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If crunches hurt your neck, try this approach instead

This Pilates take on crunches will teach you how to properly engage your abs.
Pilates Crunch
The goal of Pilates is to activate the deepest abdominal muscle and focus on form over speed.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

As a go-to core strengthening move, crunches are integrated into almost all core workouts in one way or another. However, it’s a move we tend to perform incorrectly, which can lead to soreness and injury.

That’s why approaching the crunch with the precision and control of Pilates can be a helpful exercise.

While the Pilates ab crunch looks similar to the regular ab crunch, the set up and prep is a bit more precise. The Pilates crunch is performed slower and more mindfully than the regular ab crunch. This is because the premise of Pilates is to activate the deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis, and focus on form rather than speed.

In Pilates we pay special attention to making sure that the low back is not arched and that it is pressing gently into the mat or ground beneath you. To do this, we add the extra step of tilting the pelvis to activate the transverse abdominis. Try these simple tricks to ensure that you're engaging the transverse abdominis properly:

  • Cough and feel the area directly above the pubic bone and below the belly button tense up.
  • Pretend like someone is punching you in the stomach and you're trying to pull away from the punch!

What does the Pilates crunch do for the body?

As a Pilates instructor, I love doing basic ab moves with the details and precision of Pilates. Pilates combines strength training and flexibility training for a workout that targets the core above all else.

The Pilates crunch activates the abdominal muscles while simultaneously working on the upper legs. Instead of lifting up and down constantly like you would while practicing a standard crunch, the Pilates crunch requires you to hold the crunch position while scooping the low abs and knitting together your ribs to tighten up your entire core.

Because the Pilates crunch requires less up and down movement, and more precise movement, it’s often less straining on the neck and I also feel the Pilates crunch much deeper than I do a standard crunch.

The common mistakes people make when doing the Pilates crunch

Pulling the chin towards the chest is one of the most common mistakes I see people make when performing crunches. You want to make sure your neck is in a neutral position, not tucking your chin or craning your neck up.

It’s also common for people to not set up properly to perform the Pilates crunch. Instead of tilting the pelvis to engage the low abs, people quickly curl up and only work the upper abs. As with most Pilates moves, the Pilates crunch requires careful attention to detail for maximum efficiency. Here are some ways to fix these mistakes:

  • Place your head in your hands, and keep your chin in a position as if you’re holding an egg between your chin and your chest and you don’t want to crack it.
  • Don’t rush the move. Remember that each movement is done for a purpose. In order to reap the benefits, you must feel your low abs contracting.
  • Act like you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants, and pull your abs away from the pants.
  • Lift your shoulder blades only slightly off the floor. Moving too far forward may strain your neck and back.

How to do a modified Pilates crunch

The modified version of the Pilates crunch isn’t much different from the standard version. Simply move your heels further away from your glutes, which will make the exercise easier. From there, can will follow the same steps as the full exercise. As you progress, slowly inch your heels closer to your glutes to make the exercise more challenging. If you’re struggling to hold the crunch position, modify by only curling up half as high.

How to perform the Pilates crunch correctly

If you’re confident in your core strength, you may be ready to hop right into the standard version of the Pilates crunch. Follow these five simple steps:

  1. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides and your knees bent.
  2. Keeping your heels on the ground and feet as wide as your hips, tilt your pelvis forward as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants.
  3. Place your hands behind your head, elbows open wide.
  4. Exhale as you curl up with your head, neck, and chest up into the crunch position. Hold for 5 seconds.
  5. Inhale as you lower back down.

4 exercises that will help you master the Pilates crunch

Crunches are an extremely popular core exercise. However, there are plenty of other moves that will help you gain the core strength you’re looking for. Consistent practice of these exercises will help you perform the Pilates crunch with ease.

Plank

Lie on your stomach with your hands directly under your shoulders. With your toes on the ground, push your body up into plank by straightening your arms. Pull your belly button towards your spine and hold plank position for about 30 seconds (or as long as you feel comfortable). As you build strength, increase the amount of time you hold the position.

Boat

Sit on your butt with your knees bent. Lean your upper body back slightly towards the mat, keeping your back straight. Hold your arms straight out in front of you as you lift your heels off the ground. Keep your legs close together with your knees bent as you extend your shins and feet towards the sky to form a V with your upper and lower body. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat.

Dead bug

Lie on the mat with your arms straight up towards the ceiling. Bring your legs into a tabletop position so that your calves are parallel to the ground. Extend your right leg straight out in front of you, hovering your heel above the ground, while moving your left arm straight behind your head. Squeeze your abs and glutes. Return to the starting position and then straighten the left leg and right arm. Continue alternating sides.

Superman

Lie on your stomach and extend your arms straight in front of you and your legs straight behind you. Squeezing your core, lift both your arms and legs off the ground so that you are balancing on your torso. Hold this position for about 30 seconds.

More ways to master the move: