How to Do Crunches the Right Way to Eliminate Neck Pain

That pain you feel while crunching doesn't mean you're strengthening your neck muscles too — sorry. Here's how to do crunches the right way.

Neck pain while doing crunches
Photo: FatCamera/Getty

Like most ever-evolving gym-goers, I finally realized I needed to start doing more core work. But when I added a ton of crunch variations to my regular routine, it wasn't my abs that were tapping out from exhaustion — it was my neck. The pain went away like typical muscle soreness, so I assumed it just meant my neck was weak. Embarrassed, I didn't think much of it until I was working out with a friend and halfway through a round of the abs-strengthening exercise, unprompted, she said that she didn't even feel it in her core, but instead — you guessed it — in her neck.

″Neck pain during crunches is incredibly common," assures Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a San Diego–based trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast. Plus, you can't really ″strengthen" your neck, and it wouldn't solve much anyway, he adds.

If you're having the same issue with neck pain when crunching, read on to learn how to do crunches properly, which will alleviate that soreness — plus, explore notable benefits of crunches and how to add them to your routine.

How to Do Crunches

First, a quick primer on how to do crunches the right way.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull lower back in and down toward the floor to create a slight posterior pelvic tilt. Tuck chin in toward chest and place hands on forehead instead of behind head in order to minimize neck pain.

B. Slowly and with control, engage abs and lift shoulder blades off of the floor. Pause at the top of the movement, then lower back down to the starting position.

Simply tucking your chin toward your chest before and during a crunch can reduce the muscle activity in your neck because it activates the hyoid muscles — which run from your chin to your collarbone — to act as stabilizers, says McCall.

In fact, a 2016 study in Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that when people both tucked their chin and lightly touched their face during a crunch, it relaxed their sternocleidomastoid — the thick muscle that runs from your ear to your collarbone — and alleviated neck pain, compared to when they did a basic crunch. Bonus: The variation engaged their abs and obliques more too.

Try it: Visualize holding a peach between your head and your throat, suggests McCall. If you don't squeeze, you'll drop it, but too much pressure will squish the fruit, releasing juice everywhere. (If visualizing just isn't working, try folding up a towel and squeezing it between your chin and your chest.) Then, rather than placing your hands behind your head for the crunch, which encourages you to pull on the head and create further strain, place your hands on your forehead to minimize neck pain while doing crunches.

Another tip on how to do crunches? You also want to pull your low back and stomach into the floor, as this adds a slight posterior pelvic tilt, keeping the upper spine from being able to move independently, says Joel D. Seedman, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta. And move up really slowly to prevent neck pain while doing crunches. ″People often think in a crunch, they need to get their torso off the ground in this big motion. But it should really be a small, compact movement," he explains. Remember, your goal is to activate your core, not to bring your shoulders and head up. If you take the momentum out and glue your lumbar spine to the mat, it signals to your nervous system to create contractions in your core, actually working your abdominal muscles in a way that makes you stronger and keeps you pain-free.

The Key Crunches Benefits

When done in combination with other abs and core exercises, the crunch can provide functional benefits to the entire body.

More Effective Than Abs Equipment

Sometimes, it's best to stick with the basics instead of buying shiny new products that may or may not work. A study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise found that the traditional crunch exercise activated the abdominal muscles more than using products such as the Ab Wheel and the Ab Circle Pro.

"Obviously, lying on the ground doing the traditional crunch is not appropriate for everyone," said research team leader Edward Stenger, M.S., in a press release. "But for the average person who wants to work on his or her abdominal muscles to get stronger, have less back pain, and get better health benefits, all you need to do is get a comfortable spot on the floor, lie down, and do some crunches," he noted.

Can Improve Posture

Having a strong core is about much more than aesthetics. Your core is responsible for supporting your body throughout your everyday life, which is why strengthening those muscles is crucial. "A strong core helps keep a more upright and erect posture whether you're being active or just sitting at your desk," Meredith McHale, P.T., D.P.T., regional clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy, previously told Shape.

Doing crunches and variations on crunches can help you strengthen that support system — just don't rely on traditional crunches alone, since they primarily target only one abs muscle.

Helps Prevent Injury

Just as the core is important for everyday movements, it's also necessary for avoiding injury during pretty much every other exercise you do. "If I could change the view of the world on one thing, it's understanding that every single exercise is about your core. Whether you're pressing weight overhead, doing lateral raises, doing something with heavy weights sitting on your body [think: hip thrusts], even though it's a shoulder or leg exercise, your ability to push more weight and do it safely without injuring your lower back is entirely resting on your ability to fire your core appropriately all the way around," Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in New York City, previously told Shape.

TL;DR — Making sure your entire core is strong will protect you from injury in the long run.

Crunches Muscles Worked

If done properly, crunches will target the rectus abdominis muscle, aka the two sheets of abs muscle responsible for that "six-pack" look. If you don't have the proper form, though, the exercise can work your neck muscles. ″Most people perform a crunch from the upper body instead of the abdominal region, which works your neck muscles — and not the way you want," explains Seedman. To avoid activating your neck muscles, keep the form tips above in mind when doing crunches. If done properly, you will also feel this move in your external obliques.

Crunches Variations

Even if you've been doing crunches for years, it pays to double-check your form and make sure you aren't accidentally doing the exercise wrong. If you've got the exercise down and want to get fancy, try some crunch variations. (These will also help you work more core muscles and avoid muscular imbalances.)

Try reverse crunches to zero in on the bottom portion of the rectus abdominis as well as the transverse abdominis, aka your innermost abs muscle. Adding a rotational lift to the top of your crunch will activate the oblique muscles (your side abs) and the abdominal wall.

Common Crunches Mistakes

So what can go wrong when doing crunches? Think of your spine like a noodle: It can bend back, forth, and around, but the structure remains linked together in one fluid line at all times. The exception to this is your cervical spine, which is the top portion that runs from your shoulders up into your skull. Despite being physically connected, your head has the ability to move independently from the rest of that "noodle." And when you go to do a crunch, your head may lag behind, disrupting the perfect arc and causing a strain on those supporting neck muscles thanks to gravity, explains McCall.

If performed properly, crunches will keep your spine in line from lower back to head. But if you let the head lag, you're leaving your neck vulnerable to a strain. ″Imagine each disc in between your vertebrae as a jelly doughnut,″ says McCall. ″If your head is jutting forward, it puts too much pressure on the front and squishes jelly out the back," he notes. Best case, this slight compression results in the mild discomfort that'll keep you from churning out enough reps to ever actually see abs in the mirror. But with enough pressure, this improper form can actually lead to a bulging disc, which comes with serious pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.

How to Add Crunches to Your Fitness Routine

Reminder: Your abs exercise routine shouldn't consist of crunches alone, but they can be beneficial to include in your workout if you perform them correctly. If you still feel neck pain after making adjustments to your technique — or you want to mitigate the risk of hurting yourself altogether — consider swapping crunches, which target only the rectus abdominis muscle, for other exercises that target your entire core. Think: core exercises that activate your obliques, rectus abdominis, and transversus abdominis (your deepest abs muscle) all at once, such as the bird-dog, woodchop, and spider plank.

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