Crunches Are a Pain in My Neck & Other Truths


Raise your hand if you dread crunches. Anyone? Everyone? If you were here, you'd see me with both hands in the air, jumping up and down and saying, "ooh, I do, I do!" Do I do them? Sometimes. Do I like them? Almost never. But it used to be that the reason I hated them was that they were a literal pain in my neck, not because they were a challenging ab exercise. My neck would always wear out long before I ever felt anything happening in my abdominals. Big thumbs down to that. I hate wasting exercise time and energy, so I made it a project to see whether there was something I could do about that.

This post has a few tips that might help you if you struggle similarly. But first, here are some of the reasons why the neck pain happens in the first place.

Often the cause of neck pain during crunches is not keeping your head and neck in line with the rest of your spine; meaning your head is either lagging behind the rest of your spine, or it's jutting forward past the rest of your spine. Both of these scenarios put a lot of pressure on your spine and the muscles of your neck. In some cases, this can result in serious injury. So, in short, it's about form. Bad form = bad times for you and your spine.

So, how do you make sure you're doing crunches in correct form? Here are some things that have helped me. First, just a note that everyone's body is different and I'm not attempting to diagnose your neck pain as being due to poor form during crunches. If you are having pain of any kind anywhere during exercise, you should consult a professional--either your personal trainer, physical therapist or your doctor, depending on your specific circumstances.

I don't place my hands behind my head during crunches. Having my hands behind my head causes me to pull my head forward, often ahead of the rest of my spine. My chin ends up jutting out and causing strain to my neck. Remember we want our head, neck and torso to move as one piece, with our abdominals driving the movement, not our upper bodies. Sometimes I place my hands on the floor or across my chest instead, but the thing I've been doing lately is placing my right hand hand gently on my jaw. I know it sounds weird, but I read a study about how doing that, combined with the next tip, actually relaxes the thick muscle that runs from your ear to your collarbone and reduces strain. Also, the study showed an increase in muscular activity in some of the abdominal muscles themselves. (You can check out the article here. )

I tuck my chin slightly. The first tip is about making sure my head isn't pulling forward ahead of the rest of my spine, but this tip is about making sure it isn't lagging behind (another cause of neck strain). This is a visualization I learned in Pilates class years ago and it's a good one. Imagine you have an orange tucked between your chin and your chest. If you don't squeeze it a little bit, it will roll right off and onto the floor. If you squeeze it too hard, you'll smash and juice it. You're looking for a middle ground--a slight tucking of the chin in toward your chest so that your head and neck are in line with the rest of your spine.

I think about my abdominals doing the work. This is that mind-body connection thing again. If I want the movement to come from my abdominal muscles, then I need to communicate that to those muscles. I do that by thinking about those muscles engaging and lifting my torso up off the floor.

I skip the crunches altogether. If you try all of these things and still feel strain in your neck, opt for non-crunch-based ab exercises. There are tons. Planks are a fantastic total body exercise and there are several variations--side planks, hip drops and knee drops, just to name a few--that are really effective for working the abdominals. There are also standing abdominal exercises--teapot crunches, mountain climbers, wood-choppers, and many more--that target your core muscles really effectively. There is actually an argument to be made that some of these exercises are better than crunches. The reason being is that they mimic the movements in which the muscles of the core actually have to work in our daily lives.

I'm thinking it might be worth doing a video or picture post of my favorite non-crunch ab exercises...Next month, maybe. Anyway, that's it from me for now. If you have a favorite ab exercise or a tip for avoiding neck strain during crunches, please leave it in the Comments section below. Thanks!