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Sit Ups and crunches are 2 basic and very popular abdominal exercises. As a self-confessed core 'nerd' quite honestly I HATE both of them! Ive seen both done millions of times and very rarely seen either done well. Yes they both work your abs and as I will explain shortly sit ups work multiple muscle groups but neither exercise really justifies it's popularity and both drive postural and back pain issues in my opinion. 
The other point to note is that neither shold be done from the floor! In researching for this article almost every article spoke abuot starting from the floor. THIS IS JUST WRONG! 
Your abdominal muscles control movement from vertical, or the mid-line (i.e standing vertically) both forwards and backwards, working from the floor only works them moving forwards from the mid-line and totally ignores the movement behind the mid-line. That is why I always train my clients to work frm either a Swiss Ball or a Bosu.  
What Are Sit-Ups? 
You probably already know what a sit-up is, but you might not realize that in order for the move to actually count as a full sit-up, you have to perform it from start to finish. It's pretty much what it says on the tin - a sit up takes you from lying down to sitting up almost vertically. 
Now that you're clear as can be on what sit-ups are, let's look at what they can do for you. 
Benefits of Sit-Ups 
Improve strength throughout your entire core 
Strengthen your muscles for everyday tasks, like getting out of bed 
May help increase abs definition 
Increase abs endurance, if performing many of them 
Muscles Targeted During Sit-Ups 
Though it may seem like sit-ups only target your abs, they actually do target the bulk of the muscles in your core. Sit-ups work your rectus abdominis and obliques and as you lift your whole torso off the ground, the hip are contracted as well. As long as you do not support the weight of your head then your neck flexors are targeted as well. 
What Are Crunches? 
Where sit-ups are a motion that takes you from laying on the floor on your back to fully seated with your chest completely off the ground, crunches require much less range of motion. And unlike sit-ups, which are a straightforward move with few variations, crunches have many. 
To perform a crunch, we should be lying over a ball with legs bent and feet flat on the floor. From this position, you will "squeeze your abdominal muscles till your shoulder blades have lifted slightly off the ball. Done properly, the lower back should not move, only the chest. You should never hold your hands behind your head supporting the weight of your head unless you are doing so as part of a rehab programme for a neck injury. 
I once worked with another personal trainer who had done years of ab work, all with head supported, and it took us 7 months to strengthen thei neck up to the point where they could work their abs without supporting their head becasue their neck muscles were so weak! 
Crunches, when performed correctly, are known for their great core isolation and burn. The slight back and forth movement keeps the core contracted the whole time. With no breaks, it can really tighten those core muscles and strengthen the abdominal muscles." 
Benefits of Crunches 
Increase abs strength 
May enhance abs muscle definition 
No strain on your spinal cord, which sit-ups might cause 
Muscles Targeted During Crunches 
As a slight, small motion that is heavily abs-focused, crunches predominantly work your rectus abdominis, as well as your obliques and transverse abdominis to a lesser extent. Unlike sit-ups, crunches do not work your hip flexors. 
Sit-Ups vs. Crunches vs. Neither 
So far, it may seem like sit-ups and crunches are pretty even when it comes to their benefits. But here is the bit where I become controversial. 
many articles will tell you that sit ups are bad for your back and create damaging strain on your back - POPPYCOCK! 
That's onl the case if they are a bad choice for you and your back, and if they are then why are you not fixing up your back in the first place?!! 
The other pint to consider is that neither exercise will flatten out your stomach. That is becasue the key muscle in both - the rectus abdominus - actually becomes more rounded, not flatter, the more it is strengthened. 
That is not to say that you should not work your core - you most defintely should. but not with crunches or sit-ups - or planks for that matter whilst we are on the topic. First you must go deep, create stability and mobility in your lumbar spine and then once you are strong and stable then you can do any of them with no fear. I may think you are wasting your time - but that's your calll - and you won't be at risk of injury. 
The Final Takeaway 
Sit-ups and crunches are two simple, basic exercises. They both work your abs, but sit-ups also work your hip flexors. Sit-ups require a wider range of motion, while crunches are done with a much more limited range of motion. 
Both are over-rated and neither will aid your back and wider core strength. In short there are much better options out there. 
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