imbalances and pain.
We need a strong core to maintain a stable torso while we move through this world, whether we are lifting heavy items, carrying heavy loads, or transferring power from our hips while throwing a ball or using a broom. A stable and strong core with the capacity to resist the push and pull of outside forces is infinitely more useful and more important than being able to do hanging ab crunches from the loft in a barn (Rocky style).
Sure, if you want those popping six-pack abs, crunches are a must, but keep in mind that in order to really get six-pack abs, you mostly have to shed fat. Men, you will need to get your body fat to about six percent, and women to around nine percent, and if you read the article Body Fat: How to Use It and Lose It, you’ll know that neither of those percentages is particularly healthy.
Instead of doing crunches, the exercise known as the plank is a far more useful core exercise. Just as the name implies, when doing a plank you are forming a strong, stable platform with your body, from your toes to your head.
Planks are a great alternative to all that crunching because as you will soon find out, they can help improve your entire core strength and stability which among other things can protect against injury. In fact, in a study about plank and side plank on injury rates in soccer players, the researchers found that “... prevention programs including strengthening exercises for core muscles tend to positively affect the injury rate.”
Planks also activate the muscles in your abdomen to support your posture and share the workload with your back muscles to keep you upright.
Plus, if you get into all the variations, planks don’t just work your core—they can work much of your body. Plank variations require your arms, your legs, and all of your abs, and a study published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine found that doing side planks could actually help reduce spinal curvature in scoliosis patients. That means planking can even help reduce your chances of developing spinal problems as you age.
Benefits of Planking
Planks are great for creating a functionally proficient midsection due to the fact that they work your entire trunk from your pelvic girdle to your shoulder girdle (or as us coaches like to say: your knees to your nipples). Here are some of the benefits you can get by adding planks to your exercise routine.
1. More Stomach Tone
Planking trains the inner core muscles, including the transversus abdominis, which are the foundation muscles that create a stronger rectus abdominis, which is the front sheath of your abs that you see in the mirror (and most often on Instagram).
2. Less Back Pain
Planks help reduce back pain because they strengthen your back muscles, especially those in your upper back, according to the American Council on Exercise. Because the basic plank requires minimal movement while they contract all the layers of the abdominal fascia, they are an excellent way to strengthen the core without undue pressure, which, in turn, helps reduce low-back pain.
3. Improved Posture
Planks help create strong erector spinae, rhomboids, and trapezius, which help you naturally stand up straighter. Practically speaking, good posture helps to keep the vertebrae and ligaments of the spine healthy and aligned. Keeping your bones in proper alignment helps your breathing and nervous system function properly. It also promotes proper positioning and operation of your internal organs.
Planks also activate the muscles in your abdomen to support your posture and share the workload with your back muscles to keep you upright. This has also been shown to slow the development of degenerative osteoarthritis and some immobility that occurs with age.
Also when your core is stronger, you naturally sit tall with your vertebrae properly stacked, which means that you are also less likely to slouch and get that late afternoon pain in your neck and shoulders.