Crunch Time

This balanced workout targets the abdominals from every angle, helping you craft a lean midsection in no time flat.

By Michael Berg NSCA CPT | January 2, 2010

Watch late-night infomercials or peruse the fitness section of your nearest bookstore, and you’d think the crunch is one of the more horrific exercise-related tortures ever devised. apparently, there are numerous ways to sculpt your midsection without having to do any “dreaded” crunches, a promise made as if the mere thought of the move sends gym-goers retreating to the exits. But is that really the case? Is the crunch that awful? The crunch and its variations are actually some of the most efficient and effective ways to contract your abdominal muscles, which are put to work when you bring your upper body to your lower, or vice versa. A good measure of an ab exercise is whether it shortens the distance between your lower rib cage and your pelvis — if it does, you’re contracting your abs directly. So instead of discarding this valuable move, embrace it. Because all the late-night gadgets in the world can’t improve on this simple exercise.

The Workout, Step By Step

This workout makes use of four crunch variations, and it finishes with an isometric hold that serves as a strong finishing move. First up, the double crunch, in which you bring both ends of your body together simultaneously — a great way to focus on the upper and lower portion of the abs. (The upper abs work slightly harder when you bring your upper body toward your lower, as in a standard crunch; the lower abs are emphasized in any exercise in which your lower body comes toward your upper, as in a reverse crunch.)

Next up is a weighted crunch, which puts the focus on your upper abdominal region. Just a quick note: You may want to do this workout a few times without the weight as you build up your ab strength. From there, you’ll do a reverse crunch for lower abs, then a side crunch to score a direct hit on your obliques, which run down each side of your torso.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, you’ll finish with a noncrunching exercise. The plank is an isometric hold and serves as an excellent end to an ab workout because it helps ensure that you’ve thoroughly taxed the muscle group. Once you can no longer hold the “plank” position, you can be positive that your abdominals have been tested to their limits and are ready to shift into recovery-and-development mode.

The Best Things in Life

This workout is balanced, in that it works the three key areas of your mid-section. That makes it a good option whether you work abs once, twice or three times a week. However, if you have a particular problem area — for instance, many people find that their lower abs tend to lag in strength and shape — you could do this workout once or twice a week and add a third session that solely focuses on that trouble spot.

With that, we hope you find the crunch a worthwhile tool in your workout arsenal. While others around the world are reciting their credit-card numbers over the phone in a desperate attempt to buy their way to a contoured, well-defined six-pack, you can rest easy knowing that your much more discerning — and economical — efforts are the best value in fitness.

THE CRUNCH-TIME AB WORKOUT
Exercise Sets Reps
Double Crunch 3 20, 20, 20
Weighted Crunch 3 To failure
Reverse Crunch (off bench) 2 To failure
Side Crunch 2 To failure
Plank 2 Hold to failure

Sample Splits

Abs are a relatively simple bodypart to work into a training split because they essentially can be placed at the end of any other workout. The split below is just one of many possible combinations. Keep in mind, it's best to always do them last — if you tire out your abs first, you put yourself at risk for injury on heavy compound moves (such as squats) during which you depend on core strength to maintain proper form.

(day/bodypart(s) trained)

  • Monday - Chest, Biceps, Abs
  • Tuesday - Thighs, Calves
  • Wednesday - Off
  • Thursday - Shoulders, Triceps, Abs
  • Friday - Back
  • Saturday - Off
  • Sunday - Off, or Repeat Cycle From Day No. 1

 

Double Crunch

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Targets: Upper and lower abdominals

Start: Lie on the floor with your hands cupped gently behind your head and your legs and feet up off the floor, knees bent. Contract your abs and flatten your lower back to the floor.

Action: Simultaneously bring your knees toward your elbows while crunching your upper body toward your legs. Squeeze in the middle, then return to the start and repeat. Don’t let your feet or legs touch the floor between reps.

Weighted Crunch

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Targets: Upper abs

Start: Lie faceup on the floor with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor. Hold a 10- or 25-pound weight plate on your chest (weight depending on your training experience and strength) and flare your elbows out to your sides. Contract your abs and flatten your lower back on the floor.

Action: Slowly curl your upper body upward, raising your shoulder blades off the floor just a few inches, squeezing your abs before returning to the start.

Plank

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Targets: Upper and lower abs

Start: Get into a modified push-up position, balancing your body on your forearms and toes with your body in a straight line from head to feet.

Action: There is no move required for this exercise. You hold the “plank” position, flexing your core to keep your hips from dropping toward the floor, until your muscles give out. (Beginners should instead hold for a prescribed amount of time, such as 30 seconds.)

Side Crunch

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Targets: Obliques

Start: Lie on your side on the floor, legs one atop the other, knees slightly bent. Place the hand of your top arm loosely behind your head, elbow flared out. Place the other on the floor for balance, or alternately you can place that hand on the working muscle.

Action: Crunch so your upper body rises off the loor, your topside elbow moving toward your lower body. Squeeze your obliques for a one count and return to the start. Complete all prescribed reps on one side, then switch.

Reverse Crunch

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Targets: Lower abs

Start: Lie on a flat bench, holding the sides of the bench alongside your head, with your butt near the end. Keep your legs together, holding a slight bend in your knees.

Action: Contract your abs to bring your knees toward your chest, allowing your glutes to gently lift off the bench. Squeeze your abs, then return your legs to the start, only letting your glutes touch down briefly between reps.

Ab Training Tips

Perform reps deliberately. You’ll get much more out of your ab training if you do each repetition in a slow, controlled fashion. Pumping through reps like a piston incorporates momentum, meaning your muscles don’t do as much of the work as you want them to. It’s not the number of reps you complete; it’s the quality of each of them that counts.

Plug into a circuit. One option to increase the difficulty of the workout (and finish it faster) is to combine the weighted crunch, reverse crunch and side crunch into one tri-set, in which you move between the three without stopping in between (resting 60 to 90 seconds between tri-sets).

Mix it up. The workout here provides a solid base and is balanced to hit all areas of your midsection, but for optimal results, you’ll want to be sure to change the order of exercises from time to time, as well as switch moves in and out that hit the same area (for instance, hanging knee or leg raises for reverse crunches, V-ups for double crunches, or cable crunches for weighted crunches). That way, your workouts never get stale and you don’t give your body a chance to adapt to a particular routine.



About the Author

Michael Berg NSCA CPT

Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT, is a freelance health and fitness writer based in New York. He has written for a variety of publications and websites in the bodybuilding industry, including MuscleMag, Oxygen, Muscle & Fitness Hers and Men's Fitness, and formerly served as deputy editor on Muscle & Fitness and Flex. He was also editor in chief for the launch of Muscle & Performance, the official magazine of The Vitamin Shoppe.