Forget the Crunch, Smoothly ARC Your Way to Stronger, Longer Abs

Let’s talk about the crunch.  The term brings to mind workout videos (VHS, of course) from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  It conjures images of a pinched face and a million reps.  Outdated, right?  Well, not really.  The crunch is still part of almost every exercise repertoire.  It may not be called a “crunch” – we certainly don’t call it that in Pilates – but let’s be honest, the movement of lifting your head, neck and shoulders off the floor while at the same time decreasing the distance between your nose and your knees, is what, traditionally, has been called a “crunch.”

Why are fitness disciplines, including Pilates, shying away from the term “crunch?”  Quite possibly because a “crunched” body is nobody’s goal.  So, how do we get clients to do this quintessential ab workout without “crunching?”  How do we stay true to a goal of elongation and space between the vertebrae while tapping into one of the most traditional and effective abdominal exercises?

First, cue bones.  To avoid the “crunch” of the cervical spine coming into extreme flexion as the chest lifts, initiate the movement by cueing the rib-hip connection.  The rib-hip connection can see us through almost any supine abdominal challenge.  It can help initiate the movement and it can also give us a reference point as we try to maintain the chest lift position throughout certain exercises – “maintain the distance between your bottom rib and your hip bone…”  This also works for cross body supine ab work such as the Criss Cross.  Cue the right rib to left hip bone and vice versa.

Second, cue smooth arcs.  The traditional crunch is rather staccato: Up, down.  Up, down.  Up, down.  If we tweak the cueing slightly, we can create an arc of movement, rather than a crunch.  With a smooth arc of movement, the exercise is effective in the upward movement as well as on the return, through eccentric muscle contraction as the muscles elongate.


To help create a visual for your client, you can use any arc that feels relevant to you.  A rainbow, the St. Louis Arch, the Kintai Bridge of Japan or a more humble crust of a slice of pie (if you’re like me an just finished gorging over the holidays, a slice of pie is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an arc).   In the start position, with your head resting on the floor, imagine the arc is hovering just above the head, one end resting on the floor and the other end hovering knee-height above your pubic bone.  Ask your client to elongate the crown of his or her head to the edge of the arc, creating length in both the spine in the abdominals.  Then have him or her begin to trace the inside of the arc, maintaining that length and connection with the arc to the top of the movement and again on the way back down.

Don’t give up on the crunch!  Just slow it down and smooth it out.  And give it a more apt name.  Ab Arcs anyone?


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