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If you’ve done enough bicycle crunches to dethrone Jasper Stuyven, you might think you’re a bicycle crunch expert. But this exercise requires a lot more attention to detail than the average sit-up.
When done correctly, the bicycle crunch works your abdominals and obliques. Back in 2001, the American Council on Exercise actually deemed the bicycle crunch the No. 1 exercise for strengthening the rectus abdominus (the abdominal muscles that make up the “six pack”).
So, how can you make sure your form is on point and you’re getting the most out of this awesome ab-torcher? Read on.
Before you start, think about speed — or, rather, a lack of it. “One of the best ways to make ab workouts harder is to slow down the speed of the movement,” says New Jersey personal trainer Nick Occhipinti.
Through each and every rep, make sure you’re using your core to do the work, with absolutely no momentum.
Here’s how to do a bicycle crunch properly.
- Lie on your back on the floor (or, preferably, on a mat for some support). Press your lower back into the floor and bend knees while keeping feet flat on the floor.
- Place hands behind head, interlacing fingers if preferred. Keep elbows wide and gently cradle your head in your hands.
- Bring your knees up, with shins parallel to the floor, as you lift shoulder blades off the floor. (Be careful not to strain or pull on your neck.)
- As you straighten left leg out at about a 45-degree angle, turn your upper body to the right, bringing left elbow toward right knee. (Make sure the movement comes from your rib cage, not just your elbows.)
- Return to center, with both knees bent and elbows wide.
- Repeat on the other side: Straighten right leg to a 45-degree angle and turn your upper body to the left, bringing right elbow toward left knee.
- Return to the starting position to complete 1 rep.
Do 3 sets of 15–25 reps, resting for 30 seconds to 1 minute after each set.
Want to try a harder variation? Occhipinti suggests the hollow hold bicycle crunch:
- Instead of returning feet and shoulders to the floor between reps, hold a constant “hollow body” position.
- Brace your abs tight, keep low back flat on the floor, and keep feet elevated about 6 inches. Keep shoulder blades just above the floor.
- From this position, slowly alternate bringing a knee to the opposite elbow, returning to center, and repeating.
Need to take it down a notch? Swap in the dead bug exercise, which is as effective for physical therapy and rehab as it is for fitness, explains Occhipinti.
- Lie on your back on the floor, with knees bent, feet flat, and arms straight up.
- Keep back flat on the floor as you slowly extend left arm and right leg. Maintain a strong core and keep your low back on the floor.
- Return to the starting position, and then repeat on the other side to complete 1 rep.
Adding bicycle crunches to your routine? Don’t make these mistakes.
- Sprinting through your crunches. This is actually the biggest mistake Occhipinti sees folks make. “The abdominal muscles are relatively small, postural stabilizing muscles,” he says. “When we speed through our ab workouts, some of those larger muscles can take over and move our body with pure momentum.” The result? You don’t get the maximum benefits from your crunches.
- Letting your hip flexors take over. When you go too fast or try to do too many crunches, your hip flexors (and your iliopsoas in particular) like to give your abs a break, says Occhipinti.
- Tugging on your neck. If you find yourself straining your neck to get your knee and elbow closer together, it’s time to back off. Instead, unlace your fingers and rest them gently on the back of your head, so you won’t be tempted to “cheat” and use them to push too far.
- Relying on momentum. “In the upper body, we will use the latissimus dorsi to swing the arms towards our feet — and use that momentum to crunch our body up” instead of the strength of our abs, he says. The fix? (You guessed it!) Slow down.
Basically, to avoid any of these mistakes, the advice is the same: “The key here is to slow down the movement — sometimes painfully slow — so we are truly only using our abdominals to generate the movement,” advises Occhipinti.
Why were bicycle crunches crowned the best for your six-pack muscles? This simple exercise packs in tons of benefits.
Strong core = strong body
It sounds like a bumper sticker, but a strong core helps your body and your overall health in a number of ways.
Strengthen your core muscles and you’ll notice improved endurance (ideal for workouts or just busy days running errands), better posture, reduced back pain, and reduced risk of injury. Not too shabby, eh?
Bicycle crunches give you visible results faster
“Bicycle crunches target the muscles of the abdominal region, namely the rectus abdominis and the oblique muscles,” explains Occhipinti. “When we train any muscle, we build strength and hypertrophy (size). If the abdominal muscles have better definition, then they will reveal themselves more easily as we lose body fat.”
One caveat, though: Bicycle crunches and muscle targeting don’t burn body fat.
Translation: You can’t bicycle crunch belly fat away. But practice a total-body approach (i.e., a balance of tweaking your diet, cardio, and strength training) and you’ll see that body fat melt away, says Occhipinti.
Bicycle crunches boost coordination
Movements that force you to use opposite arms and legs at the same time, like the bicycle crunch, can help improve your coordination. Want to make it more challenging? Close your eyes.
There are definitely times when you’ll want to pump the brakes on bicycle crunches, explains Occhipinti. That could include you if:
- It hurts when you perform spinal flexion (forward bending).
- You have a herniated disc.
- You’re in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, when you should avoid supine exercises and lying on your back. “We recommend doing side-lying or quadruped, on all fours, core exercises instead,” he says.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, consider yourself a bicycle crunch pro. Practice proper form and don’t overdo it, and you’ll get a stronger core in no time.