Planks vs. crunches – which one should you do? If you consult any fitness magazine or just look into what fitness-oriented people are raving about on social media, you’ll notice that planks have become sort of a cure-all exercise.
They have become the most popular choice for sculpting firm and powerful abdominal muscles, and fitness experts seem to becoming disillusioned with the effects of the traditional crunch, once a mainstay ab-toning move.
But, like in any other industry, fitness trends are meant to come and go – remember when sit-ups were the flavor of the month?
The problem with these opinion shifts is that they’re rarely based on solid scientific evidence, which is why many great classic exercises have been thrown out of the window only because a few self-proclaimed fitness gurus have said so.
Let’s be honest: crunches are far from the most exciting of exercises. But the way they have been vilified in recent years is far from an objective assessment backed up by scientific data – it has more to do with our collective discovery that spot reduction is a myth and crunches can’t be used to specifically burn abdominal fat.
And although the current trend in fitness fashion seems to dictate that planks better exercise your abs than crunches, the reality is that some variations of crunches can train your abs very effectively and they deserve their place in your ab routine.
If you’re looking for the best exercise to tone and strengthen your abs, read this article to find out what studies on muscle activation have to say about it!
The Winner Is… STANDARD CRUNCH
Yup, really. As it turns out, when crunches are performed correctly, they do an amazing job at activating nearly all abdominal muscles.
Physiologists and exercise scientists claim that if you go through a full range of motion and focus on engaging the abdomen to lift the shoulders up off the ground while doing crunches, you can reap far greater gains from this exercise than from most other popular ab moves, especially the ones performed on trendy machines.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently conducted a study which measured muscle activity during different ab exercises, using electrodes to measure muscle contraction during 16 exercises, including the traditional crunch.
The results have shown that the crunch produced the greatest muscle activation of all the exercises.
If you’re thinking: “That might be true, but there are still many other studies which claim that crunches suck”, let us explain – the most important part of the ACE study is that subjects were made to perform crunches very deliberately and with flawless form, which is not how people typically approach this exercise.
The Right Way to Do Crunches
Lie on your back and place your feet against a wall while bending the knees and hips at a 90-degree angle. To avoid cheating and causing neck pain, cross your arms on your chest instead of behind your neck.
Engage your abdominal muscles and lift your head and shoulders off the floor. Hold for a moment, then slowly lower your body back to the ground and repeat.
You can have lots of variations in tempo, but what really matters is that you perform the lowering part in a slow and controlled manner. If you find yourself lowering too rapidly, concentrate on making the descent last three counts.
When the movement is powered through the abdominal muscles, hand position doesn’t matter at all, according to the ACE study.
However, many people are guilty of reducing the effectiveness of the exercise by interlacing their fingers and yanking on their head, which is why experts recommend the cross-chest position.
Don’t Forget Bicycle Crunches
Since the traditional crunch involves a forward and back motion, it’s great for working the rectus abdominus – the front sheath of your abs that constitutes what’s known as a “six-pack”.
But when it comes to training the external obliques, or the muscles at the sides of your waist, researchers agree that regular crunches are not the best choice there is, and that’s where bicycle crunches come into play.
If you’ve ever tried bicycle crunches, you know firsthand they target all your abdominal muscles. In fact, the American Council on Exercise once declared them as one of the most effective bodyweight abdominal exercises because they work the rectus abdominis and external obliques with equal efficiency.
As you rotate your body to bring a shoulder to the opposite knee, your external obliques work to turn your torso side to side and help you bend sideways at the waist. Among other things, strengthening these side-ab muscles is important for improving stability of the torso and maintaining a well-aligned spine.
To perform bicycle crunches correctly, get into a regular crunch position, then lift your right shoulder toward your left knee and simultaneously extend the right leg, then repeat on the opposite side without pausing. Again, make sure to move slowly and emphasize muscle contraction to get the most out of the exercise.
Captain’s Chair Leg Raises
The captain’s chair is a simple apparatus that looks like a tall, seatless chair with arm holds and a back rest, and it can help you develop your ab muscles beyond your imagination.
It uses some of the same muscles you activate during hanging leg raises, but at the same time offers support for your back, which makes it more manageable for less experienced trainees and a vital part of a truly effective abs and core workout.
To begin, climb into the chair, press your lower back into the back rest and grip the arm holds with your hands, while allowing your legs to dangle straight down.
Now, brace yourself strongly through the shoulders and back and engage your abs to pull your knees up toward your chest in a slow and controlled manner. Make sure to lift your knees above your hips to maximally activate abdominal muscle fibers. Slowly lower your legs to the starting position and repeat.
Need some extra intensity? Try bringing the knees up to either side.
Planks Are Great, Too!
That ACE study we’ve mentioned also investigated the effects of front forearm planks and side planks in terms of muscle activation of the rectus abdominus and the external obliques.
Although the results were not as great as expected, that doesn’t mean planks should be excluded when designing a complete ab routine.
Namely, the researchers humbly concluded that there are many deep-seated layers of core muscles that can’t be accessed with electrodes, and therefore the ab-building potential of planks remains to be further discussed.
If anything, we already know that planks train the transverse abdominus, an important muscle that stabilizes the spine and significantly contributes to core strength.
Still, for best results, researchers recommend replacing the static plank with its more challenging variations. Once you’ve mastered a solid 60-second static plank, take it to the next level with forearm planks, rocking planks, knee planks, side planks or reverse planks.
These variations force the core muscles to work a lot harder and thus offer superior gains. Regardless of which plank variation you choose, make sure to always brace your abs in and squeeze your glute muscles.
As with many other things in life, nothing is simply black or white in the world of exercises and the way they interact with the complex biomechanics of the human body.
So instead of labeling crucial moves as ineffective and eliminating them from your routine, you should make sure to master them and then up the intensity by introducing small modifications that will unlock a whole new level of strength and fitness gains. And there’s no better place to start than the good old crunch!