At Sparta, we’re fortunate to have a bigger problem of holding our athletes back rather than motivating them to do extra work. Along with the perils of long jogs on their own (see Sparta Point 12/31/08), another counterproductive endeavor is the tradition of performing endless repetitions of abdominal crunches and straight leg raises. Somewhere along the evolution of performance training, it became a widely accepted fact that these movements would produce the holy grail of exercise, a “six pack”.
Another motivation behind isolated abdominal work on the floor is to increase athletic performance. However, crunches not only negatively affect performance, but they also put you at a greater injury risk by stressing the hip musculature. The functionality of the hips is one of the most important determinants of athletic performance due to the large muscle mass associated at this joint. One of the bigger muscles in this region is the psoas, which is designed mainly to act as a stabilizer for the lower back. At The Institute of Sports Science in Switzerland, research authors found that movements like straight leg raises cause the psoas muscle to perform purely as a hip flexor rather than the intended role of a stabilizer. This confusing muscle activation leads to a whole host of problems, such as lower back pain and vertebrae instability.
One of the authors in this study, Stuart M. McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, explains that “the most reliable way to injure disks was to expose them to repetitive end range flexion in a cyclic manner”. Dr. McGill just summarized the best way to cause disk herniation is to perform as many crunches as you can!
The good news is that most of us already have a six pack; the problem is that a layer of abdominal fat covers these muscles. No amount of targeted abdominal training, like crunches, will melt that insulation off to reveal the abdominal muscles. The best way to reduce this body fat is a combination of exercise and nutrition, particularly the latter by keeping disciplined in your food choices and quantities.
Even better news for athletes is that abdominal muscle activation during free weight exercises, such as the squat, far exceeds anything found in body weight exercises like the floor exercises mentioned above. Therefore, we can keep our workouts simple and efficient because the squat serves as the both the best lower body and trunk stimulus.