When good exercises go bad
There are 1,001 different crunches out there and I lack the time to address all of the ones that aren’t especially great for you. However, there’s one variation I feel needs particular attention. There’s ongoing debate among the fitness lay-community as to what to do with the head during a basic floor crunch. I frequently encounter individuals who have been instructed to perform crunches with their chin up in the air… presumably to “isolate” the abs better. Unfortunately, this is terrible for the neck. This places a great deal of compressive stress on the upper cervical vertebrae and intervertebral discs and can over-stretch the muscles and ligaments at the base of the neck. This is not to mention the fact that the neck flexors and trunk flexors (abs) are meant to work together as a force-couple as part of normal body mechanics. This exercise is not functional and potentially injurious. Instead, BEGIN the crunch from the neck, tucking your chin into your chest and then following through by curling up with the rest of the trunk. Reverse that sequence on the way down.
Pushing or pulling behind the neck
Lat pulldowns (seated, pulling a bar down against resistance) are a perfectly good exercise. Unfortunately, they’re frequently fouled up by pulling the bar behind the head. This is old-school bodybuilding technique and has long been deemed a no-no…. and yet, they’re still done… and TAUGHT! Behind the neck shoulder presses fall under the same category. These exercises place tremendous stress on the rotator cuff and can lead to such conditions as rotator cuff tendinitis, rotator cuff tears and adhesive capsulitis. It is argued by the old guard that these exercises are more effective than their in-front-of-the-head counterparts. This is in some regards true. However, they tip the sliding scale so far away from safety and toward effectiveness that any gain in effectiveness simply isn’t worth the risk. Simple fix? Do them in front of the head. They work the relevant muscles nearly as well with little or no risk.
There are 100 more such exercises out there, but there’s only so much time in the day to cover them. When determining where a given exercise falls on the aforementioned scale, don’t ask the buffed-out dude in the parachute pants at the gym who routinely and happily sacrifices safety for a better “pump”. Ask a pro.