Bad news if you've still got crunches in your workout routine: not only could the de facto ab workout be the reason you're not seeing the toning you want, but crunches can also strain your pelvic floor, causing women to experience pain during sex.
Dr. Karla Wente, a pelvic floor physical therapist at DPT Sport in Illinois, says she never prescribes crunches because they're just not that good of an exercise due to the pressure they put on the pelvic floor.
Doing crunches without proper engagement of your pelvic floor might actually cause leakage, says Wente. On the flipside, women who already have strong pelvic floors and are doing crunches risk over-building and over-tightening their abdominal muscles and pelvic floors. Too much strength in these muscles can make penetration more difficult and, in some cases, painful.
If you're reading this and thinking "say no more, fam," don't abandon ab exercises just yet. Wente says women need a balance of strength and flexibility in the abs and pelvic floor to avoid painful sex. "Of course I want to promote physical activity and movement," Wente says, "but as a physical therapist we are in the business of optimizing movement."
Here's what you need to know.
You're probably not giving your pelvic floor the attention it deserves.
When you think about strengthening your core, your pelvic floor probably doesn't come to mind, but it's actually connected directly to the abs. We have four major muscles that make up our abdominals: two obliques, the rectus abdominis (AKA the six pack) and the transverse abdominis, our deepest layer. The rectus abdominis connects directly to the pelvic bone and the transverse abdominis (what you work out in pilates and barre) connects directly to the pelvic floor via connective tissue or fascia.
Crunches also won't cinch your waistline.
Wente says there is really no literature that supports spot training—the idea where you can lose weight in one area by working it over and over. People seem to understand doing bicep curls every day with increasing weight will make biceps get bigger, not smaller, but for some reason they seem to think doing crunches every day will make the stomach smaller.
"Your crunches might be worsening [your waistline]," says Wente, "because you're getting a larger muscle group and you're not working the deeper muscles. The transverse abdominis actually cinches your waist."
Finally convinced to be done with crunches? Here's Wente's pelvic floor-approved ab workouts.
1. Instead of crunches, try an isometric core contraction.
Laying on your back, bend your knees and put your feet on the floor and inhale, filling your low belly. This breath will lengthen the pelvic floor and abdominals. On your exhale pull in the pelvic floor and pull your bellybutton to your spine. That's one rep. "You aren't moving like you would in a crunch, but you are turning on and turning off [the entire pelvic floor area]," says Wente, "and that's a much more functional way to use your muscles."
Try two sets of 30 reps, spacing your sets throughout the day.
2. The plank position is your new best friend.
It's a neutral position and can work your deep transverse abdominis and your pelvic floor, says Wente. Assume a standard plank position paying special attention to spinal alignment. Tighten your abs to provide stability and make sure you don't hold your breath.
Start with 10 second planks for 10-15 reps. Progress from there but make sure you can do this basic form before moving on to modifications.
3. All about the V-Ups? Try modified planks.
Starting in a plank position, pick up your right hand and tap your left should. Put your right hand down and repeat this with your left hand to your right shoulder. Now, bring your left foot towards your center and tap with your right hand. Repeat with left hand to right foot. This takes balance, breathing and core engagement.
Try a set of 8 mixed in with a nice HIIT circuit.
4. Love bicycle crunches? Try proper form bicycle crunches.
"The bicycle in premise is not bad," says Wente, "but I don't have people lift their head." Keeping your head down puts your spine in neutral. The other common mistake people make in this pose? Holding their breath. "One of the easiest ways to throw off the balance of the system of your abs and pelvic floor is to hold your breath or not breath appropriately," says Wente.
No matter which exercise you try, Wente requires patients to take a deep, "belly breath" after each ab set. "If you're holding your breath your pelvic floor can't move in the way that it's supposed to, and your abs really can't either," she says.
If you're experiencing pain during sex or just had a baby, stop all ab exercises and visit a pelvic floor physical therapist. To find one near you, go here.