The right way to do crunches, without hurting your neck

Common form mistakes you're making during ab workouts -- and how to fix them

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read

It's common to get neck pain when you do a crunch -- here's how to prevent it.

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Working your core is important for a stronger body and better posture, but if you are also hurting your neck, back or hips in the process, then you may be missing out on some of the benefits of ab workouts altogether.

It turns out form mistakes are quite common with ab workouts. One reason is a lack of guidance if you workout at a gym alone, on your own at home or in a class setting and haven't had a trainer coach you through basic form techniques and positions. But you don't have to hire a personal trainer to teach you -- you can learn some simple tips and form adjustments from fitness instructors below to get all the benefits of core-strengthening exercise without back, neck or hip pain. It just takes some willingness to modify when you need to and self-awareness about what you're doing when you workout.

Keep reading to find out how to prevent pain and protect yourself during tricky core workouts, whether you work out at the gym or at home.


This is proper crunch form -- your arms support your head, your shoulders are down and your arms are away from your face.

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How to prevent neck pain during core exercises

"I see a lot of mistakes in form that ultimately do more harm than good. Crunches tend to be people's favorite ab exercise, with the mentality of 'the more, the better.' However, these exercises are very often performed with the incorrect form," says Sylvia Ostrowska, a certified Pilates instructor and founder of Pilates by Sylvia in New York City.

Whether you're doing crunches, or any other type of ab exercise, performing them correctly is key to actually getting results and keeping pain away. I know for me personally, my neck tends to strain when I'm tired or if I'm feeling tense and then workout. Thinking about actively relaxing the neck and upper body, and using the muscles I'm targeting has helped me, but there are a few other things you can keep in mind.

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First, you've probably heard a trainer say to keep your eyes up or to the ceiling, which is kind of hard if you'd rather be able to see what you're doing. "You should always keep your gaze to your horizon, keeping your chin down and pulled slightly back as if you're holding a ball under your chin. This will prevent you straining the front of your neck, which happens often with any ab exercise," Ostrowska said.

And while the idea of working more than one muscle group at a time seems efficient, you actually may want to think twice about doing that with your core -- especially if it's your arms.

"The key is not to engage the arms when doing any core exercises like crunches, but to use the arms only to support the neck and head. Use your core and be mindful of what your arms are doing. Keep the elbows open (don't create blinders with your elbows) and try to push your head into your hands a bit to create resistance," Ostrowska said. 


During sit-ups, your hip muscles often compensate for weak abs, especially when your legs are bent, knees are up and someone is holding down your feet.

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What to do if your hips hurt during core work (and why)

Most of us have tight hips and hip flexors -- it's one of the things that come with sitting for long periods of time. This is one reason why it's common to feel pain or tightness in the hip flexors when you do core work.

"Sometimes hip flexors hurt due to a previous injury, tightness from sitting for long periods of time, or it can happen from having weak abdominals," Ostrowska said. 

That's right -- your hip flexors may hurt during core work because your abs are not as strong as they could be. This may seem like a vicious cycle (how do you get stronger abs if you can't get through ab work because of the pain?!) but it's not impossible to fix.

"Hip flexors tend to take over in sit-ups (especially when you have your feet being held down for stationary support), other similar forward bending exercises and leg levers. The reason for this is the abs are often not strong enough, causing the hip flexors overcompensate. Try to consciously engage the abs more. If doing leg extensions, start slowly and extend only one leg at a time. With tight hip flexors, it's better to be more conservative. Smaller movements are better here than big lifts," Ostrowska said.

How to protect your back during core exercises 


Don't be afraid to modify your ab workouts to protect your back. Toe-reach crunches are one good modification to try.

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Back pain is often really complicated to figure out, but it's a common issue that so many people experience. Which is one reason why you want to keep your back safe and protected during any core exercises.

Being mindful of how your back and spine are positioned in core exercises and how it feels is important. For example, if you feel sudden back pain while working out, take a break and ask a professional (like an instructor if you're in a class, or maybe a physical therapist) what you can do next time to prevent pain.

"People often feel back pain because they are compensating in some way, which causes them to hyperextend (overarch) their low back," Helen Phelan, a certified Pilates instructor at Session in New York City said. 

"This can be fixed by resetting to neutral position, making sure the thoracic spine (upper back) hasn't popped off the floor, and modifying the exercise," Phelan said. In order to keep your back safe, Phelan said to not be afraid to modify the exercise by shortening the range of motion, or doing less weight or fewer reps if that feels better.

"Maintaining neutral pelvis requires a lot of core strength, and it is easy for surrounding muscle groups, commonly the back and hips to takeover in compensation when the abs fatigue, so staying mindful and present is important to make sure your movement is always safe," Phelan said.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.