Core strength: Can we skip the crunches?

A few months ago, I talked about the importance of a strong core for runners and how I learned the hard way several years ago with my first running injury.  Our core muscles are as important for running as they are for daily life activities, and can help keep us balanced, improve stability and decrease injury.

I recently came across a fascinating study testing which core exercises are the most efficient.  I do core exercises to cross it off my “stay injury free” to do list, but if there is a way to make it as efficient as possible, I want to know!

The study was conducted by Jinger Gottschall (and colleagues) at Penn State University.  The researchers compared isolation exercises to integration exercises to determine which ones elicited the greatest core activation.  You can find the abstract here.

They used surface electromyography to measure muscle activity of the core trunk muscles (abdominal and lumbar), as well as the glutes and deltoids which were engaged in the integration exercises.

Isolation exercises reviewed included traditional crunches, oblique twists and back extensions.

Isolation Exercises: Traditional crunch, oblique twist, and upper body extension.

These were compared to exercises that integrate muscles of the back and upper body, such as planks, hovers and four-point exercises.

So what were the results?

The integration exercises consistently outperformed the isolation exercises in terms of greater activation of muscles.  In integration exercises, the core muscles worked harder, and they more closely imitated the activity of core muscles in daily activities like walking, which makes them both more efficient and better for functional gains.

Here’s a basic example of each exercise.  It is best to wear sneakers when completing these exercises.  Do as I say, not as I do.  🙂 For a more complete explanation of each, click on the youtube links below.

TL: Plank with arm reach, TR: Mountain Climber Crossover, BL: Side plank, BR: Four point arm-leg reach

The specific integration exercises the authors measured included the hover or plank with a hand reach, cross over mountain climber,a side hover,  and a four-point arm and leg lift.

What should a core routine look like?

A combination of both isolation and integration exercises is ideal.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults include core exercises twice a week.

Planks and side planks are stationary and should be done for time (start by holding for 30 seconds).  For mountain climbers and four-point moves, bring your legs in and out.  Again, 30 seconds is a good starting point for each, then repeat 2-3 times.  Work your way up to holding the planks for 60 seconds or more.

Both kinds of exercise should be part of your regular routine, but if you hate crunches, skip them! Planks, hovers, and exercises based on all fours are best for improving strength, balance, mobility and endurance.

Are any of these integrative moves a regular part of your core routine?

36 thoughts on “Core strength: Can we skip the crunches?

  1. I too have learned about the importance of core strength the hard way. It kind of drives me crazy when I see people doing a gazillion crunches at the gym. It’s great to learn a bit more about what really engages and strengthens the core. These are all great exercises and challenging! Thanks for sharing!
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted..Memories Captured: KindergartenMy Profile

  2. Love this post! You know being in the Army, we are very much about situps, but we have gotten better about incorporating other types of abdominal exercises. To be honest, I only do situps when I have a physical fitness test but aisded from that I do other types, like planks, oblique twists, etc. They have helped strengthen my core more than the hip abductor isolator the situp is.

  3. so glad to hear this! i def do a combination of these. i think i like crunches b/c they seem a bit cardio? but i do recognize the benefits of isolation poses and have always felt that they give me better results re: core strength. thanks for posting this 😉
    runner26 recently posted..She made me do itMy Profile

  4. Good info…thanks….

    I use to dislike planks but as I get stronger I really love them and notice a difference in the middle! 😉

  5. I actually do all of those exercises. Not usually all at once. I will do 3 or so at the start of my workout routine. I start with my core training because it helps to elevate my body temperature before I get into my strength training. Good to know that the exercises I’m doing are efficient. I just stole the moves from my yoga classes. Awesome article, chica!!!
    Kelly recently posted..Denver to Detroit: Marathon Training Week 10My Profile

    • I always skipped it for time, too… now I’m trying to do a few minutes every day, rather than commit to one 15 minutes session, and it’s helping me get them in!

  6. Such great information! I love core exercises almost as much as I love getting a root canal without any anesthetic. I’d rather do any other exercise a gazillion times (except pushups) than do core. But, I am prone to lower back injury so I must. And I do. But now I know how to be more efficient at it, so thank you!
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