Crunch time!

Crunch time!

Talk about controversy – you need only mention the words “sit-up” and  you’ll have 101 fitness professionals (and gym-goers alike) come down on you faster than you can say “abdominals”!

The pros and cons of sit-ups / crunches have been long disputed, so this is hardly a new topic, but having just returned from a weekend in London learning about Hypopresives – (more on that in another post), now seems a fitting time for me to delve a little deeper and deliver my opinion.

I guess the main reason for writing this article is because I’m forever being asked “are sit-ups bad for you?”  Once upon a time we all thought that “ab work” i.e. doing “crunches” was THE fast track to super sexy abs.  I’m not going to waste time here discussing that in any great detail.  Most people who have worked with me, read my book or have a vague idea about health and fitness will know that doing a bunch of sit ups isn’t going to give you abs like a Pussycat Doll.  Eating well and having a low body fat percentage is the route to that beach body.  But I digress….  Back to the burning question:  “Are sit-ups bad for you?”  Well, the problem is, that there is no straight answer.

Like anything, it all depends on who you are and what your training goals are.  If you’re a woman who gave birth to her third child two months ago and you’re suffering with stress incontinence, then sit-ups should be avoided at all costs.  If you’re a professional athlete competing in Judo and you perform repetitive movements such as slamming your opponent on the floor and generating force through kicks, then sit-ups will form a vital part of your training program.  If you’re somewhere in between these two then, as I said before, you need to look at what you’re training for.

There is never a black and white answer to anything when it comes to getting the most out of our bodies.  Sure, anyone can apply a basic principle and that principle will work to a certain extent for everybody, but results will always be varied.  That’s because we are all unique.  There are way too many variables at play in the human body (hormone status, training status, age, gender, sleep levels, toxicity levels etc) to be able to have a magic pill that reproduces the exact same results in everybody.  So, for example, a nutrition plan like my Cleanse program (featured in is a very simple principle that will have a whole host of benefits to anyone following it.  But results are varied.  Why?  Because even though eating a clean, nutritious diet is a sensible choice for absolutely anyone, some people will change their diet but still fail to hydrate properly, or don’t go to bed until 1am every night, or they can’t tolerate nightshades (tomatoes, peppers etc) so they have to take the nutrition plan to the next level.

So what I’m saying is that sit-ups (like anything else) have to be considered on a case by case basis.  Perhaps it’s not the exercise that’s bad for you, rather you’re not right for the exercise.  Let’s look at the previous examples in a little more detail.

Person 1 (postnatal woman with a dysfunctional pelvic floor):

In this case I can happily put my hand on my heart and shout from the roof tops “Don’t do sit-ups!”  Performing a crunch increases intra-abdominal pressure, thus effectively pressing down on the pelvic floor and weakening it further.  In simple terms – if your pelvic floor is already not great, then doing crunches will render it completely fecked!  Cue even more stress incontinence, embarrassing dashes to the loo and an increased fear of long journeys!  During the Hypopresives course we watched a delightful video, shot from two angles, showing a woman doing crunches and then doing a Hypopresive, and the resulting effect on her pelvic floor.  One camera was filming her from the side so you could see her doing both the crunches and then the Hypopresives, the other was a straight on shot of her vagina.  Yup, I just said that!  Please don’t judge me for my choice of viewing (it’s not like I was sitting at home Googling it on a Saturday night!) but it was a fascinating insight into what happens to a grade 1 prolapse during these two different abdominal exercises.  You could clearly see that when she performed the crunches, her prolapse bulged and became more visible, but during the Hypopresives the prolapse actually disappeared.

This is where the Hypopresive technique really comes into its own.  Not just for postnatal women or anyone with a prolapse, but also for men who’ve had a hernia.  I’ll go into more detail about exactly what the Hypopresives involve in another post, but needless to say they are the perfect tool for improving pelvic floor function, restoring abdominal tone and even reducing waist circumference – bonus!  I truly believe that Hypopresives will revolutionise the fitness industry here in the UK, particularly within the postnatal arena.  Watch this space.  But for now, let’s consider our other example.

Person 2 (Judoka – I learned something new today:  Judoka is the proper name for someone who does Judo).

In this scenario, chances are that crunches could form an integral part of the athletes training.  Having been screened for any contraindications, if all is good then including crunches as part of his program would enable the Judoka (I love this word!) to perform at his most effective.  Athletes require exceptional tone and strength in their abs.  In some cases, having a dodgy pelvic floor is the price you have to pay for your sport.  But for Joe public, it seems ludicrous to do an exercise that will cause further damage to your already dysfunctional body, when there are alternatives – and certainly when you don’t actually need to do that exercise to achieve your goals.

Ultimately a crunch / sit-up is a functional movement which most people perform when going about their daily business – getting out of bed, for example.  (Incidentally, this is why postnatal women are advised to roll onto their side first when getting up from a lying position).  Crunches can also be used as a corrective exercise.  In fact, after assessing a client’s kinetic chain, if I discover they have an anterior pelvic tilt (which often goes hand in hand with back pain), it’s important to try and address this imbalance by improving function in both the glutes and the abdominals.  I usually do this by combining glute activation work with some inner range holds.  I find the inner range hold for the abdominals particular effective (and fun) for my clients.  However, the crucial thing here is that I screen the client first and know whether they have any contraindications.  So if screening a new Mum, chances are she’ll present with either an anterior or posterior pelvic tilt (both are common after pregnancy).  In the case of the former, crunches and inner range holds for the abs would not be the right protocol and Hypopresives would be a much better way of improving her posture and her function.

In summary:

– Sit-ups are neither “good” nor “bad”.  It’s the individual that has to be assessed to determine whether crunches (or any other exercises for that matter) are appropriate.

– Crunches alone will not get rid of your belly fat and give you a flat stomach.  Fact.

– In the case of postnatal women, anyone with a prolapse / hernia / dysfunctional pelvic floor / diastasis recti (separation of the abdominals) crunches are not advisable and will actually worsen the dysfunction.

– Suitable exercise such as Hypopresives are ideal for people with a dysfunctional pelvic floor who want to work their abdominals and improve their resting “tone” at the same time.

– Where there are no contraindications, crunches are suitable as a form of functional and corrective training.

Bottom line:  I am neither” for” nor “against” crunches per se.  From all my prior knowledge, coupled with the new research I learned this weekend I certainly see them as a waste of time for anyone who thinks that they need to do “more core” (a common cry!) at the end of a session.  That said, I believe that there are certain cases where crunches are appropriate and indeed beneficial.  The key is in the screening and the desired outcome!

So the upshot:  Am I going to avoid sit-ups for the rest of eternity and banish them from all my exercise programs?  In short, no.  Would I think twice before including them into a group environment without first knowing about each and every member’s pelvic floor function?  Absolutely!

P.s. If you want to see the video I referred to then I can probably get hold of it but I might get arrested sending emails with this content 🙂