One of the most controversial topics in the fitness industry these days is the good old crunch. More specifically, rounding the low back, something we call spinal flexion when we speak in our secret club language of Pretentious Asshole.
Now you may be surprised to hear this as crunches and sit-ups have been a standby in workout regimes for years. And indeed, many trainers are still unaware there’s even controversy about the issue (because most of them don’t read at all, bless their unethically ignorant hearts), so you probably will still see plenty of trainers having their clients do tons of sit-ups crunches in pursuit of getting totally “rippd abz bro.” However, conventional wisdom these days in the most progressive part of the industry is that training the abs by rounding the low back will hurt the back and make your spine sad.
However, like all things in science (and life), the issue isn’t totally cut and dry. Although the work of fitness super hero Dr. Stuart McGill has convinced most of the most prominent leaders in the industry that repeatedly rounding your low back will lead to disc herniations (or in English, “a fucked up low back”), there remain dissenting voices.
In fact, just this past week, two of my very favorite writers in the industry, Bret “The Glute Guy” Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld released a paper in the Strength and Conditioning Journal challenging McGill, and indirectly, most of the field’s leaders. Their contention is that the research isn’t really there and McGill and folks have made incorrect leaps in logic. Although the actual paper is only available as an abstract unless you have a subscription to the SaCJ, you can check out the laymen version they wrote for T-Nation here.
And I have to say… they make a compelling case. I mean, not only do I follow their logic, but they are literally two of the guys I respect most in the whole field, both for their sharp minds and their intellectual honesty and integrity. But they’re also arguing against most of the brightest minds in the field. What’s a Mark Fisher Fitness Ninja to do?!
My first thought was I could get Bret and Brad on one side of an interwebz boxing ring, and put Dr. McGill, and Coach Mike Boyle, and Charlie Weingroff and the anti-spinal flexion crowd on the other. This way the super heros could duke it out while mortals like me just watch and try to come to our own conclusions. So far, this plan seems unlikely.
Artist’s Rendition of Proposed Science-y Royal Rumble
So in the meantime… I’m still standing by the McGill crowd. I totally agree that a little bit of spinal flexion training isn’t gonna make your spine explode. I also get that certain athletes may need to do some based on the demands of their sport. But for you seekers of health and hotness, at the moment I see it as an unnecessary risk.
The primary function of the core musculature is to RESIST movement. The focus of your training should be there first and foremost; think planks. Hell, think any exercise where you have to work to maintain a neutral (non-rounded or arched) low back position.
Secondly, if you want abs… you are already an anatomy chart waiting to be unveiled my friends. Train hard and burn calories, and eat less total calories. BOOM. Abs.
Though I will concede this… if you’re fair skinned, you aren’t predisposed to easy muscle growth, and you truly are at the leanest threshold where you should theoretically have abs (generally below 10% body fat for men and 15% body fat for women)… you may need to make your abs bigger so they “pop”. And this may require “hypertrophy” or muscle growth, which may require directly targeting the abs to make them create movement instead of just resisting movement.
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe movement is ever fundamentally wrong; it’s just not always the best choice for a particular person in a particular context seeking a particular goal. I encourage you to weigh the potential costs and benefits of any fitness choice and choose your own adventure.
I used to friggin’ LOVE these books
So the Crunch Wars will no doubt continue. My pledge to you is this; I will always stay open minded and do everything humanly possible to guard against developing dogma. My current stance is I think crunches kinda suck. I don’t anticipate that changing in the immediate future. But make no mistake… Brad and Bret have made me question my own point of view. And I think that’s a good thing; cuz the truth will always withstand questioning.
I leave you with this (which is not my quote ps!): “Trust those who seek truth, be wary of those who’ve found it.”