Muscle-Building Myth #1: Crunches are Cool

We’re going to write up a 5-part series debunking some common muscle-building/fitness industry myths, starting with the most scam-ridden body part of all—your abs. You already know that you need to lose fat to see your abs, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse. This myth is far more insidious, and besides, this blog is for ectomorphs, so typically the reason we don’t have kickass abs is that they just aren’t big enough. Most ectomorphs thus try to solve the problem by doing crunches (or sit-ups). Jared and I sure did. We did crunches, reverse crunches, sit-ups, ab circuits, myotatic crunches, weighted crunches, side crunches, that bicycle thing, rope crunches. We did a hell of a lot of shitty ab exercises. The problem is that we were training spinal flexion instead of stability. That’s the opposite of what you want in a powerful body. Not only that, we were damaging our thoracic spine with every rep.

What the hell are you talking about?! Let me explain.

A powerful and well functioning body is built in a very particular way, and a lot of the power it produces comes from transferring force from your lower body to your upper body. In order to do this you need flexible hips, strong glutes, a rigid and rock hard core, and a properly aligned spine. This will allow you to lift like a beast, remain healthy and injury free in your day to day life, and pack on muscle like a monster.

In this regard crunches are the triple threat of #$^ing @#% up.

1. You’re going to train your abs to stretch and contract like an accordion. Your core should be trained to remain rigid, but it’s going to get used to rounding and flopping around, which as you probably know, is a nightmare when it comes to deadlifting and squatting (and, for that matter, shoulder pressing and bench pressing).

2. Crunches tighten your abs and yank your ribs down, giving you a rounded back. Many ectomorphs have upper and lower crossed syndrome, and tight abs is a good way to get rid of  ecto-booty and ecto-belly. Crunches are a horribly damaging way of attempting to solve the problem though. You’re fixing one postural issue and creating another. You’d be much better off developing a strong core and great posture another way.

3. If you aren’t properly developing a strong rigid core chances are you’re getting your flexibility there, instead of from your hips. This will cause a whole chain reaction of problems when it comes to running, lifting, and any sort of activity you do.

If they’re so bad for you, why do people do crunches at all?

Well it seems like the most logical way to train your abs. How many people out there are experts when it comes to spinal alignment? Not very many. How many people out there know that to strengthen a muscle you need to contract it? A hell of a lot. So the result is that everyone and their grandfather trains their abs by contracting and relaxing them … but forget to consider the implications to their spine, posture, athletic performance, aesthetics, and longterm wellbeing. Whoops.

Does this mean you’re doomed to have gimpy abs forever?

Hell no. In fact, crunches aren’t even that good at stimulating your abs! That’s why people waste their time doing 600 of them in a row and wind up with inferior abs and a busted back.

The Bony to Beastly solution?

Ditch the endless accordion ab routines and switch to anti-movement ab exercises—exercises like short and intense plank variations (6-pack), one-armed carries and presses (obliques), swiss ball rollouts (6-pack), and, our personal favourite—the Pallof Press.


Check out the other Muscle-Building Myths.

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  1. Chris on June 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Would this work similarly with a free weight? or do you need the resistance provided by the cable press?

    • Shane Duquette on June 3, 2012 at 11:53 pm

      The Pallof press is an anti-rotation exercises, so it relies on the torque that the cable provides, but you can also easily stimulate your obliques by doing side planks if you train at home.

      You could also do one-armed presses, like a one-armed dumbbell bench press, which would give you a similar torque as the Pallof press.


  2. Vasyl on June 17, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    How often should we work on our abs?

    • Marco Walker-Ng on June 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      It depends on what you want really, I mean, you train your abs whenever you do any type of athletic movement, whether it be sports or weightlifting. If you are going for aesthetics, doing a less frequent – 2-3 times a week approach where you do more exercises that involve more movement – I know we said you should train the core for stability – that is what it needs to be the most effective and prevent injury – but…. if you want bigger abs, you need to stretch it and contract it, however you would do so with small ranges of motion as you dont want to stretch the spine very far! In our program we have a specific core exercise every workout – 3 times a week.

