Yes you can. The core muscles (of which the abdominal muscles are a part) are instrumental and used in basically every exercise we perform (particularly free weight or body weight). As the important link between the lower body and the head, these muscles are “exercised” and therefore “toned” in their daily chores such as stabilizing and transferring power from the ground up.
As for specifically targeted exercises to tone the abdominal muscles, there are TONS of them that do not involve crunching. Actually, too many to even list here.
I can’t say enough good things about and highly recommend this book … “The New Rules of Lifting for Abs: A Myth-Busting Fitness Plan for Men and Women Who Want a Strong Core and a Pain-Free Back” by Lou Schuler/Alwyn Cosgrove
Myths are debunked and the book explains that the crunch is actually a poor choice for most people. Extending the core can be much more effective than flexing abdominal muscles.
If you are familiar with Dr. Stuart McGill then you are aware that performing loads of crunch-type exercises may harm your back. The book’s emphasis is on a strong core overall, rather than “toned” abs. It’s just that nice-looking abs can also result from the program.
I love this question!
I actually did a bunch of research in this area and presented on this topic to the undergraduate exercise science students at USF. I am also a living example of this (I do not do any crunches/abdominal exercises). Abdominal exercises are not required to tone your midsection. Most individuals have developed a rectus abdominis from daily activities, however they are merely covered with fat. Not to mention abdominal can only hypertrophy minimally as compared to other muscle structures. If your goal get a “six pack” or create a healthy core/mid section I would focus on isometrically contracting your core musculature during exercises. For other information regarding core/back/abdominals look into Dr. Stuart McGill’s research.
Fuel the Movement,
Yes you can. With what we know about functional anatomy doing crunches is like saying that preacher curls are functional. Its rediculous for anybody to still be doing crunches when the function of the core is stability and force transference Not to mention in the current postural crisis caused by the technology we now have, crunches only overemphasize upper cross syndrome. It flies in the face of current exercise science knowledge to do crunches.
There is a movement issue here that nobody is addressing. The rectus abdominus does not function by itself and should not be trained in isolation. The only time any type of isolation should be used is if there is a compensation due to a weakness in a movement pattern then go back to a functional integration movement pattern and train correctly.