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Criss Cross Exercise: How To Do, Benefits,…

There are many different ways to improve your current exercise routine. What about doing the criss cross exercise, what will the effects be?

This article is about the core criss cross exercise, also known as bicycle crunches, that is also used in pilates. For this exercise you lie on your back, push your lower back against the ground, and move your shoulders alternately to the knee of the other side while also “cycling” with your legs.

The criss cross exercise is typically done to grow and strengthen core muscles like your obliques and abs. For other fitness goals, there are many better exercise options.

Before you give this core exercise a try, keep in mind that you generally can’t target fat loss in specific body parts. The criss cross exercise can be helpful for building obliques and abs but they are relatively bad for losing belly fat. If that is your goal you want to look for exercises that help you burn a lot of calories.

Whether you should add the criss cross exercise or alternatives to your routine depends on things like your personal situation, personal preference, and training goals.

How to do a criss cross exercise

For the criss cross exercise you preferably want a yoga mat or other soft surface to lie on. To do a criss cross take the following steps:

  1. Lie down on your back with a 90-degree angle in both your hips and knees. Hold your hands against the side of your head with your elbows pointing sideways.
  2. Raise your shoulders and push your lower back against the ground with the help of your ab muscles.
  3. Slightly turn your upper body to one side and reach with your elbow to the knee of the opposite side (for example your left elbow to your right knee) while stretching the leg of the side of the elbow you use while still keeping it off the ground (continuing the example stretching your left leg).
  4. Bring the stretched leg back into the starting position and repeat with the other side. Keep your shoulders off the ground during the exercise.

Keep your movements slow and controlled to make your obliques and abs really work hard and to avoid bad technique.

Make sure you don’t jerk your head forward throughout the exercise. For this reason, putting your hands behind your head is generally not recommended.

How to do a criss cross exercise

Criss cross exercise variations

The criss cross exercise with just your body weight and your arms against your chest is the standard version of the exercise. There are also a few variations that can make the exercise easier or harder.

Some people are not ready yet for full criss crosses. To work up to the full version you can consider only raising your shoulders a small amount, similar to a small crunch. Another thing you can do is just pushing down your lower back with the help of your ab muscles.

If your obliques are the weak link you can start with a simple side bend or standing rotation. All of these will help you train similar muscles as criss crosses but at a less challenging level.

On the other hand, the bodyweight version of the criss cross exercise can become too easy. At this point, you may need to turn to other exercises or make criss crosses harder to keep seeing a lot of muscle growth and strength progress.

Making the criss cross exercise harder at the right points in your training journey can also speed up progress compared to doing the regular bodyweight variation over and over.

You can make this exercise harder by doing weighted criss crosses. The most convenient way to do this is to hold some type of weight against your upper chest. Some examples of weights include a medicine ball, dumbbell, weight plate, etc.

Another option is to hold more weight with your legs. This will mostly make the exercise harder for your abs. Ankle weights are ideal for this but in theory, you can also “hold” kettlebells with your feet.

Muscles worked with the criss cross exercise

Criss crosses are mainly a core muscle (obliques and abs) isolation exercise. Your hip flexor and quadricep muscles may have to work to a certain extent to move your legs.

The way you build muscle in places like your core is by engaging these muscles so that they get damaged enough. This may sound counterintuitive but this damaging makes it so your body repairs these muscles, and adds a bit more to be better prepared to exert similar efforts in the future.

If you stick to exercises with the same weight, as your muscles become stronger this same effort may not damage your muscles enough to promote extra muscle growth.

By adding extra resistance to exercises like criss cross you are better able to damage the muscles in a shorter amount of time. If you don’t overdo it, give your body enough nutrients, and give your muscles enough rest this can in turn lead to faster and more core muscle gain.

Depending on your personal situation, workout plan, and training goals, criss crosses may be a good or bad addition.

Criss cross exercise benefits

Some people question how useful this exercise can be but adding criss crosses to your routine can offer you some helpful benefits. Some of the most important ones include:

  1. Stronger muscles: The criss cross exercise is a type of resistance training that can help you strengthen your core muscles.
  2. Can help with losing weight: Doing the criss cross exercise likely requires more energy than your regular daily activities. Extra muscle mass also helps with burning more calories. Both of these aspects can help with, but are no guarantee for, weight loss. Keep in mind that there are better exercise choices if weight loss is your goal.
  3. Improves mood: Exercise like criss crosses promotes the release of substances that help you feel good.
  4. Balance & coordination: Balance & coordination are fitness skills that can be improved by challenging them. The criss cross exercise can help you with this.
  5. No equipment or location required: Since the criss cross is a bodyweight exercise you don’t have to invest in equipment or be in a specific location. That being said, a soft surface like a yoga mat can make the exercise more comfortable.
  6. Improves sleep: Exercise like criss crosses can improve the quality and duration of your sleep which in turn offers many important benefits.
  7. Slows down aging: The criss cross exercise won’t influence how many days have passed since you were born. However, exercise can slow down the progress of certain aging markers that are correlated with negative health effects.
  8. May reduce or prevent back pain: Core strengthening exercises like criss crosses can reduce or prevent back pain (1, 2). If you currently have back pain you do want to be careful and talk to an expert before implementing this exercise.

While inevitably many workouts are better for some of these benefits than criss crosses, it is amazing that you can get so many important benefits from adding one activity to your routine.

Potential risks

The main thing to keep in mind is that the criss cross exercise can be hard on body parts like your back, hips, shoulders, knees, and neck even if you implement the right technique.

If you are weak or sensitive in these body parts you may need to do other strengthening exercises first. Especially if you have any back pain, you may want to talk to your primary care provider before implementing the criss cross exercise into your workout routine.

If you feel pain in any body parts it may be a sign you are overdoing it. In that case, you may need some rest, better lifestyle habits, a less intense workout schedule, or it may be a sign that criss crosses are not (yet) for you.

Criss cross exercise alternatives

While the criss cross exercise can be a great addition to your workout routine, there are also some alternatives available for training your core muscles. Some of these criss cross exercise alternatives include:

  • Ab wheel roll-outs
  • Sideways leg raises on the captain’s chair
  • Compound core exercises
  • Reverse crunches
  • Side bends
  • Crunches

Which one of these options is the best depends on things like your personal situation, training goals, the equipment you have available, etc.

Conclusion

Many people will benefit from adding the criss cross exercise with the right technique to their routine. You may need to make the regular version more challenging soon to keep seeing a lot of muscle growth and strength progress.

That being said, for goals besides strengthening your obliques and abs and making them stand out more, there are many better exercise options.

You also need to remember is that criss crosses can be hard on body parts like your back, hips, shoulders, knees, and neck even if you implement the right technique.

If you are sensitive or weak in these body parts you may need to do other strengthening exercises first. Especially if you have any back pain, you may want to talk to your primary care provider before doing the criss cross exercise more.

Also keep in mind that consistency is an important factor for any workout plan. The more you love the exercise you do the easier it becomes to do it consistently. If doing criss crosses is a workout you love, great. If not other exercises can also offer a lot of benefits.

If you do decide to implement the criss cross exercise more, make sure you give your body enough nutrients, rest, and sleep to repair and grow your muscles.