  3. Cris on December 14, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Thanks for creating this site! When I get some spare money I’ll definitely join the program. I always knew that something was definitely wrong about my posture (looked efeminate). Turns out I have lower and upper cross syndrome. What exercises could I do to fix this (until I join the site)? Squats?

    • Shane Duquette on December 15, 2012 at 2:26 am

      Try some kneeling hip flexor stretches first. Those are good for loosening you up in the right places.

      Then do front and side planks. They will build up the rigidity in the places you need it to maintain rockin’ posture. You need to make sure you can get nice and straight though while doing them, so focus on tilting your hips into position while doing them.

      And if you’re feeling particularly crossed, you can even add in some reverse crunches, as shown here by one of Marco’s mentors, Eric Cressey.

      Hope that helps, and we’d love to have you man!

  4. Mason on March 3, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Hi guys, love the website. its the first time in years that I’ve felt like gaining muscle is possible. and i mean that beastly type of muscle( relatively speaking).
    I was wondering, how often should one take supplements and when exactly(time of day).

    • Shane Duquette on March 5, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Hey man, thanks for the kind words. Check out this article on supplements, but keep in mind that supplements won’t make or break your results. Focusing on food and training will get you much further than supplements 🙂

  5. X on March 6, 2013 at 10:52 am

    hey marco i have a question. my body is pretty similar to yours but the only difference is that my abs or my stomach area pops out like a turtle shell. its not that i am out of shape or anything i dont know if its my workouts or my genetics. i just want to know if you have any suggestion for a flatter belly?

    • Marco Walker-Ng on March 8, 2013 at 4:47 am

      Hey man, it could be your pelvis might be turned forward a bit. If it’s not causing you any problems I wouldn’t worry about it too much, but to fix it, you would probably want to strengthen your obliques and glutes. Doing planks and side planks with your buttcheeks engaged is a good start because they put your pelvis in a more neutral position and then it turns your obliques on to teach it to hang out in that position. When you squeeze your butt it’ll turn the pelvis up. Let me know if it works! Or if you have more questions! Good luck brother!

      • x on March 9, 2013 at 8:04 am

        thanks marco

      • phil on August 13, 2013 at 9:10 pm

        hey i have already a good abs definition but like the last comment it seems that my lower abdomen bulge out a bit (no fat). would side planks with buttcheeks engaged fix that with the other exercises mentionned? and by engaged buttcheeks what do you mean?

        • Shane Duquette on August 15, 2013 at 9:15 pm

          That’s really really common. Even with a really low body fat percentage that’s the last place that itty bitty bits of fat will hang out, so even when lean that part can pop a bit.

          Second, it may be postural. Any sort of anterior hip tilt (as Marco mentioned above) will cause your lower abs to pop forward a bit.

          Third, sometimes the lower abdominal muscles are just bigger (and it sounds like this may be the case with you) than the other ones. With good core training they should eventually balance out as they all learn to engage and do their fair share!

          What he means by engaged butt cheeks is simply to squeeze your butt until your hips rotate into a more neutral position. You’ll see what I mean when you try it. Grab your hips and clench your butt and you’ll see that your hips straighten right out.

          If your hips are good and you’re doing a solid program I wouldn’t worry too much about slightly bigger lower abdominal muscles. They’ll probably fix themselves as you gain more and more mastery over your lifts, and hell even if they don’t worrying over something minor like that probably isn’t worth the headspace. I know how easy it is to be perfectionistic, but with our physiques that can often be a negative thing if we let it get to extremes.

          Good Ryan Reynolds and you’ll see that in his “omg hottest male body ever” photo that his lower abs aren’t the same as you’d see on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine. And that’s cool 🙂

          Does that help?

  6. phil on August 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    a lot man! and i also think that it bulges out a bit because of bloating that i cant figure out from what (im not taking any supplement).. but it might be gut-induced stress.. i dont know if you have any idea or tought on the subject?

  7. Prestige on September 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I’m pretty sure I have upper and lower cross syndrome, but how can one tell for sure?

    • Shane Duquette on September 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      Based on your postural comment on the other post … it sounds like you probably do. Most people do, and ectomorphs especially. It sort of comes along with all the sitting that we do nowadays.

