Prenatal Fitness Series - #4
Prenatal fitness dos and don'ts series
Pre- and Postnatal fitness is not usually as black and white as people make out. Most exercises have good and bad aspects, and will be appropriate for different people.
In this series we're going to look at specific exercises and the pros and cons of doing them during pregnancy, so that you can decide for yourself if it's worth it.
# 7 - THE CRUNCH
PROS - Requires no equipment - Requires little instruction - If you are in the early stages of pregnancy and your belly is totally flat and fully functioning and you have no pelvic floor issues, the crunch may have some value in strengthening/using the rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles).
CONS - If you are in the later stages of pregnancy and you are starting to show or have a huge belly with a growing baby inside, your abdominal muscles will not be working properly to flex the spine as they are stretched around a bump. You will likely stretch the connective tissue more and cause/worsen a diastasis recti (DR, or separation of the abdominal muscles) and/or use other muscles to compensate.
- many women do crunches incorrectly: they hold their breaths and bear down as they do the movement. This can put tremendous pressure on the pelvic floor and cause a whole host of dysfunction. - If you are still in the early stages of pregnancy but have DR from a previous pregnancy, you will not be able to perform this exercise safely. If you cannot contain the pressure in your abdomen, your belly is likely to pop out, like in the pictures below. If this is happening, you are doing more damage, widening the gap between your abdominal muscles. - If you have any pelvic floor issues (this could be peeing yourself when you sneeze or run, or POP - pelvic organ prolapse, or even just mild pain, discomfort or heaviness) you will likely be pushing all the pressure down onto the weak pelvic floor, worsening your condition. - If you have poor posture and are hunched over from feeding and carrying your baby, or work at a desk most of the day, this is going to make your posture worse, reinforcing those bad habits.
CONCLUSION Crunches were hugely popularized quite a few years back when we realized that full sit-ups using a lot more hip flexors than "core". Pilates has further popularized this exercise, but the truth is it really has very little value in strengthening the core. The crunch really only strengthens spinal flexion - and while it can be part of a well-rounded training programme, it gives you little bang for your buck and there are many exercises that are much more effective at training and strengthening the core. In truth, spinal flexion is just one movement that the core muscles are capable of producing (along with side flexion, extension and rotation) and really their forte is in stablizing us centrally (proximal stability) while we create movement outwards from this base (distal mobility).
The fitness industry has moved away from this kind of training and focuses more on planks and functional training, but the legacy of the crunch still remains and it is difficult to convince women not to do it. Often, they love to "feel the burn", even if it is doing little to really get them the flat stomach they crave.
Furthermore, "ab" workouts are often sold as a way of burning fat from the tummy - we know that this is not a reality, that spot-reduction is a total myth, but many women still buy the idea that they can burn fat from their midlines by doing lots of traditional ab exercises. These kind of results are actually achieved in the kitchen.
Crunches are not suitable when you have DR or any sort of pelvic floor issues and in any case, don't offer much even if they are safe to do, so you're probably better off just avoiding them altogether. You may be able to perform them safely before you start to show, but as soon as you have a big pregnant belly, it's best to leave this exercise out.
There are lots of other ways of working the core during pregnancy - some of these are far more "functional" than doing crunches. By functional, in this context, I mean that they will help you cope with the physical demands of pregnancy. They will strengthen your core in a way that looks more like your daily tasks. - Side plank - Farmers' carry. racked carry - Pallof press (my favourite)
I highly recommend to most of my pregnant (and post-partum) trainees to leave the core alone, and focus on building the glutes. I have a whole glute series on YouTube
WHAT ABOUT AFTER BIRTH Again - if you have DR and/or pelvic issues CRUNCHES WILL MAKE IT WORSE. If you have a mummy tummy, CRUNCHES WILL MAKE IT WORSE and you should avoid them entirely. CRUNCHES WILL NOT HELP YOU GET RID OF YOUR 'MUMMY TUMMY'. If you experience any bulging or tenting of the abdomen, or feel any pressure on the linea alba (the connective tissue separating the two sides of the six pack), you will be making the separation worse.
If you don't have an abdominal separation after birth, you may want to ask yourself why you want to do crunches. If it is to get a flat stomach, crunches rarely help - if it is to strengthen your core, crunches rarely help. And if you have excess belly fat, crunches DEFINITELY will not help you burn it.
FINAL COMMENTS Crunches are not an effective exercise for the core (I do not include them in my training, nor do I include them in the programs of my clients). Even if you have not had a baby/are not a woman, you should seriously reconsider their place in your exercise routine for the reasons I have mentioned above.
ang for your buck and often worsen any sort of back pain.