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Down on Lumbar Flexion in Strength Training Programs? Enter the Reverse Crunch.

Written on September 1, 2011 at 9:36 am, by Eric Cressey

The other day, I got an email from another fitness professional saying that he really liked my Maximum Strength training program, but that he’d have left out the reverse crunches if it was his strength training program because he “doesn’t use any lumbar flexion work” in his programming anymore.

Given that the book was published in 2008, I’d gather that he is under the assumption that I’ve jumped on board the anti-flexion bandwagon that’s been piling up members in droves over the past 3-4 years.  That perception certainly has backing.  Afterall, if you want to herniate a disc, go through repeated flexion and extension at end range.  If you want to see a population of folks with disc herniations, just look at people who sit in flexion all day; it’s a slam dunk.

And, you certainly don’t want to go into lumbar flexion with compressive loading.  As far back as 1985, Cappozzo et al. demonstrated that compressive loading on the spine during squatting increased with lumbar flexion.

These points in mind, I’m a firm believer that you should avoid:

a) end-range lumbar flexion

b) lumbar flexion exercises in those who already spend their entire lives in flexion

c) lumbar flexion under load

It seems pretty cut and dry, right?  Don’t move your lumbar spine and you’ll be fine, right? Tell that to someone who lives in lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt.  Let me make that clearer:

Flexion from an extended position to “neutral” is different than flexion from “neutral” to end-range lumbar flexion.

In the former example, we’re just taking someone from 20 yards behind the starting line up to the actual starting line.  In the latter example, we’re taking someone from the starting line, through the finish line, and then violently through the line of people at the snack shack 50 yards past the finish line as nachos and Italian ice fly everywhere and the spectators scurry for cover.  You get a gold star if you take out the band, too.

If you’re someone who trains predominantly middle-aged to older adult clients, by all means, nix flexion exercises.  However, I deal with loads of athletes – most of whom live in lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt.

Now, I’ll never be a guy who has guys doing sit-ups or crunches, as they can shorten the rectus abdominus, thereby pulling the rib cage down when we’re working hard to improve thoracic extension and rotation.  Additionally, most athletes absolutely crank on the neck with these – and that leads to a host of other problems.

For reasons I outlined in a recent post, Hip Pain in Athletes: The Origin of Femoroacetabular Impingement, we need to work to address anterior pelvic tilt and excessive lumbar extension – which can lead to a “pot belly” look even in athletes who are quite lean.

Enter the reverse crunch, which selectively targets the external obliques over the rectus abdominus.  As Shirley Sahrmann wrote in Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, “The origin of this muscle from the rib cage and its insertion into the pelvis are consistent with the most effective action of this muscle, that is, the posterior tilt of the pelvis.”

We utilize the reverse crunch as part of a comprehensive anterior core strengthening program that also includes progresses from prone bridging variations to rollout variations and TRX anterior core work (and, of course, anti-rotation exercises to improve rotary stability).  And, I can say without hesitate that this addition was of tremendous value to an approach that got cranky baseball hips and spine healthier faster than ever before at Cressey Performance.

In summary, remember that flexion isn’t the devil in a population that lives in extension. Contraindicate the person, not the exercise.

To learn more about our comprehensive approach to core stabilization, be sure to check out Functional Stability Training of the Core.

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30 Responses to “Down on Lumbar Flexion in Strength Training Programs? Enter the Reverse Crunch.”

  1. Lance Goyke Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Another progression that incorporates the shoulders a little more could be a pike or jacknife with a posterior tilt.

  2. Stephane Says:

    Great video and explanation! There were a few key points I never really payed attention to (that will now change).

  3. Niel Says:

    Nifty, matching footwear. Next month we’ll see Tony do a dragon flag?

  4. Sam Leahey Says:

    Good stuff, Eric!

  5. Kasey Allen Says:

    Wow, it’s almost creepy how timely this blog post was. I was perusing Amazon the other day and one of the recommended books for me based on browsing and purchasing history was Maximum Strength. I knew of the book and considering how big of an influence and impact you’ve been/had on me, I figured 10 bucks for the kindle edition was a bargain. I was right, the program looks awesome, so I just started it this week. My only question was about the reverse crunch, and it’s hard to really understand proper technique with pictures and description. Thanks for the video and clearing up the “why” and the “how” and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of moving day!

    All the best,
    Kasey

  6. Ian Says:

    Great post and good points made. Although, we do have a back pain relief program that that goes against conventional wisdom is bio-mechanically and scientifically based with close to 100% success rate that includes lumbar spinal flexion in a few of the movements. It works very well for sedentary people and will probably change the way people think about spinal flexion in the future. It is really about how the movements are made and where they are placed in the program. For people who are not experienced with back pain and the spine its probably best to stay away from lumbar flexion.

    Thanks for the post!

    Ian

  7. Jeff Blair Says:

    Eric,

    Any idea what degree of LF that is in the reverse crunch? Any thoughts or limitations on degree of LF even in athletic populations? Thanks

  8. Jeff Violette Says:

    That was SO awesome, Eric!! I’ve been fighting for 2 years to find ways to increase my core without making things worse. I had a ruptured disc at L-4 a couple years ago (followed by surgery) and everyone said to “strengthen the core”. Yet, the things they showed me scared the snot out of me because they hurt and it just didn’t seem right (I’m not that bright, but the flexion things just didn’t make sense; I kept seeing the surgeons knife in my mind as I was doing them). The other things I was shown didn’t help strengthen my core. I was stuck. This information you gave today helps a LOT!! Thank you! Have a super holiday. Jeff in Lexington, KY

  9. k Says:

    GREAT info& video, always wondered about that exercise for the masses!!! thanks Eric

  10. mike goncalves Says:

    Hi Eric
    I would like to combine my srenght workouts with conditioning workouts.Would you recommend for example: mon/lower body strenght tue/conditioning thur/upper body strenght fri/conditioning.Please let me know what you think.

    Thanks Mike

  11. dan Says:

    really cool article. makes a lot of sense. i think i will try those reverse crunches in my work.

  12. Kyle Says:

    Great video’s EC. This has to be one of my favourite posts on your site. More exercise demo’s please!

  13. Oliver Says:

    Nice post eric. What evidence is there that by strengthening the rectus abdominus with spinal flexion (like the crunch), actually shortens said muscle? I know in theory it may make sense, but I am yet to see anything which proves it. Where does this come from? Have any studies shown this?
    Like always, awesome videos, keep up the good work.

  14. Dave Joesph Says:

    Can’t help but agree with the comments mentioned above; however I thought I would share my appraoch to the reverse curl.

    Stack a number of exercise mats to a height between 1-2 inches. alinge the top edge of the pelvis with the bottom edge of the mat (butt is on the floor, back is on the mat). It is from this position you are able to perform a true posterior tilt. My clients are often suprised how effective this actually is – especialy when the anterior to posterior movements amounts to a few degrees. This is a great litmus test as lumbar tension/pain during the exercise is typically attributed to shortening or trigger point activity of the lumbar erectors.

  15. Matt Siniscalchi Says:

    great stuff, Eric!

  16. Lisa Says:

    Great blog post. I am also a big fan of the anti rotation exercises. I find they are much more effective at targeting the obliques and rectus abdominus than curling yourself up and down and pulling your neck out of alignment.

  17. Joe Says:

    Great post, Eric.
    With regard to the folks “hanging out” in extension, how much work do you do with them on relaxing/lengthening the hip flexors? This is such a huge component of most people I’ve seen with anterior tilt that I’d like to know how you address it and if you use your anterior core work to help them hold the right position.
    Thanks again for focusing on how the science really applies to training.

  18. Rees Says:

    Who would write such a thing…..Haha.

    Nice post man.

    That was just for me personally w/ the reverse crunch. I don’t really have pelvic tilt or lumbar issues. Should’ve been more thorough and mentioned that. Interesting hearing you take that on though.

    Btw, be up in canton at the end of the month. See you then.

  19. Ian Says:

    Nice one Eric- considering the speight of recent “pro” flexion articles I thought we could have been on the way back to 2000 crunch workouts!

  20. Allen Says:

    You probably saw the article by Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld; “To Crunch or Not to Crunch.” They believe that the crunch exercise is safe.

    When I saw that article I had this gloomy premonition that we were headed back down the road to the 80’s and Muscle & Fitness type information. That gloomy has started to lift after reading your article Eric. I hope that we get more professionals preaching safety first.

  21. Victor Says:

    Great post. I have a slight diastasis (“mummy tummy” but I am a guy), and so I won’t do crunches or situps for fear of worsening the separation. The trick is to work the external obliques rather than the recti abdomini, and the reverse crunch does just that.

  22. Dave Says:

    Eric, would you consider a Turkish Get-Up to be “Lumbar Flexion Under Load?”

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    Dave – No, as the load is pretty insignificant, and it isn’t full lumbar flexion (or even close).

  24. Kieran Says:

    Nice article. I’m just intrigued as to your thoughts on people like myself with a ‘flat back’ performing this exercise. I have essentially no lordosis and a slight kyphosis. A physical therapist has told me that ‘I was probably born that way so nothing can be done’. I don’t see why that would be the case though. Would this exercise be of any benefit in my case? If even just for spine stability?

  25. Dru Says:

    Great article, Eric. I’m with you. I see far more patients/athletes who fit this classification than athletes with disc issues. These patients present with a hypermobility in the lower lumbar spine from an extension/rotation type of movement pattern where the hang out on their facet joints for stabilization rather than use the ext obliques. They just live in the posture you pictured above. Love your articles. Keep it up!

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Dru!

  27. Kar Sum Says:

    Hi Eric,

    I have tried the reverse crunch as shown and can really feel the obliques working. However, as my right oblique is more developed, my right hip is more posteriorly tilted than my left(as you have mentioned here and in the FST Core seminar about the effective action of the obliques).

    I am thinking to try out single leg reverse crunch to work on my left oblique to balance things out. Not sure if this exercise can still work effectively with one leg squeezing a roller foam and the other leg being relatively straight. Just want to get your opinion on this.

    Thanks!

  28. Eric Cressey Says:

    Kar,

    Check out some of the exercises at http://www.posturalrestoration.com; they’d be the best approach to employ.

  29. Scott Simpson Says:

    Hi Eric,

    I have a very prominent anterior pelvic tilt and I want to know why it happens,

    Is it because of tightness through my glutes, hip flexors and hamstrings or is it because of a weak core?

    I spend an amount of time daily trying to correct it by doing exercises that you suggest but I still find myself moving into an anterior pelvic tilt and cannot squat lower than 90 degrees as it forces a tilt.

  30. Eric Cressey Says:

    Scott,

    You need to learn how to prevent it at rest before you learn how to train to prevent it.  No amount of training can overcome faulty posture during your daily life.

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