      You can turn sideways and look in the mirror. If your pelvis (hips) is tilted like in the photo then you’ve got anterior pelvic tilt. Combined with your forward head syndrome that’d be upper and lower crossed.

      There are fancier ways of checking, like putting your back up against a wall with your feet about a foot away from the wall … then seeing how much of your hand/arm you can fit back there.

      A neutral spine would be a tight fit for your hand most times (depending on how big your back and glutes are). If you can’t get your hand in at all, then you’ve got a posterior pelvic tilt, which is more rare, and if you can get, like, your whole damn arm in there, then you’ve got some pretty wild anterior pelvic tilt going. (Mine was pretty crazy!).

      Does that help?

  8. prestige on September 23, 2013 at 3:14 am

    Haha yeah, then it seems as though I definitely have it. Both upper and lower. I was kind of getting worried about this not being reversible the more I aged. But it seems it’s mostly due to weak muscles.

    Another thing with the upper cross syndrome, when I flex my pecs they are rock hard. I’m wondering if that’s the main cause of my shoulders being rounded forward. My pectoral muscles being stronger than the rest and pulling my posture down. I don’t have the fitness terminology to explain that any better lol so apologies for that.

    • Shane Duquette on September 23, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      No that makes sense. That’s not necessarily upper and lower crossed you’re talking about there, but rather internally rotated shoulders, which is equally as common (and often comes alongside stuff like computer work).

      You’ve got shorter tighter pec muscles (not necessarily stronger ones, although perhaps) and back muscles that are either loose or weak or both, and not able to pull them back into proper position.

      Also very reversible 🙂

  9. Prestige on September 24, 2013 at 6:02 am

    Great to hear

    Another thing I wanted to ask about was functional scoliosis. Basically scoliosis built through bad postural habits and not something I was born with. I’ve had MRI(?) scans done for it and my doctor said it’s very minor. So wondering if your program focuses on anything that could help that cause as well.

    • Shane Duquette on September 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

      Ooo. This is a tricky one to answer.

      First of all: you’ll want to get cleared by your doctor when it comes to this stuff and lift in a way that suits your particular situation. This program isn’t designed to treat any medical issues or anything. Everyone should always be cleared before starting any kind of weightlifting program, sport, jogging routine, paleo diet, vegan diet, etc.

      Second: this program IS designed to create strong healthy spines and backs, so I suspect that when you talk with your doctor and mention a lot of the stuff we’re doing he’s going to say something along the lines of “Ah! Awesome! Yeah, carefully beginning to strengthen your back muscles, develop mobility in your hips, build up strong glutes, and improve your posture is exactly what you should be doing!”

      But that doesn’t mean that you should skip the step of clearing this with your doctor. It may turn out he says something like “be particularly mindful of deadlifts and perhaps avoid them for now until we notice some improvements.”

      We’ve got guys in both situations: under advisement to slightly modify things – at least for now – and also guys whose doctors pretty much told them that this program was exactly what they needed to improve the health of their backs.

      We’ll gladly help you work through it on our end, of course, whether that’s modifying things a bit so you still grow like a monster despite avoiding certain lifts and/or building up a big strong deadlift.

      Make sense?

      Third: have you checked out Lamar Gant? That man is a scoliosis legend. He’s rocking really really severe scoliosis and yet he becomes hands down the strongest man in the world. He, perhaps not so dissimilar to you, got into weightlifting in an attempt to improve the health of his back. He’s still arguably the strongest man in the world a bajillion decades later. Best deadlift EVER. Legendary.

  10. Ian on March 31, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Hi! I was wondering what can i do to reverse my internal rotated shoulders. Got a friend that told me to “stand like a man, not like a monkey”, and i realized that it’s true, my shoulders aren’t in their optimal position. When i walk in the street i have to be aware of putting mi shoulders back, but their “normal” position is internal rotation. ¿So, if i do upper back exercises it will get better? Like dumbbell rows, cable rows, maybe chin ups (not sure if they help with the shoulder thing). Am i right? Please help!

    • Shane Duquette on April 3, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Yeah, I would do things like horizontal rows (dumbbell and cable rows), reverse flys, etc. It’s especially important to do them with good form though, or it really won’t produce the desired effect at all – so make sure you’re practicing proper technique!

