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How to do crunches so they don't hurt your neck

Are you doing crunches the right way? Master the move in these 5 steps
Animated collage of woman doing crunches
TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Crunches are one of the most popular core exercises — and they're featured in almost every full-body workout, from HIIT-style bootcamp to Pilates.

However, they're also one of the exercises that I see performed incorrectly most often. Mastering the correct form not only will help you get the most out of your crunches, but it will prevent you from straining your neck and causing pain and injury.

What does a crunch do for the body?

Strengthening your core with crunches can improve overall core muscle function, and this can help improve sport performance and promote balance and stabilization in other exercises you perform. They also help improve posture and reduce belly fat.

The reason crunches are considered a go-to exercise is because they cause growth in muscle size, also known as hypertrophy, of the rectus abdominis muscle. So, if you’re looking to tone your ab muscles, crunches are the perfect move to master.

It's worth mentioning that the core is made up of four muscles groups, and crunches target just one of those groups. It's important to use crunches as part of a well-rounded core routine that works your abdominal muscles from every angle.

The common mistake people make when doing crunches

A lot of people (myself included before I studied physiology, personal training and Pilates!) tend to pull their necks forward with their hands while crunching. This happens when you rely on your arms instead of your core to pull your body up and forward. This added pressure on your neck strains the muscles and causes pain.

Pulling your neck with your hands also leads to decreased core engagement. Crunches are a core-strengthening exercise, so not engaging your abdominals is a huge mistake. To correct this mistake when you perform a crunch:

  • Pull your navel in towards your spine and squeeze your abs, making sure your lower back maintains contact with the ground.
  • Rest your fingertips gently behind your head, and be sure to keep your elbows wide pointed out towards the sides of the room (versus pulling forward towards your knees).

How to do a modified crunch

If you’re unsure how to perform a crunch without straining your neck, try the modified version to work your core as you gain the confidence to tackle the full move.

Lie down with your back on the floor. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the mat. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows wide. From this position, lift your chest up only halfway. Make sure to keep your knees bent and your shoulder blades off the ground as you tighten your abdominals. Lower back to the ground. Repeat 10 times.

How to perform a crunch correctly

Performing a crunch effectively takes some practice. If you’re feeling confident, follow these step-by-step instructions to complete the crunch with perfect form:

  1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet as wide as your hips and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Tighten your abs, pulling your belly button in towards your spine and making sure to engage your core throughout the exercise.
  3. With your hands placed gently behind your head and elbows wide, use your abs to bring your shoulder blades off the floor. Exhale as you lift your body.
  4. Slowly release the position, inhaling as your rest your head on the mat.
  5. Return to starting position and repeat.

4 exercises that will help you crunch better

If you’re still feeling it in your neck, these exercises will help you build the strength needed to tackle a full crunch.

Standing bicycle crunches

This is the perfect move for beginners who want to practice engaging their core. Stand up straight with your hands behind your head. Lift your right knee up to your chest as you bring your left elbow down to meet the right knee. Then bring the left knee up and crunch the right elbow down to meet it. Continue alternating sides. Don’t forget to squeeze your abs!

Modified bicycle crunch

Sit on your butt with your legs bent and heels resting on the ground. Position yourself as if you had just pulled yourself up into the top of a sit-up. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows wide. Twist your torso to the right and bring your right knee to meet your left elbow, then twist your torso to the left and bring your left knee to your right elbow.

Boat

Sit down with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Lean back slightly, engaging the core and keeping the back straight. Hold your arms out straight in front of you as you lift your feet off the floor. Make sure to keep your legs together as you point your toes towards the ceiling and form a V with your body. Hold for 10 seconds. For a modification, keep the knees bent and open as wide as your hips, with shins parallel to the floor.

Modified forearm plank hold

Lie down on your stomach. Place your forearms flat on the mat and bend your knees so that they're touching the mat. Engage your core and lift your body off the mat, balancing on your knees and forearms. You can stay here, or from this position, raise your knees off the mat so that you are one straight line from your head to your feet. Hold for 10 seconds, then return your knees to the mat. Repeat 10 times.

More ways to master the move: