According to this article, all forms of crunches are bad for your back, because they flex the spine.

Regardless of whether or not this is 100% accurate, I would like to know if there are any ab exercises I can perform which involve little-to-no flexion of the spine, yet still exercise the muscles enough to achieve a toned look.

The article mentions these exercises which are safe for the back:

In all of these exercises, it looks like the rectus abdominis muscles are exercised isometrically. Is that really enough in order to achieve a toned ab look? If not, can you recommend any alternative exercises which don't involve spinal flexion?

Say I do use an exercise which tones the abs without requiring flexing the spine, would it take a lot longer to build muscles than the traditional way (i.e. sit-ups, crunches, etc.)? Also, would it be more likely that I would plateau a lot sooner?

Note: I realize that in order to get toned abs, you need a combination of very low body fat in addition to significant abdominal muscle mass.

  • possible duplicate of How can I get more "toned"?
    – user2861
    Aug 15, 2013 at 2:22
  • Stuart McGill is probably the worlds expert on core strength. Those exercises will all build musclular abs. To expose them and look "toned" you need to lower your body fat, hence the close vote.
    – user2861
    Aug 15, 2013 at 2:23
  • 3
    @LegoStormtroopr Could be a duplicate of that question you refer to but the OP wants to know something that doesn't disturb the spine while exercising the ab.
    – Freakyuser
    Aug 15, 2013 at 3:26
  • 1
    @Freakyuser Unfortunately there is nothing to answer, as he answered the question. The only answer to "How do I safely train my abs?" is "Do whatever Dr. Stuart McGill says".
    – user2861
    Aug 15, 2013 at 4:09
  • @LegoStormtroopr: The reason I thought this question was valid is because it sounds like Dr. Stuart McGill is primarily concerned with strength of the abs, rather than on getting them to look toned. From my understanding, there are different exercises/workouts for the two different goals... if you strengthen a specific muscle, it does not directly imply that it would be toned enough to notice (or there may be other, better exercises that will lead to those results quicker).
    – Senseful
    Aug 15, 2013 at 11:15

1 Answer 1


Dr. Stuart McGill, who that article sites, is probably the worlds leading expert on back health and abdominal strength. He has stated quite adamantly that sit-ups and crunches are unsafe for the back, so if you are looking to minimise your risk of lower back pain and injury I'd be inclined to agree with everything he has to say on the matter.

One of McGills main principles is that the abdominal muscles are stabilisers not movement muscles, so you want to train them in a way that they need to offer stabilisation. Often people find this is difficult to work into a progressive overload routine as you expect to be adding weight to keep within a rep range for strength or hypertrophy depending on your goal.

With regards to promoting ab growth the exercises you listed will all work fine, but if you are looking for a further challenge Ab rollouts can be extremely difficult. Alternatively, if you want to use a weight to gauge progress an exercise I find plate twists (aka. cherry pickers) are a great ab exercise. The key with these is that your abdominals remain flexed in a static position, rather than being flexed and relaxed like in crunches. By remaining braced to maintain a position, while your obliques rotate the waist you use your body to perform a more "natural movement" for those muscles.

The key thing to look for in abdominal exercises is for activities where the spine remains static and the abdominals remain braced. While exercises might require a flexed, or extended abdomen the key is that the abdomen and lower spine should stay in a static position through the entire range of motion. Its because of this that people often suggest exercises such as deadlifts and squats (especially front squats) are sufficient for ab and core development; as the abs are used to statically and safely hold progressively larger weights.

Regading your issue of how to expose the abs, that is an issue of diet rather than an aspect of any particular exercise. No matter how big your abs get, if they have a layer of fat they won't be seen. However, there are plenty of posts on this board that cover how to get 'toned'.

  • The question claimed 'crunches are bad for your back, because they flex the spine', yet in the plate twist example above, the guy is flexing his spine considerably. This might be confusing... in the end there's nothing wrong with flexing the spine, the problem is weak core muscles, stiff hips and hamstrings, and obviously, someone having these conditions must take care.
    – BKE
    Aug 16, 2013 at 9:45
  • Its a subtle difference, but the spine remains static but twists. Rather than use the abs to bring the shoulders closer to the hips (for example), the position of the spine stays the same and the upper torso twists. The abs contract and hold, and the obliques move the body in a "natural" way, much like throwing a ball or swinging a club.
    – user2861
    Aug 16, 2013 at 10:39
  • I get the details of the exercise, I did not say it was a crunch. But still, the spine is visibly in flexion (not flexion-extension, but static flexion, with appropriate muscles engaged). I also get that this is not a problem in this exercise. All I say is that plainly stating 'flexing the spine is bad' might be confusing for someone not much into this subject.
    – BKE
    Aug 16, 2013 at 13:28
  • @BKE Hmmm... good point, I hadn't though of that. I'll update the answer.
    – user2861
    Aug 17, 2013 at 1:00

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