      (I wouldn’t necessarily try to “stand like a man” though. That usually causes people to puff their chests up by bending in the lower back and yank their shoulders back in a more unnatural way. You want to be a little gentler with posture, and more so work on strengthening your body, not forcing unnatural positions. With posture you can’t really “fake it till you make it”, because sometimes that can cause even worse compensation patterns.)

  11. Galev on August 15, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Hi. I’m certainly skinny and probably ectomorph. I also have scoliosis. Working in an office doesn’t help either.
    So yesterday I went to a gym with my friend and worked out. It’s a crossfit/TRX sort of place with a coach who tells you what excercise to do and how to do it. Which I think is great because I don’t know anything about strength training and it’s more convenient learning it this way than from a book. It was tiring, and now I ache all over, but also feel great.
    BUT, the coach made us do lost of sit ups (along with other stuff) and I noticed some bruises on my back after showering. And now here is this article about how sit-ups are awful. So now I’m concerned. Maybe this place won’t be so good? Maybe I should talk about this with the coach? He seemed like a reasonable guy. I don’t want to stop working out now, just after starting, but I don’t want to ruin my health either.
    Any advice on that? Thanks!

    • Shane Duquette on August 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      Hey Galev,

      If it’s a CrossFit style place I’d call it “high intensity power training”. It’s got different goals and promotes different adaptations than strength training, even though both involve lifting weights. Check this article out.

      As for the bruises on your back, this is entirely just speculation, but if they’re run-of-the-mill bruises I’d guess they’re just from being in contact with the floor! If you’re talking about soreness in your spinal erectors (the muscles that run up alongside your spine) then it’s probably delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from having worked them a great degree with the other lifts (sit-ups wouldn’t work them). Sit-ups aren’t going to tear up and bruise your back or anything.

      In fact, we aren’t saying that there’s any evidence that sit-ups are going to directly damage your back at all! There are actually no studies showing this, and I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a correlation.

      They’re a pretty useless lift when it comes to building a big and powerful physique, they might give you some soreness in your hip flexors or something, and they won’t do much for your posture… but there’s no need to be scared of them!

      Other aspects of CrossFit-style training are far more injurious, like overhead pressing and high rep Olympic lifting 😉

      This is sort of the nature of the game though. CrossFit is more akin to a sport than training, so the injury rates are appropriately higher. Like they say—CrossFit will either make or break you! Will this be more likely to result in injury/disease than avoiding intense exercise altogether? Hard to say. Leading a sedentary lifestyle is probably the worst thing you can do for your health. Probably best to exercise, and if this is the way you prefer then it’s likely worth the risk to you, right?

      • Galev on August 19, 2014 at 8:30 am

        Thanks for your reply. And I must say I highly respect and esteem the way you maintain a credible approach to your articles (and apparently in your comments) and do actual, honest research before writing them. So great to have resources that are more than just “someone once said and it must be so” anecdotes and urban legends.

  12. Anii on May 24, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Nice Post
    I have a question,do i still need to train my abs and v -cut if i am extremely skinny ,the bones on the sides stick out a little,will that help to gain muscle there to cover the bones or it will worsen the situation ? And what are the best lower chest workouts to make it pop,And also my arms are real bony what set of exercises will help with covering the whole arm.I am Eating maximum i can but sometimes i feel full and cannot eat there any meals replacement ?? Thanks n sorry for so many questions at once :p

    • Shane Duquette on May 26, 2015 at 4:15 pm

      Hey Anii, I’d recommend training your whole body with a variety of compound and isolation lifts. Check this article about lifting out.

  13. Jim on April 9, 2016 at 5:46 am

    Is the hanging leg-lift an ok exercise? It is very similar to the reverse crunch. And would it be an ok combination to shift between that exercise and the planks?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Shane Duquette on April 9, 2016 at 7:20 pm

      Yes, and yes 🙂

  14. ali on July 16, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Is the deadlift and the Goblet Squats help to fix Lordosis?

    • Shane Duquette on July 16, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      The deadlift and squat can help if you do them properly enough, yes 🙂

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